The pineapple, indigenous to South America and domesticated and harvested there for centuries, was a late comer to Europe. The fruit followed in its cultivation behind the tomato, corn, potato, and other New World imports. Delicious but challenging and expensive to nurture in chilly climes and irresistible to artists and travelers for its curious structure, the pineapple came to represent many things. For Europeans, it was first a symbol of exoticism, power, and wealth, but it was also an emblem of colonialism, weighted with connections to plantation slavery.
Originating from the region around the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers (present-day Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina), it was an important economic plant in the development of Indigenous civilizations in the Americas. The Tupi-Guarani and Carib peoples called the fruit, a staple crop, nanas (excellent fruit) and several varieties were grown. As well as food, the pineapple was a source of medicine, fermented to become alcohol, its fibers made into robes and bow strings and thread for cloth.
Imagine stepping into a world teeming with dazzling biodiversity. Everywhere you turn, colorful birds perch amidst exotic blooms, glimmering butterflies and energetic hummingbirds flit from flower to flower, shimmering serpents wind their way through a jungle of foliage, and an array of mushrooms add color and dimension to the forest floor.
This world, seemingly alive with biodiversity, is composed not of flesh and blood, but of ink and paper. It is a world brought to life from the imagination of Berlin-based American artist Clare Börsch using illustrations and photographs sourced mainly from open access collections like the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and painstakingly cut and arranged into a marvelous, three-dimensional ecosystem. Within this Biodiversity installation of collaged nature art, a wondrous world awaits.
Art is an integral part of scientific investigation and documentation. Before the advent of photography, illustrations were used to capture the natural world and share it with broader audiences through reproduction via woodcuts, engravings and etchings, and lithography in natural history publications. Even today, scientific illustration is important, articulating morphological, physiological and anatomical features with more detail and clarity than can often be captured through photographs.
Scientific illustrations are useful for communities in a wide range of disciplines. Our audiences have shared how they use these illustrations to support studies in the sciences, such as identifying the earliest observations on heterostyly in plants, researching the history of herbaria, and revisiting the legacy of women in science. Citizen scientists make use of these resources on platforms like Wikipedia and to research the identities of natural history artists.
Given that these illustrations are works of art, it’s not surprising that these collections are also providing a wealth of inspiration for artists like Dee Etzwiler, who recently used BHL images within nine pieces she created for a group show — Conversations: Reflections of 14 Women Artists — exhibited at the Maude Kerns Art Center (Eugene, OR) from 10 January – 7 February 2020.
The Zoological Sketches are two volumes of 100 plates published between 1857 and 1867. They show particularly rare animals from Regent’s Park in London, which Joseph Wolf captured in watercolours and on the basis of which Joseph Smit made lithographs. The edited notes were written by David William Mitchell, Secretary of the Zoological Society. After his death his successor, Philip Lutley Sclater, took over the work and completed the volumes.
Recently, we spent three weeks on student placement at Museums Victoria Library and were fortunate enough to be involved with the digitisation of the beautiful title The birds of Norfolk & Lord Howe Islands and the Australasian South Polar quadrant by Gregory M. Mathews. It was an eye-opening experience, making us aware of the patience and attention to detail that is a necessity for book digitisation.
During the Victorian era, many gifted women participated in what has been called the “Golden Age of botanical art,” reflecting both a surge in gardening interests across English society, as well advances in book-making technology (Burns, Kramer). Though virtually unknown today, Anne Pratt (1806-1893) was one of the most prolific and popular artists and writers of this time, ultimately producing twenty published works that were loved for their handsome and accurate illustrations, and helping to create interest in flower study in the general public.
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The Biodiversity Heritage Library is an open access digital library for biodiversity literature and archives. BHL’s global consortium of natural history, botanical, and research libraries cooperate to digitize and make their collections accessible as a part of a global “biodiversity commons.”
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