July 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Botanical Curiosities

By Gay Bilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The most enchanting display in the original and permanent collection of the recently re-opened Museum of Economic Botany in the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide consists of about 350 apples, pears and plums, a few peaches and figs, and one forlorn, damaged pomegranate. These are not preserved fruit but uncannily perfect replicas, made from papier-mâché and handpainted in Germany between 1866 and 1890. Each has a catalogue number painted in small black figures, and most have their original handwritten ink labels, the paper discoloured but surprisingly strong.

There are the apples: Transparente de Croncels, Elsener Pigeon Reinette, Berliner Sheepsnose, Crede’s Quince Reinette, Peach-red Summer Apple, Scarlet Nonpareil, Schwarzenbach’s Summer Pearmain …

The pears: Beauty of Svijan, Dalbret’s Butter Pear, Belle of Ezée, Leckerbissen von Angers, Baroness Mello, Van Marum’s Bottle Pear …

And the plums: Christ’s Damascene, Frankfurter Pfirsich Zwetsche, Blue Imperatrice or Violette Imperatrice (surely our Angelina, as my grandmother called it, or prune plum) …

  These labels were made when Richard Schomburgk, the then director of the gardens, commissioned the building of the museum and the organisation of the collection. By 1881 all was in place and the Lutheran director was ready to educate the public about the usefulness of plants – as fibre and timber, as a source of oils and resins, as food and as medicine.

The Protestant urge to educate was central to Schomburgk’s vision for the museum. Peter Emmett, the historian and curator who is the creative force behind the museum’s restoration, believes that “the biggest challenge will be to face the quizzical response to the term ‘economic botany’”. Today we would call it ethnobotany. Emmett admits that the term, ”like first impressions of the place itself”, “seems antiquarian and anachronistic”. Yet the word  ‘economy’ comes from the Greek words for ‘house’ and ‘manage’ and was associated in the nineteenth century with the stewardship of a well-run household. Emmett points to the nineteenth century’s abhorrence of waste:

If we think of the nineteenth-century interest in this kind of museum as a way to study and understand how different cultures around the world made use of different parts of plants, we can see how they connected this with avoiding the waste of so many resources. Now this has a very modern ring to it – sustainability through the careful and creative use of all plant resources … We should bring the same curiosity and analysis to the European coloniser as to the indigenous colonised. 

He has set out to retain the High Victorian theatre of the lovely, tiny, 1881 Greek Revival building. The appealing decorative ceiling, the dado and the original display cabinets have all been restored. (Incidentally, the building is the director of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s favourite in Adelaide, although he rightly condemns the rude abutment of a shop and wide terrace to the rear of the structure, which transgresses every rule of courteous separation in architecture.) Many thought its Gothic touches a tad too much, but Emmett argued for their retention. Within what he refers to as the “envelope” of the historic room, he has installed two major new commissions.

An Adelaide designer, Khai Liew, has created an internal pavilion that fits surprisingly easily into the space, showing subtle respect for its nineteenth-century host. This will house temporary exhibitions. The design is elegant and spare; Tasmanian plantation blackwood has been used in its construction. You might argue that the boards around the perimeter of the pavilion, intended to hang paintings, crowd out some of the original cabinets on the adjacent walls, but at least they are easily dismountable, thanks to an ingenious, invisible jointing system borrowed from fifteenth-century China and Japan.

Nearby, in one of the tall original cabinets, a model of one of these joints has been put on display, taking its place alongside the botanical curiosities. Other cabinets contain familiar and exotic examples of seedpods that we humans have found useful. They have been catalogued and reclassified following DJ Mabberley’s Plant Book: A Portable Dictionary of Plants, Their Classification and Their Uses. One seedpod, some 90 centimetres long, looks like a child’s drawing of an outlandishly large caterpillar. Its label simply states, “Very large but unidentified pod.” The strychnine family (Loganiaceae) display includes only two seeds, one from the clearing-nut tree, Strychnos potatorum, “used for clearing water in rural India and in Ayurvedic medicine”. Edward Sullivan, travelling in Sri Lanka in the mid nineteenth century, wrote in The Bungalow and the Tent: A Visit to Ceylon:

We were soon to witness one of those providential resources that nature has so liberally supplied to her children, if they will learn to avail themselves of her bounty … the coolie … began rubbing the inside of the chatty – the effect was magical: in a second or so, the mud and dirt held in suspension began to curdle, as it were, and condense, leaving the surface and sides clearer; this effect continued till the whole curdled mass sank gradually to the bottom, leaving the water perfectly clear and palatable.

Also on display is an ornate leather-framed sampler of seedpods sent to George Francis, the first superintendent of the gardens, by the botanist, traveller and collector Joseph Hooker. Joseph, son of William, succeeded his father to become the director of what would become England’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. While working on Indian flora, he wrote that it was “wild & exciting work, the species go smash smash every day.” “My fate is to destroy species as I go on & the more carefully I examine the more to fell,” he observed elsewhere.

Which brings us to Emmett’s second commission, given to the remarkable artist Fiona Hall. Hall’s most recent works have commented on our often unhealthy collision with the natural world: Tender is a series of exquisite bird’s nests woven from shredded American dollar bills; Leaf Litter consists of 200 banknotes from various countries, onto each of which Hall painted the leaf of an indigenous plant exploited by colonisers.

Emmett commissioned Hall to make a work that would be permanently installed in the museum. Called Grove, it is “part forest, cave, theatre and museological display”, according to the critic Gregory O’Brien. Writing about it herself, Hall makes heady reference to the opening of Dante’s Inferno, in which the poet finds himself lost in a wilderness. The work includes intricate timber tableaux made from trees once thought to have magical healing properties. “We must find new remedies to cure our ruptured ecosystem of its (our) malaise,” Hall writes. Her work questions the very nature of the Museum of Economic Botany and the nineteenth-century botanical outlook, like something that has entered a fruit from the outside but is now eating away at it from its core. I for one find this apparent subversion splendid.

   If you are walking west towards the Museum of Economic Botany, don’t be bullied off course by the largest single-span conservatory in the Southern Hemisphere. If you are coming from the other direction, by all means stop to wonder at the pond of Victoria amazonica waterlilies in their modern glass pavilion. One leaf, a metre wide and turned upside down, shows an astonishingly sophisticated display of botanical engineering, rivalling any Calatrava bridge. Next to the transparent glasshouse of giant lilies, perhaps a little too close for architectural comfort, is the restored and brilliantly meddled-with museum, its sedate, secretive exterior a foil to the surprises, old and new, inside.

Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is a different kettle of fish altogether, but comparable in its intimacy and the sense of wonder you feel at the seemingly insane crowding of Soane’s artefacts, and at the architectural solutions he devised to cope with his obsessive collecting. The guides there are as entranced by the place as the visitors; the stories they tell reveal yet more treasures. Perhaps that’s what this museum will need: people who know more than a label can possibly tell you. There is so much cultural history here in this little Adelaide museum, layers of knowledge and intent, both past and present. Then again, I fell under its spell long before I knew anything about Peter Emmett’s plans, or about the building’s history.

I told a friend of my enchantment. She is a dictionary-maker in Canberra, but knows a thing or two about economic botany. She replied, “I remember, when I was a young teenager, spending ages gazing at an exhibition called How to Make a Wax Apple at the museum in Melbourne. That’s one reason I don’t warm to lots of noise and computers in museums today. I reckon all a child needs to catch her interest is a passive, silent display about how to make wax apples.” Or, for that matter, papier-mâché pears.

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

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