Unlearning Botanical Narratives

Nina Škerjanc

Keywords: Natural heritage, Plants, Workshops


In my perspective, people and plants hold stories that are intentionally or unintentionally connected to natural or cultural heritage. This motivated me to experiment with ways of breaching the gap between nature and culture in order to better understand, how these dualisms and hierarchies came to be, how they affect our relationship with the world, and how we could potentially build different understandings of ‘nature’.

Natural history museums play a key role in representing botanical knowledge, and by doing so, mediate our relationship with plants. Plants are categorized through scientific taxonomies and systems and are presented as preserved and isolated specimens in pots or herbarium sheets. These established systems of botanical knowledge and representation maintain the nature-culture divide. How does that affect the way we live and relate to culture and nature? How can botanical heritage be preserved, maintained, and experienced in ways which contribute to healing our relationship with plants?

By making a “Wardian cart”, which I used as a traveling workshop tool that brings together people and practices that center on plants and their relations to their local environments. The cart, based on the colonial botanical artifact, brings forward a discussion of colonial history and its relation to dualisms embedded in my culture. When making the cart I wanted to re-imagine the practices for which it would be used by recreating it as a research station, that can be utilized by individuals interested in sharing, co-creating, and experimenting with the human-plant relationships. The materials and knowledge created within the station are shared on the project's digital platform as well as other practical matters.

As a first experiment, I used the Wardian cart for a series of workshop series  “Cattail gatherings”, where we explored different ways of looking at and knowing about plants. By being with and thinking through the weeds called cattails, we met to develop and share ideas and perspectives through which we could understand plants beyond dominant ways of knowing. A gathering is a way of collecting, and a first step in the process of knowledge creation. In these gatherings, we looked at the cattail not as a specimen but as a plant with stories in order to re-frame botanical heritage through embodied and experiential knowledge.