In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss
Reposted from the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
A close reflection on Henry David Thoreau’s legacy brings into sharper focus his deep commitment to environmental conservation and civil disobedience, as well as his trove of treasured poems and essays. His decision to make his home at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts solidified Thoreau’s devotion in his role as a naturalist. Through his close relationship with the woods of Walden he observed the ebb and flow of the natural world first-hand. Thoreau’s journals reveal detailed observations on local flora and serve as poignant reminders of our responsibility to protect plant communities.
Plants are important indicators of how our world is responding to climate change and Thoreau was prolific in his practice of collecting botanical samples. Six hundred forty-eight specimens, long preserved in the Harvard University Herbaria, serve as the foundation of this new exhibition. The digitization of the specimens, and others in the Herbaria collection, are now allowing broader access to scholars and citizen scientists, in turn welcoming new domains of scholarship.
In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss is an immersive multidisciplinary experience that marries art and science through a modern artistic interpretation of Thoreau’s preserved plants. The exhibition invites visitors to experience emotionally resonant connections to the profound loss of natural diversity caused by human-induced climate change. The exhibition urges us to ask, “What do Thoreau’s findings tell us about what plants are winning, and what plants are losing, in the face of climate change today?”
Robin Vuchnich, a new media artist, user experience designer, and an Assistant Professor of the Practice in the College of Design, leveraged the digitized specimens to craft an immersive experience in the gallery theater. Animations of the herbarium images and soundscapes recorded at Walden Pond offer a compelling visual experience that features scientific data about species in decline.
Leah Sobsey, Artist, Curator, Associate Professor of Photography, and Director of the Gatewood Gallery at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, created a luminous series of large-scale plant portraits using cyanotype on glass backed with 23k gold, a nineteenth-century photographic process that relies on UV light to create a distinctive Prussian blue tone. Additionally, Sobsey utilized all 648 digitized Thoreau samples, creating a stunning wallpaper consisting of original cyanotypes and digital imagery that tells a story of the survival and decline of plant specimens.
Preeminent scholars Dr. Charles Davis, Curator of Vascular Plants, Harvard University Herbaria, Dr. Marsha Gordon, Professor, North Carolina State University, and Dr. Emily Meineke, Assistant Professor, University of California, Davis, inform the exhibition’s scientific dimensions and intellectual framework. Together, scholars Davis, Gordon, and Meineke worked in collaboration with artists Sobsey and Vuchnich to shape the vision for and experience of this much-anticipated exhibition.
Visitors gain a deeper understanding of how different plant species respond to environmental factors, within and between species. For instance, some plants are sensitive to temperature, while others show less or no sensitivity. This type of data drives the exhibition’s animations and directly impacts our daily lives in the context of agriculture and food production.
Harvard Museums of Science & Culture Executive Director Brenda Tindal underscores the significance of Thoreau’s observations and his indelible impact on society: “philosopher, naturalist, and Massachusetts’s own native son Henry David Thoreau urges us to ‘spend one day as deliberately as Nature.’ Thoreau’s clarion call compels us to intentionally lean into our surroundings and learn from nature—and by extension, the global community to which we all belong.”
The Harvard Museums of Science & Culture invite visitors to examine the natural world and climate change at the intersections of science, art, and history through the multi-sensory exhibition, In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss.
Learn more about the exhibition by listening to the recent HMSC Connects! podcast featuring a conversation between host Jennifer Berglund, biologist Emily Meineke, and artists Robin Vuchnich and Leah Sobsey.