Crossdisciplinary Conversations: Plants & Art History

Hello! My name is Paula Victoria Kupfer. I’m a fourth-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Pitt. I’ve had a longtime interest in the history of photography, the history of plants, and their representation in artworks. My dissertation project examines the history of landscape photography across the Americas, including the representation of plants, from an ecological perspective. The project considers landscape photography through an ecocritical and ecofeminist lens that underscores the politics embedded in images of nature and the connections between environment, gender, race, and settler colonialism. I explore how photographs in particular relay culturally specific ways of seeing—in other words, the idea of landscape itself.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the on-site and archive research I had planned to do in 2020 fell through. This prompted me to consider research resources and opportunities closer to home. I was excited to see the call for the Humanities Engage Immersive Fellowship and researched Pittsburgh institutions that engage directly with plants and whose mission would welcome an interdisciplinary art historian. Thanks to an introduction from Dr. Jessica Landau, assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture and assistant curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH), I got in touch with Dr. Mason Heberling, who oversees the plant collection of the CMNH. The herbarium in the CMNH has an extensive collection of plant specimens dating back to eighteenth century. It is the best plant collection in the world in terms of western Pennsylvania plant specimens, and it has additional holdings of plants from North America, Latin America, and Asia.

Plant specimen

Plant specimen from CMNH Herbarium of the Agave plant (Agave shawii Engelman), collected in Todos Santos Bay, Baja California, Mexico, 1883. Collection of the Herbarium at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh

I was interested to research how those plant specimens came into the collection, who collected them, and how plant collecting works more generally. In particular, I was curious to discover points in common between art and plant collecting practices, as well as histories of botanical and art collections. In addition, plants have served as inspiration for artists for centuries, so that over time, research specimens and the visual work of botanists and natural scientists have themselves become folded into histories of art. This relationship between botany and visual culture extends beyond the aesthetic: ancient plant specimens have become crucial for scientists studying environmental degradation and climate change. And as plant collections become digitized, they are being used by artists and practitioners beyond the hard sciences. Recent scholarship on art collections can offer rich, new ways to think about plant collections, in particular to reflect on the complex and colonialist origins of such enterprises, as well as embedded forms of indigenous knowledge and imperial negotiations.

I proposed to Dr. Heberling to collaborate via the Humanities Engage Immersive Fellowship as a way to learn about the plant collection and pursue my research questions. As an ecologist and botanist with an investment in the past and future of plant collections, Dr. Heberling was an ideal mentor for this project. He was enthusiastic about an interdisciplinary collaboration, in particular the prospect of bringing my humanistic and art historical vantage to bear on the collection of plants he oversees.

My fellowship has several research objectives. One of these involves conducting a series of interviews with curators and artists exploring the different collection practices of natural history specimens versus artworks, as well as the place of collecting within contemporary art practices. These interviews, which I hope will help address larger questions regarding interdisciplinary overlaps and collaboration across the arts and sciences, will be published on an online platform. In parallel, I have been conducting research regarding the history of herbaria broadly as well as the history of the CMNH herbarium specifically, in order to learn about plant collecting practices. I am applying some of this research towards the development of a course module that will be incorporated into two spring 2021 HAA (History of Art and Architecture) courses as well as adapted for the course “Introduction to World Art,” which I plan to teach this summer. Applying my herbarium research directly to this course module incorporates my interest in pedagogy and decolonization methodologies with my investment in environmental and plant knowledge and their connections to art history.

On a broader scale, this immersive research opportunity will allow me to consider methodologies beyond my field and bring an art history and humanities perspective to the CMNH herbarium, since most of the people who work with the collection currently are scientists. Due to its interdisciplinary nature, the project will thus also contribute to the CMNH mission and its commitment to generating new knowledge and advancing science literacy, by examining the history of the herbarium as well as its collection practices through the lens of the humanities.

Paula Kupfer
Department of History of Art and Architecture
March 2021
Learn about all the 2020-2021 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.