The Charleston Museum is home to many cultural and historical firsts, and perhaps one of the least-well-known of these is a 1731 book by English artist and naturalist Mark Catesby called The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. The book, written over four years, was an extensive study of the region’s plants and animals, and it was also the first major study of botanical and animal life in North America.
In both a cultural and historical sense, there are echoes of that book in the new lobby exhibit at the Charleston Museum, Preserving Nature’s Beauty: The Art Of Herbaria. An expansive exhibit featuring over 100 different pieces, Preserving Nature’s Beauty combines over 300 years of botanical samples and specimens, some of which have never been on display before, along with paintings, sketches, plant-pressing books and plant mounts from the museum’s own archives and the collections of Henry William Ravenel, Stephen Elliott, Laura May Bragg, Edmund Ravenel, and Lewis Reeves Gibbes.
For those who love or are fascinated by nature, or by the artistic creations that nature inspires, it promises to be quite an education.
“Preserving Nature’s Beauty is, first and foremost, an exhibit to show off our herbaria collection,” says Matthew Gibson, the museum’s curator of Natural History. “A lot of these are dried, pressed specimens so they’ve never been exhibited, and they’re typically used for botany research.”
And there’s some serious history in this collection. Some of these specimens were the first-ever catalogued examples of their species.
“We have particular samples known as type-specimens, meaning they are the example of the species from when it was named,” Gibson says. “Any other future references to that species requires comparison to that type because it’s the first one that was designated. Our collection is full of these species which are the first described of their kind.”
As one might imagine, some of these specimens are extremely fragile and could be easily damaged, which means in some cases the originals simply can’t be displayed. Gibson says that setting up this exhibit in the museum’s sunlight-filled lobby was a challenge.
“A lot of the pressed plant specimens, like leaves and stems, can’t actually be exposed to UV light for an extended period of time,” he says, “which is why they’ve never been exhibited before. There are also concerns about mold because once the specimens are gone, they’re gone forever, and some of them represent extinct species. So in some cases, we’ve scanned a lot of our herbarium specimens as digital photos, and what we’re going to be exhibiting are the scans.”
The majority of the Preserving Nature’s Beauty exhibit will be more resilient specimens like seeds and stems, with the illustrations and sketches alongside them as examples of how science and art can intersect.
“We’re trying to combine the scientific elements that are present, like botany and biology, with how humans have studied these things and reproduced them to preserve them for future viewings,” Gibson says. “These artists and naturalists have reproduced these organisms as scientifically accurate, but also as beautiful works of art, teaching people around the world about specimens collected right here in South Carolina.”
There’s also a thread of environmentalism running through Preserving Nature’s Beauty, from the exhibit’s name to the drawings of species that no longer exist.
“That’s definitely part of it, showing things that are either extinct or uncommon, because they’re threatened or endangered by invasive species or habitat destruction,” Gibson says. “As far back as the 17th or 18th century, people were interested in preserving this for the future, and they took the responsibility to go out and learn about these things around us, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Gibson says he has several goals in mind for Preserving Nature’s Beauty, whether it’s giving someone ideas about how to collect their own specimens, or it provides an often-missed link between science and art.
“Maybe people will walk away with a little more of a biological understanding of how the organism exists and how it lives its life,” he says. “So not only are they learning more about the role that that organism fills in their environment, but also about actually learning how to illustrate it. You’re learning information in a scientific context, but it could make you a better artist, as well. You can create that fantastical artistic environment while maintaining that this is not completely outside of the realm of reality. You’re creating something that could exist.”