A Utopian Quest for Universal Knowledge : Diachronic Histories of Botanical Collections between the Sixteenth Century and the Present

Abstract: This thesis explores the history of botany as a global collection-based science by tracing parallels between utopian traditions and botanical collecting, from their sixteenth-century beginnings to the present. A range of botanical collections, such as gardens, herbaria and classification systems, have played a central role in the struggle to discover a global or universal scientific order for the chaotic, diverse and locally shaped kingdom of plants. These collections and utopia intersect historically, and are characterised by the same epistemology of collecting: the creation of order through confined collecting spaces or “no-place.” They are manipulations of space and time. Between chaos and order, both seek to make a whole from – often unruly – parts. The long history of botanical collecting is characterised by a degree of continuity of practice that is unusual in the sciences.  For instance, the basic technology of the herbarium – preserving plants by mounting and labelling dried specimens on paper – has been in use for almost five centuries, from sixteenth-century Italy to ongoing digitisation projects. The format of the compilation thesis is well-suited to handling the historiographical challenge of tracing continuity and discontinuity with such a long chronological scope. The thesis is structured as a walled quadripartite garden, with the Kappa enclosing four research papers and an epilogue. The papers take a diachronic approach to explore different perspectives on botanical collections: botanical collecting in seventeenth-century Oxford, pressed plants in books that are not formally collections; and the digitisation of botanical collections. These accounts are all shaped by the world of books, text and publication, historically a male-dominated sphere. In order to acknowledge marginalisation of other groups and other ways of knowing plants, the epilogue is an explanation of an embroidered patchwork of plant-dyed fabric, which forms the cover of the thesis.