Green Obsessions: Reflections and Conference Poster

Link to project.

Hi all! Like many of you have said, I feel like I’ve learned and grown a lot this semester. This project has been by far one of my favorites that I have done. Funnily enough, I was worried that this project wasn’t “academic” enough or “serious” enough to use as a project in graduate school since I’d come up with the idea simply by looking at a plant on my desk and thinking, “I wonder where these plants are from?” What I’ve found is that those thoughts bouncing around my head might actually lead to something pretty interesting.

I first began my research with my project proposal by plotting points on StoryMaps of the origins on houseplants using Plantopedia as my main source. I quickly noticed a pattern– while plants from all over the world can be grown indoors with the right conditions, many of the plants that are most popular and most prevalent tend to be from regions of the world with deep histories of exploitation by European powers.

I ended up going down a rabbit hole on the history of botany to find that botanic societies in Britain had a long history of allying themselves with the imperial government and the East India Company in the name of scientific research. While indoor plant cultivation had been in and out of fashion for centuries, the 1800s saw a surge in popularity of greenhouses, conservatories, and orangeries among the rich, wealthy, and upper-middle class thanks to a simple invention that made it possible to transport live plants from the colonized world back to Europe. The Wardian Case, essentially a mini-greenhouse, enabled botanists to expand their reaches, often in alliance with military and government powers. Tropical plants were fashionable, in part because the came from the colonized world– a world “untouched” by civilization.

As I dove into creating my final project, I chose StoryMaps because of the many interesting projects I have seen using StoryMaps and the user-friendly nature of the platform. One thing I have learned, however, is how platforms can both make a project possible and exciting, but also place limitations on it. While StoryMaps is easy to use, I found the express maps feature to be limiting in how I could map points onto the map. Rather than signifying areas on a map, I needed to create a map of points. While there was a highlight an area feature, it didn’t seem to fit my vision either. I ended up plotting plants using points, even though plants often grew in large spaces across entire regions. That said, I feel that my map is still effective in showing the connection between houseplants and colonization.

This class has proven to be extremely useful in my learning, and there are many skills I will be carrying with me as I move forward. I firmly believe that digital history has a lot of potential to make workin the history field more accessible to more people. I am interested to see what platforms and digital tools become available in the future and to see how historians make use of them.

Thank you all for a good semester and good luck on this final push to the end of the semester!

Photos used in poster taken by Severin Candrian on Unsplash.com.

Digital Project Update: Green Obsessions

The title page for Green Obsessions

Link to Project Website

Since proposing this project in a previous post, I have been busy reading up on the history of botany and scientific exploitation throughout the colonized world. I have decided to primarily focus on the British Empire and plant collecting, since these are the sources I have been able to find. London is also home to one of the largest Botanic societies, which happens to have a variety of digitized collections.

Preview of the interactive map for my project, which shows the origins of popular houseplants.

The screen capture above gives a preview of my map and an example pin. I have also been doing research and finding the origins of many specific plants, but I have found that it is difficult to find out when specific plants were introduced to the western market. The current format for pins for each plant includes about 70-100 words describing the plant, care notes on light, humidity, and watering, and attribution to the source of the images I am using. When I have found information relating to the plant’s history in relation to humans, I am also including that information.

Most photos I have been using are from Unsplash.com, a website that makes beautiful photos available for use free of charge. While Unsplash does not require photos to be attributed to artists, I have chosen to ensure that all photos I have used are attributed to the photographer.

Example Interpretive Section, unfinished as of now.

I have largely finished the bulk of my research for the rest of the website and I am now working on writing text for the website. Some parts of the website have not been written yet, but have been outlined. As seen above, I have put general outline information into the StoryMap in order to show my thought process. Each of these sections feature a photo related to the text. Attribution for these photos can be seen by hovering over the (i) icon in the top left of the image.

I would be interested to hear anyone’s comments on my progress so far. This project has proven to be one of my favorites that I have worked on in a while. The wealth of primary sources available through the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew is impressive– and I wish I could put more of it to use in this project. Also, let me know if there are any specific houseplants you would like to see on the map so I can make sure I am getting all of the most popular plants on there. Thanks everyone!

Organizing the [Digital] Archives: March 24 Readings #1-4

This week, we take a look into the conceptualization of digital archives. Digitizing archival materials and expanding public access through the internet allows archives the power to expand the accessibility and usability of their archives. However, as Spiderman will attest, with great power comes great responsibility.

