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The 'dye herbarium': capturing colour in botanical collections

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There is an anomaly among the old herbaria in Uppsala. Tucked away on a lower shelf, a smaller collection yields unexpected contents: page after page present colourful skeins of silk and wool samples dyed from lichens. They are the colour samples of the Johannes P. Westring’s printed dyer’s manual, Svenska Lafvarnas Färghistoria, eller Sättet att använda dem till färgning och annan hushållsnytta (Stockholm, 1805). What is this textile collection doing in the herbarium?

Pondering the relevance of dye-related collections and specimens to the history of botany brings the role of colour to the fore: colour, that fleeting quality of the plant that is soon lost from the preserved specimen. The question of how to capture colour is an old problem, reflected in early modern experiments with different ways of preserving and representing them, including painting specimens and making nature prints. The juxtaposition involved in what we might call the ‘dye herbarium’ is an opportunity for comparison that highlights shared challenges of working with plants as distinctly local and temporal organisms. Both are concerned with preserving particular elements of plants, which given their transience requires accurate labels and systematic procedures.

These observations are a venture into unfamiliar ground for me as a historian, as they have been informed by my own forays into natural dyeing. Methodologically, this has made me more aware of tensions within hierarchies of knowledge shaping my own interpretive frameworks, broadly informed by the material turn in the history of science.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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