Exhibitions help to restore India’s ‘lost’ botanical heritage

Dr Hooker in the Rhododendron Region of the Himalayas, after a painting by Frank Stone, 1854. Mezzotint. Private collection. Portrait of Dr Hooker in Sikkim with Lepcha collectors, Nepalese guards and Gurkha sepoys, in a pine forest at 9000 feet with Kanc

Joseph Hooker's Illustrations of Himalayan Plants, 1855

A digital repatriation of India’s botanical heritage takes a step forward with two exhibitions organised by a University of Sussex historian.

Dr Vinita Damodaran is behind an initiative funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to set up two travelling displays in India of some of the work carried out by English botanists, scientists and naturalists from the 1700s through to the mid-20th century.

The studies, including the documentation of and gathering of rare plant specimens in India, have been held in the archives of the British Library and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Now for the first time facsimiles of some of the key documents and drawings will be available to Indian audiences through two exhibitions: 

  • Hooker Botanical Trailblazer and the Botanical Heritage of India, which will be on show at the Botanical Survey of India gallery of the Indian Museum in Kolkata (1 October 2016  -  1 October 2017), will include facsimiles of some of the studies and correspondence by English botanist and the first director of Kew, Joseph Hooker. Curated by Kew.
  • Empire and Environmental heritage, which will be hosted at the Indian Museum of Natural History in Mysore (6 October 2016 - 6 October 2017), will include panels of facsimile materials from the British Library’s historic collections of South Asia – such as personal diaries and correspondence, government documents and pamphlets – to create a picture of the impact of empire on the natural and built environment of India between 1700 and 1950. Curated by the British Library.

Dr Damodaran, director of the Centre for World Environmental History at Sussex, said: “The exhibitions represent for the first time a repatriation of botanical knowledge. There has not been a flora survey of India since Hooker wrote his botany of India in 1871 because they have not had the herbarium specimens he collected. To do the next survey, they need to see what has changed.

“These British naturalists created a template for studying plants, for combating drought and famine, and for understanding the ecology of these tropical regions. Now, in the context of deforestation of the area and in the wake of climate and environmental change, there is a critical and urgent relevance to this material.”

In addition to the exhibitions, Dr Damodaran and UK and Indian colleagues are setting up a pilot project to engage two Kolkata schools (Lake Town Government School and the Madahamgram Government Boys’ School) in understanding the links between botany, Empire and the historic environment. The project will include a visit to the Kolkata Botanical Garden to explore the role of both English and Indian plant collectors.

Dr Damodaran said: “The aim is to make students aware of the botanical heritage of India both through colonial archives and the knowledge held by indigenous communities.

“These exhibitions and projects are the next stage of a longer term ambition to ensure that communities have access to vital botanical records for their own often fragile and endangered environments.”

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 27 September 2016