Mr. Stark trusted me. I am not gonna let him down. : boy, bye | Tom holland  spiderman, Tom holland peter parker, Tom holland
Tom Holland’s Spiderman, Marvel Cinematic Universe

In our first reading for this week, Jefferson Bailey argues that the advent of digital archives bring the opportunity to reexamine and reimagine the organization of archives. Bailey begins his article, “Disrespect des Fonds: Rethinking Arrangement and Description in Born-Digital Archives,” by exploring the origins of respect des fonds, which is a principle of grouping records according to the generating bodies or donors. Respect des fonds seeks to preserve provenance of physical documents by grouping them by agent of transfer. The origins of this archival management system date back to the French Revolution, as records of the monarchy were destroyed and systematically reorganized by the revolutionary government. Digital Archives present an opportunity to reconsider Respect des fonds because, in the digital world, arrangement is “no longer a process of imposing intellectualized hierarchies or physical relocation.” Rather, it is automated by a computer system. Digital Archives have the ability to draw attention to collections’ inter-related nature and facilitate more dynamic exploration. While researchers still romanticize physical archives as the ideal place for research, Bailey argues the Digital Archive has the potential to alter the ways which we organize and access information.

The authors of the next three readings focused on the ways that archives can and should engage in community activism. In the first of these readings is “Archival Challenges and Digital Solutions in Aboriginal Australia” by Kimberly Christen. While the digital archive has the ability to democratize access to archival materials, Christen argues that aboriginal Australians still lack access to archives where their culture’s histories are stored and shared. Christen details her work with the Mukurtu Project, which strove to make a new management system using Warumungu systems of knowledge and cultural protocols. The resulting digital archive categorizes users according to how much access aboriginal cultural protocols would allow them. For example, some sacred object are only accessible by elders. The archive’s website is navigated by clicking on photos which indicates categories. The Mukurtu Project demonstrates one among many possibilities for imagining digital archives that effectively collaborate with indigenous and aboriginal communities.

In “Expanding #ArchivesForBlackLives to Traditional Archival Repositories,” Jarrett M. Drake tasks archives with responsibility approaching the preservation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. He defines two tasks which archives must carefully consider. First, Drake argues that archives must confront their roles in upholding the patriarchy and white supremacy through two problems. To do so, he suggests evaluating the accessibility of archives and whether the Black lives matter in the existing collections. Secondly, Drake argues that archives must build trust with the people around whom the #BlackLivesMatter movement is centered. This trust, according to Drake, must be built from a perspective of allyship, which focuses on making room for the impacted to be centered and heard. While Drake believes that independent, community based archives are the best repositories for preserving the #BlackLivesMatter movement, he believes these steps would help traditional archives be more responsible in their collecting.

Lastly, Bergis Jules writes in “Preserving Social Media Records of Activism” about the centrality of social media in today’s social activist movements. Jules argues that social media allows for an unprecedented amount of unfiltered experiences to be preserved in vivid detail on widely accessible platforms. According to Jules, the ability of any person with a cellphone to record anything is empowering. Social media is able to record the raw and personal reactions of individuals in social protest in astonishing numbers. With all that potential, Jules argues that it is necessary to develop preservation tools for this wealth of information and data that also respect people’s right to express themselves publicly.

All of these readings present arguments on how information on the internet challenges the historical uses of the archives, the ways they are organized, the people represented within then, and the people who use them. Do you know of any archives which take innovative approaches to organizing their information? What other considerations should archives make when attempting to document ongoing social movements?

A Growing Obsession: A History of Houseplants and Colonialism

Since starting college, I’ve had an unsatisfiable urge to collect houseplants. While I’ve (unfortunately) killed a few off and had to give others away, my collection has been growing since then. What started as a simple succulent has grown into African violets, pothos, pepperomias, pileas, spider plants, and snake plants– just to name a few.

And I’m not the only one to take a liking to houseplants in recent years. A quick scroll through Pinterest shows trendy, beautifully decorated spaces complete with an array of potted plants.

Searching “bedroom decor” on Pinterest shows many results featuring houseplants as essential decor

House plants have come in and gone out of style regularly for the past few decades. I started to wonder recently, where does our fascination with houseplants come from and how did these plants, originating from all over the world, become a part of our households.

Some beginning searches reveal the complicated origins of plant collecting and its ties with European imperialism and colonialism. The origins of cultivating plants for aesthetics goes as far back as c. 600 BCE with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, Queen Amytis. There is evidence for wealthy citizens in Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece caring for plants in the luxurious estates, though houseplants fell out of fashion in Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire. . There is also the art of Bonsai, which began in China between 100 and 400 CE.

