Thesis ID: CBB319254080

Strange Beauty: Botanical Collecting, Preservation, and Display in the Nineteenth Century Tropics (2019)


"STRANGE BEAUTY" uses a material culture approach to untangle the botanical dualities that, from the late-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, produced a constructed image of East Indian rainforests, obscuring the oftentimes violent racialized, gendered, and sexualized work contained therein. The plants written into scientific and aesthetic descriptions of “tropical nature,” I argue, constructed a view of rainforests as extractable, collectible storehouses caught somewhere between fecundity and loss, between beauty and decay. I focus on four plants transformed from curious objects in the field to herbarium specimens in Britain and Europe bound up in debates over evolution and "normalcy" while speaking to the developing ideals and disillusionments of tropical nature. These objects confused reproductive boundaries, embodying the possibilities and perceived environmental dangers while challenging typical labor practices producing a collectible, useful, and containable nature. Chapter One follows the most miniscule, mundane, of plants: Moss. Paradoxically figured as both "pure" in its seemingly invisible self-reproduction and salacious in its place in pornography, moss functioned as a preservative agent for more "valuable" plants. Simultaneously, botanists interested in moss on its own terms transformed this packing material into an object of microscopic inquiry. Next, I follow an orchid illustrated by a prolific female artist. Explicitly sexualized in their depictions, orchids challenged aesthetic representations, transforming the technical process of botanical illustration while contributing to a false construction of the tropics inevitably leading to affective dissonances among naturalists. Here, theories of color and artistic practice become central to the politics of botanical preservation and display. Chapter Three traces a carnivorous pitcher plant collected by a liminal figure working for the East India Company. The pitcher plant came to crystallize colonial fears of environmental pushback—the phallic, carnivorous plant challenged theories of order while provoking questions about colonial consumption. I end with the largest and rarest plant in the world—the corpse flower. That a flower could actively mimic animal behavior to attract pollinators upended the chain of floral being. Resistant to all forms of collection, preservation, and display, the corpse flower proved to be the ultimate form of tropical nature’s resistance to human intervention and control.

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Authors & Contributors
Baytop, Asuman
Dahlbom, Taika Helola
Dröscher, Ariane
Dupré, Sven
Fedotova, Anastasia A.
Gosden, Chris
Osmanli Bilimi Arastirmalari: Studies in Ottoman Science
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Archives of Natural History
British Journal for the History of Science
Historical Records of Australian Science
Museum History Journal
Oxford University Press
Natural History Museum (London, England)
Cambridge University Press
Edições Colibri
J. B. Metzler Verlag
Collectors and collecting
Material culture
Natural history
Science and society
Banks, Joseph
Birand, Hikmet
Catherine II, Empress of Russia
Demiriz, Hüsnü
George III, King of England
Humboldt, Alexander von
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
20th century
17th century
16th century
20th century, early
Great Britain
Paris (France)
Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) (Australia)
Oxford University
Natural History Museum (London, England)
Pitt Rivers Museum (University of Oxford)

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