Introduction to the Plant Humanities

By Julia Fine

Recipes, as the tagline of this project suggests, feature in many facets of daily life, from food to science, magic to medicine. At the basis of many (if not most) of these recipes are plants: we’ve learned here how chiles were used to treat malaria in early modern China, that cucumber juice contributed to a 17th-century Russian hangover remedy, and why coffee was understood as a potential cure for the Plague in Turkey.

Bright watercolor drawing of various plants, most likely from Malaysia or Sumatra.
Plate from [Album of Chinese Watercolors of Asian fruits], held by Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library. The album was most likely produced by a Chinese artist located in Malaysia or Sumatra between 1798 and 1810. Image Credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Much of history focuses on decidedly human stories, where plants are relegated to the background. As historian Londa Schiebinger writes, “Plants seldom figure in the grand narratives of war, peace, or even everyday life in proportion to their importance to humans.”

We at Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC have spent the past four years working to rectify this by placing plants at the center of human stories as part of our Mellon-funded Plant Humanities Initiative. By bringing history together with botany, archaeology, art history, and other disciplines, we aim to highlight how plants have shaped the course of human history, and how humans have shaped plants in turn. The fruit of our exploration has been a digital humanities lab that puts narrative history side-by-side with primary sources, mapping tools, herbal specimens, and more in order to demonstrate the complexity of plants, as well as their importance in the current climate crisis.

Herbal specimen. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our lab now features over 15 original narratives on plants, with more coming in the near future. These plant-centered narratives are written by historians of science, art historians, paleoethnobotanists, geographers, and comparative literary scholars (among others). One narrative highlights how early modern women used herbs like dittany as a means to exert agency over their own health and fertility— a particularly critical topic given the vociferous debates about abortion occurring in the United States and elsewhere today. Another narrative on turmeric demonstrated how plants were not simply drivers of imperial expansion, but also tools through which understandings of the British Empire were spread.

Over the next month, we will be publishing excerpts from some narratives on The Recipes Project site. We will see how European conquistadors drew on Indigenous Mesoamerican recipes when transporting cacao to Europe. We will learn how peony, often imagined today as an ornamental flower, was used as a medicinal herb in both Chinese and Western medical traditions, where it was used to treat epilepsy, sciatica, and convulsions. And we will see how our modern-day fascination with cassava, frequently lauded as a “climate survivor crop,” would not be possible if not for the knowledge, expertise, and processing techniques developed by Mesoamerican and South American women, which allowed for poisonous cassava to be made edible.

Botanical drawing of a cacao vine
Botanical drawing of a cacao by Maria Sibylla Merian in her work Dissertatio de generatione et metamorphosibus insectorum Surinamensium , 2019. Image credit: Dumbarton Oaks

Together, these stories highlight the primacy of plants in the history—and future— of human society. We hope you enjoy your trip around the world through these narratives, and stay tuned for opportunities to get involved with our initiative.

A Snapshot of the Food Studies Community

By Christian Reynolds

From October to December 2019, the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship Network ran a community survey asking what (and how) food scholars are currently using analogue and digital material. We were also interested how the community thought US and UK libraries and archives could better support food researchers through digitisation and activities. (See previous blog post.)

We were overwhelmed by the response to the community survey with 200 respondents from the global food research community — despite there being multiple ‘disruption events’ including an eight day university strike for many UK research institutions, as well as the Thanksgiving Holiday period. We’re really excited to have the voices of so many food researchers help us shape what is needed by the community. 

In the next few months, we are writing up the results of the community survey. But in the meantime, we want to share with you the headline descriptive results of the survey: who are we, what we want, and how we communicate. 

Who? and Where?

Though the community survey nominally focused on respondents from the United States of America (41%), and the United Kingdom (28%), there were additional respondents from multiple other countries (31%). The largest other populations of these were Canada (9%), and Australia (5%). Participants responded from twenty-one countries in total. 