Victorian Era Illustration of a woman reading near her houseplants.

When European explorers encountered the Americas in the 1400s as Europeans began colonizing the globe. They brought back with them botanical specimens from the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The richest Europeans began showcasing by growing exotic and tropical pants in elaborate greenhouses. According to Lauren Camilleri and Sophia Kaplan (authors of Plantopedia), the fashion of keeping houseplants came to a peak in the late 1800s to early 1900s when tropical plants became more accessible to the middle class. After a period out of fashion, the end of World War II saw another boost in the popularity of houseplants.

At the root of this story is European colonization. Exploitation of land and indigenous people facilitated the rise of indoor gardens and houseplants in Europe, bringing in hearty plants that assimilate well to indoor environments.

I propose a digital history project which features a map showing where different types of houseplants originate, paired with a discussion on the relationship between the world of botany and European colonization. In the pursuit of collecting plant specimens for both production and for display, Western scientists often exploited people indigenous to colonized lands, ignoring and, even, erasing the knowledge held by indigenous people.

Beginnings of a map showing origins of popular house plants using ArcGIS StoryMaps

A resulting project using this idea would likely utilize ArcGIS StoryMaps because of the available features and ease of use. The above screenshot shows a precursory map showing the origins of popular house plants, though much more research is needed. The project could situate houseplants and botany within the history of commodities and trade during the height of European global empires. I believe ArcGIS StoryMaps will be a useful tool for this project, allowing for both mapping and interpretation side by side. I hope to include compelling photos and feature important research by scholars, while also being an accessible resource for the average person.

A Hidden Empire: Using Google Ngram to Track American Descriptions of United States Imperialism

Is the United States an empire? Most of us don’t think of it as one but historian Daniel Immerwahr argues otherwise. In his book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, Immerwahr studies how the United States has been expanding since the very beginning- stretching from the original thirteen eastern states across the North American Continent- and eventually began claiming overseas colonies. Essential to the creation of this empire, however, was the perception that United States is not an empire. So, how does America talk about the American Empire while keeping Americans, well, clueless?

Cher Horowitz, Clueless

I propose a project which utilizes Google Ngram to track the ways which Americans have talked about American Imperialism over time, inspired by Immerwahr’s work. For this study, I want to focus on terms that relate to how Americans have described the American Empire and how that has changed over time. Part of Immerwahr’s argument rests on the terminology that our government’s leadership has used to talk about United States territories overseas– terms like commonwealth, protectorate, territory, and colony.

Googe Ngram graph shows a sharp decrease in usage of the term “American Colonies”
A search of “American Empire” shows a similar decline in usage, but with a significant rebound at the end of the 20th century.

Preliminary searches of the terms “American Colonies” and “American Empire” show similar declines in usage of the term beginning in about 1820. While “American Empire” experiences a rebound in usage, this change is not significant until the end of the 1900s and into the 2000s. This trend makes one wonder: why were Americans less likely to describe the United States as an Empire after the early years of the republic? Why were Americans less likely to call newly acquired land colonies?

Google Ngram showing use of “American Territory” spiking in about 1900, when “American Colony” is at one of it’s lowest points.

Things start to get a little more interesting when testing out other descriptions of non-state acquisitions of the United States. For example, usage of “American Territory” sees a sharp increase at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, correlating roughly with the end of the Spanish-American War and the World Wars, conflicts in which the United States gained, or had the potential to gain, significant territories. While “American Empire” does see a small bump during this period, both “American Empire” and “American Colonies” continue on the decline, despite territorial acquisition.

A continuation of this project would seek to use a variety of search terms to get an accurate vision of how the American Empire is described throughout time. Examples of other search terms would be substituting “United States” for “American,” and other synonyms for “colony,” like “protectorate,” “commonwealth,” “dependency,” and “settlement.” While Grant Immerwahr’s research also look towards US overseas military bases as evidence, I have doubts that using terms for military bases would yield effective results in this case.

I plan on primarily using Google Ngram for this project, but I am open to other platforms or tool which might yield better results. I would be interested in searching newspapers on this topics, but I am unsure of how to effectively do that for a semester-long project.

Understanding the language that is used to describe American Imperialism is important. While America is viewed as a beacon of freedom, there are American territories so seek freedom from the United States, or statehood at the very least. The people in the American territories lack the rights afforded to mainland American citizens, even though they live on American territory. Understanding the language used is an essential step to recognizing and acting against the unjust actions of our government. The American people shouldn’t be clueless to the fact that the United States controls more than just the 50 states.