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‘Decolonise the botanical treasure house’

The treasure houses of Leiden's University Library and Naturalis house wonderful historical collections with dried plants and botanical drawings. Professor by Special Appointment Tinde van Andel will be studying these collections. Inaugural lecture 6 January.

The Golden Age was a flourishing period, and not only for Dutch trade. Scientific research also benefited from the West and East India Companies' overseas trade and their urge for conquest.  From as early as the first half of the sixteenth century, European botanists gathered dried plants from all parts of the world, which were collected in herbaria. They also made drawings of the plants. An important part of these collections is currently held in the Leiden University Library and Naturalis Biodiversity Center.

High-resolution photos

‘Over the coming years we will digitise and study part of this botanical and cultural-historical treasure chest,' says Tinde van Andel, Clusius Professor of the History of Botany and Gardens (see below) since 1 September 2015. Naturalis and the Leiden Centre for Digital Scholarship are developing a web environment for high-resolution photos of the plants and their descriptions, which will be made accessible for everyone. 'The often centuries-old images and specimens will be made available for scientific research.' As there is often no information about who collected or drew the plants, or when they did so, Van Andel collaborates with art and science historians. 'It's only by working together that we can trace the footsteps of those explorers.' 

Decolonise

According to Van Andel, the time has come to 'decolonise' the collections. 'We're digitising the dried plants and the illustrations to make the material available for researchers and the general public, and also for the people in the countries where the plants came from. They were the ancestors of today's Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Surinamese and Syrian people, who shared their knowledge with the Western botanical pioneers.' 

Suriname and Ceylon

Thanks to these ancestors, Naturalis now holds a number of the world's oldest herbaria, with plants collected in the Netherlands, Northern Italy, the South of France and the Middle East between 1555 and 1574.  The museum and research institute also has several seventeenth-century collections from Suriname and Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). The University Library has many original illustrations of medicinal and nutritional plants from the eighteenth century, including some from Ceylon and Japan. Many of the museum's artefacts are so fragile that they have never previously been digitised, studied or exhibited.  

Local species names

Van Andel believes it is also in the interests of science itself to make these collections publicly available. ‘Researchers and students from the countries of origin often have a better understanding of the plant taxonomy, what the local species names are and how people used the plants. They can help us fill in the missing parts of the puzzle. Not only that, their help is also invaluable in spreading the results of the research in the relevant countries and regions.' 

About the Clusius chair

This chair, which is unique in the Netherlands, was insgtalled by the Clusius Foundation. The professor focuses on research on the development of applied and fundamental botany, in particular plants and their use as set our in historical herbaria between the 16th and 19th centuries. Van Andel will work mainly with the Scaliger Institute, the Hortus botanicus Leiden, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, and the Faculty of Science. The professor is also involved in the annual Clusius lectures, where international experts in the field of gardens and botany come together with Dutch experts.