There was a wide spread of ages, with the majority of respondents(44%) being between 31-50 years of age. 

Age of respondents

Over 70% of participants were academics. This included Professors (16%), Early Career researchers (14%), and Students (17%). There was a wide range of other professionals (n=55) including independent scholars, cooks and chefs, writers and journalists, book sellers, and heritage professionals. The range of respondents certainly represents the diversity of jobs and roles within the wider the food research community! But also owing to such a breath of roles and ages of respondents, there was a lot of variation in the familiarity/comfort with digital and analogue research tools.

Type of Researcher

The geographic scope of food studies is truly broad, with most researchers interested in more than one geographic area. 125 (or 62.5%) respondents were interested in the UK region, while 133 (or 66.5%) were interested in the US region. Another 66 respondents were interested in Canada, 97 in the wider colonial areas, and 99 interested in multiple other places globally.

This geographic interest is also shown by the broad range of locations holding primary research material. 112 respondents mentioned UK archives and 118 mentioned US archives. Even so, Canadian, Australian, and European archives featured heavily — and many other global institutions were mentioned.

Results suggest that there is overlap in user-base between global (UK, US, etc.) archives, but we need to do more research to understand how the community fits into the wider food research community. By this, I’m thinking of where a researcher is based versus where their archives are based. 

Percentage of respondents who use these cultural institutions

There were another ninety-four institutions were mentioned by name in the “other” text box. Multiple mentions include places like Yale University Library, Winterthur Museum, University of Toronto, New York Public Library, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Bibliothèque nationale de France, National Library Australia, archive.org — and so many more.

What does the community want?

The most asked for service at 92% was… digitization of materials! The community also wants finding aids and catalogues (each 64%). These views were further expressed in the free text “other” category.

Priorities for content and services provision

What people wanted digitised most (184 respondents) was Printed Material (Books, Magazines, Advertising, Ephemera, etc.). In other words, researchers thought digitisation of these items would help their research the most.  Printed Materials had a mean “importance” score of 85 (out of 100).

However, researchers also wanted to see more OCR text functionality (n=179) and digitised manuscripts (n=178); these had mean importance scores between 74 and 80. Additional analysis needs to be carried out to understand how particular types/themes of food research (and users of specific archives) can be prioritised. 

Mean importance score for increased digitisation and access of materials to help individual research activities

How do we communicate?

Email remains the most common method for communication between researchers and cultural institutions (n=178), with in person communication being the second most popular (n=115). A smaller community of respondents interacted with cultural institutions via social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram . We have yet to “cut” this with age based variables. Interestingly blogs and website messaging/chat, and WhatsApp services were mentioned in the “Other” free text response. 

This, of course, is just a snapshot of our community of food researchers. There is still so much to explore in the survey results! Please do contact me (c.reynolds@sheffield.ac.uk)  for if you would like to give additional feedback or thoughts. We’d love to hear from you.

And to complement the wealth of information from the community survey, we are now conducting a follow up 2020 Archive Survey — directed at curators and digitisation teams in cultural institutions. Please promote this Archive survey to any curators and digitisation teams in your own networks. We’d love to know more from cultural institutions about the scope of their food-related collections, any barriers to digitization, and future ambitions. The Archives survey closes on 14 March 2020.

Editorial Note: Christian Reynolds is the principal investigator of the the US-UK Food Digital Scholarship network  (@AHRCfoodnetwork on Twitter). The Recipes Project is a partner organisation in the network.

Remember, remember the fifth of November

The Early Modern Recipes Online Collective transcribathon for 2019 is coming soon… November 5! Flex those fingers, boot up your computer, and get ready to join in, because this is no ordinary transcribathon.

Please join EMROC for our fifth annual international transcribathon as we transcribe an anonymous early modern medical recipe book (which includes recipes for whiskey and novel uses for oatmeal). It’s a super source, which Rebecca Laroche describes here. We will have transcription groups working in at least a dozen locations around the world, on three continents, with people coming and going virtually throughout the day.

