Botanical gardens are re-examining their collections’ colonial roots — botanists of colour say keep going.
Hidden figures haunt the archives of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE). They are the shadows of people whose contributions to the institute’s cornucopia of specimens have gone unrecognized. The archives contain, for example, exquisite drawings — some made by Indian illustrators centuries ago — of voluptuous pink lotuses, spindly legumes and delicate orchids. But, says Simon Milne, the public body’s chief executive and regius keeper, “we don’t know who those artists are.”
Today, such omissions speak volumes about the arrogance of white European explorers who, for most of the institute’s 350-year history, received the plaudits for building its vast collections of living and dried plants and historical botanical documents. But change is afoot at the RBGE … For the past two years, the institute — which has three other sites across Scotland — has accelerated its work to recognize the contributions of people who were not white Europeans and to make the gardens a more inclusive space to visit and work in.
Such ambitions had existed before the murder in May 2020 of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in the United States. But it was that event and the global movement it sparked that precipitated a step-change in the gardens’ equality, diversity and inclusivity activities. In March, the institution published a racial-justice report that will feed into an action plan to “embed” racial-justice work as a “core aspect” of the organization. This extends to its research and training activities, with the report proposing dedicated PhD funds for students from minority backgrounds and promoting more equitable collaborations with scholars around the world. “We’re not rewriting history, we’re actually trying to tell the whole story,” says Milne.
Plant scientists of colour who follow these discussions are encouraged by the advances, but agree that much remains to be done. …
Before Floyd’s murder, botanical gardens had largely escaped the scrutiny that had resulted in calls for museums to return cultural artefacts and human remains to their places of origin, says Caroline Lehmann, an ecologist at the University of Edinburgh. “Plants are viewed as apolitical, as something pretty you put in your garden,” says Lehmann, who also heads the RBGE’s tropical-diversity programme. However, a cursory look into the history of plant science shows this to be false. Crops associated with globalization, such as cotton, tobacco, coffee and rubber, were central to Europe’s projects of empire and slavery — as they were to slavery in the United States.
“The exploitation of plants is closely linked to the exploitation of people,” says Lehmann, who led the working group that produced the racial-justice report and who is white. The report recognizes that the gardens’ present-day work is partially founded on collections and data deriving from “exploitative, colonialist, and racist activities”. It recommends that the gardens address the lingering legacies of this, which are visible today in the organization’s low representation of Black and Asian staff, volunteers and students. Only around 4% of the gardens’ staff identify as belonging to a non-white minority groups, and all work at the institution’s only urban site, in Edinburgh, where such groups make up 8% of the population.
Representation matters. …
Milne admits that he did not fully fathom the historical links between botany and racism when the RBGE first embarked on its racial-justice work. He recalls telling his team early on that “at least we don’t have a statue or memorial that is of concern”. A colleague then pointed out that the Edinburgh garden’s central statue of Carl Linneaus could be considered just that. The eighteenth-century inventor of the system of classifying plants, animals and minerals espoused dividing the human species into racial ‘varieties’ characterized, in part, by skin colour and stereotypical temperaments. These notions underpinned racist science in the following centuries….
She [Fan] was sceptical that her Edinburgh employer would do any better. So, she was pleased when the RBGE’s Racial Justice Working Group formed. However, after getting involved with the group’s work, she was reminded once more of the emotional burden that disproportionately affects scientists of colour, such as herself, when engaging with efforts to decolonize an institution. Fan began to study the history and power dynamics between China and the United Kingdom. “Researching colonial exploitations towards a race I identify with, while knowing that my workplace was linked to and still benefits from these exploitations, was unsettling,” she says. “It felt very conflicting,” she says — trying to understand the institution’s need for perspectives from people of colour while also resenting the toll that such work takes on them.
… After Floyd’s murder, Kew’s scientific director, Alexandre Antonelli, published an article outlining the institute’s ambition to “tackle structural racism in plant and fungal science”. …
Fungal Racism would be a good name for a band.
Beyond the efforts being made at specific gardens, work needs to be done on a global scientific level. Makunga co-founded Black Botanists Week, a global event to shine a light on Black and Indigenous scholars in botany and plant science. One of that community’s discussions, she says, is whether to rename plants whose scientific names are offensive to Indigenous people. For example, plenty of plants have the taxonomic name ‘caffra’, which derives from an Arabic expression that came to be used as an offensive term for Black people in southern Africa. “Those names have a terrible connotation,” says Makunga. …
For Xaba, there’s a long way still to go. For one thing, places such as Kew continue to hold many of the type specimens of plants that were found in South Africa. These are the first scientific samples of plant species, often dried and mounted with information about where and when they were collected. Botanists in developing countries might therefore have to travel to study these specimens, which remain the property of foreign institutions, Xaba explains.
“It’s those things that really worry people like me. We still have these very one-sided partnerships where we are the colony and natural resources are getting extracted, and people are publishing papers about our biodiversity. They still get economic benefits, and those don’t really trickle down,” he says. “It’s the culture that needs to change, and the whole system that needs to reboot.”