The goal? To complete a transcription of a recipe book, making it easier for users to search than a digitised manuscript. This will eventually be available through the Folger Shakespeare’s Library catalogue alongside page images. Our other goal is to have fun with a community of people interested in transcribing and recipes, whatever their skill level.

We have lots of exciting activities planned to accompany our transcribing delights, which will run from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. GMT.

There will be:

  • subject hashtags on Twitter: #EMROCtranscribes, #feministOED, #materialhealthtech, #animalproducts, and more. (Details on the EMROC blog.)
  • a Zoom link (https://essex-university.zoom.us/j/706439992) all day to connect participants from around the globe.
  • and speakers!

Joining Zoom

Zoom is an easy-to-use platform that enables participants to ask the EMROC team questions throughout the day and to chat with other transcribers. You don’t need any special tools, either. Just click on our Zoom link, download the exe (if you don’t already have Zoom), and you’ll be in. There are details here on how to join, participate, and leave. We are hoping that the chat and Q&A functions on Zoom will make it easier for novice transcribers to get help quickly, as well as to bring the transcriber community together.

Speakers

The Department of History at the University of Essex is also hosting an EMROC panel on ‘Recipes in the Making’, which focuses on the manuscript we’re transcribing. Speakers include Heather Wolfe (Folger Shakespeare Library), Sara Pennell (Greenwich), and Anne Stobart (Exeter).

The panel will be recorded, though it won’t be up immediately…

Survey?

We would love it if you filled in our pre-transcribathon survey, which will take no more than five minutes of your time. The survey will help us to learn more about our participants’ interests and backgrounds.

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/7T9HKR5

If you want to join in or have other questions, please do let me know on Twitter (@historybeagle) or by email (lisa.smith@essex.ac.uk).

Thank you so much for your interest in our transcribathon and for filling in the survey. We would be so excited to transcribe with you on November 5.

An earlier version of this post appeared first at emroc.hypotheses.org.

Red Thread: A Co-curated Digital Site with Students

By Vera Keller, University of Oregon

Image credit: Gart der Gesundheit, Hortus sanitatis (1485), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon. Burgess 109, p. ccxlviii.

The Red Thread site grew out of an interdisciplinary, Honors College seminar, Global History of Color. I made colour the focus of a course for four reasons:

  • it intersects with my own research into early modern experimentation with color;
  • it is a vehicle for teaching a course that is global, interdisciplinary, and material;
  • it is not too intimidating for students;
  • and I thought it would be a way to connect disparate corners of campuses and to build a public intellectual community.

Everyone knows that artisanal production is big in Oregon, but there is little connection between wider public interests in historical craft practices and academic research on those topics. When it comes to the study of material culture, we not only have under-used collections of objects at UO, but also many unique and wonderful resources around campus–an Urban Farm, Craft Center, and Beach Conservation Lab. We also have a highly skilled, curious and passionate local public of artists, crafters, homesteaders and farmers. What we don’t have is a way to connect and strengthen these various constituencies, especially in a way that places the University and historical research at the center of this connection.

Particularly as a faculty member at a public university, I feel that engaging the university with a wider public is part of its mission. Historically, recipe collections have served as forms of social media tracing community building and sharing across different domains of knowledge. At a moment when face-to-face interaction, civil discourse, and communities are weakening on a national scale, we can draw on the strength of this historical genre to engage ourselves, our students, and the public in a collective endeavour to build intellectual community.

Color proved to be an accessible way for both students and the public to engage with primary sources, material practices, and historical artifacts. In the course, we focused on a range of reds: ochre, coral, cinnabar, vermilion, kermes, madder, cochineal, Tyrian purple, brazilwood, logwood, colloidal gold, ruby glass, and red-painted porcelain. Together, we studied the history of these pigments through the lenses of the history of science, the history of medicine, economic history, cultural history and material culture. Each student focused on a single material object from campus collections, which became the subject of their exhibition labels for a co-curated exhibition and a final research paper.

We visited three campus collections: Special Collections and University Archives, the Museum of Natural and Cultural History (MNCH)  and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA), with strengths respectively in European, Native American and Asian materials. Through a campus grant for teaching initiatives (the Williams Foundation), I invited a guest speaker to campus for a public event. Marie-France Lemay, the paper conservator at Yale Library, brought with her the Yale Traveling Scriptorium — a traveling showcase of the materials found in premodern books and manuscripts. With Lemay, we explored the Scriptorium alongside rare books and manuscripts from our campus collection. Lemay also demonstrated a cochineal recipe, which highlighted for students the wide range of materials and processes involved in producing premodern books.

Image credit: Sa’di, Gulistan and Bustan, 1600-1699?, Edward Burgess manuscript collection 043, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon. MS 43.

The course produced several intertwined outcomes that were oriented simultaneously to the classroom and to the public. The Museum of Natural and Cultural History hosted a small exhibition of the student-researched objects drawn from their collections. A selection of all the students’ work is also featured on a site I was able to build through a grant from our campus Digital Scholarship Center. All the books and manuscripts were completely digitized as part of the grant. My aims in building the site were to advertise our under-utilized campus collections; to highlight my students’ research; and to produce a resource that could be used in other courses and by the public.

With remaining funds from the Williams grant, I built our own version of the Traveling Scriptorium, with help from UO’s conservators Marilyn Mohr and Ashlee Weitlauf. The Scriptorium is a case full of nearly 100 materials. We experimented a lot with packaging and labelling its various parts. Through my use of the Scriptorium in various classroom settings, we tested the ease and rapidity through which it could be unpacked and repacked. When we were satisfied with it, we donated the Traveling Scriptorium to our campus library, where it is now cataloged and can be checked out by faculty for a week at a time. 

The Travelling Scriptorium.

At the same time that I was working on developing the digital Red Thread site and the physical teaching resource, the Traveling Scriptorium, I also worked on an on-going third initiative, “Farm to Book” , a collaboration between myself, the Beach Conservation Lab and the Urban Farm.  We experimented with historical ink recipes drawn from my archival researches with conservators of the Beach Lab. We also planted ingredients for inks and dyes at our Urban Farm.

We’ve held several highly successful public events at the Craft Center and at the new “Dream Lab” in our library where members of the public could craft with our inks produced according to historical recipes, practice calligraphy, hear student presentations on their historical research, explore the Traveling Scriptorium and the Red Thread site, see selections from our rare book materials, and learn about the history of our campus collections. We even served cochineal cake!

Rose and pansy inks at Craft Center Event. UO Libraries, Tayler Bincandi.

My hope is that the Red Thread site can be used in tandem with the Traveling Scriptorium in other classes or in public presentations, either in preparation for a visit to our campus collections, or in the case of large class sizes, in lieu of a group visit. Pairing the hands-on Scriptorium with the digital resource proved to be a great way to minimize some of the limitations of digital surrogates by giving participants a sense of the material constituents of the original books and manuscripts. I used the site and the Scriptorium, for example, during a presentation for a program bringing high school students from underrepresented backgrounds to campus.

The tactile nature of the Traveling Scriptorium offered a great way to draw people in, as members of the public found it fascinating to handle all the little bottles of materials. I purchased one seventeenth-century volume (for less than $100) to include as part of the Scriptorium, so that an actual rare work could travel to events off campus. Being able to hold a four-hundred year-old book always has an immediate effect upon public audiences. The initial wonder and curiosity sparked by these hands-on interactions often then provoked questions and deeper discussions.

Do you think that there is something to gain from connecting classroom instruction on historical practices of making with makers across campus and from your local community? If so, how would you do it?

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