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Techniques of Worlding: Categorization Knowledge Exchange at Kew

For this second of our three cross-programme knowledge exchange workshops, we focused on one of our key themes: diversity. What does diversity mean through the lens of "the future"?

In heritage practice we often refer, both casually, and precisely to "the future", but we do not often consider how our work and the work of our collections or practices is so immersed and involved in creating that future: in worlding (see Barad 2007) and in producing cosmograms (see Tresch 2007) that map the universe, hanging its matter on all kinds of trees.

For the workshop, our second cross programme “though experiment”, we invited individuals who represent and work within different heritage organizations or domains that are specifically involved in the work of collecting, conserving, curating, caring for heritage in its many forms, to come together to explore how their practices and procedures contribute to defining and shaping the diversity of the future. Through close mediated examination of these practices via our presence in Kew and our exposure to its work and its staff, we engaged with these questions, asking the hows, whats, and whys, of our work and the work of our fellow participants, while keeping the crucial question of when in the forefront of our discussion. During the event, we challenged and questioned assumptions about our own roles in the collecting and curation of the diverse worlds our heritage practices develop.

Techniques of caring: watering cans hanging in the Tropical Nursery

At our first knowledge exchange workshop in Stockholm last year, participants were asked to bring with them an object that they would like to see preserved for the future. This time, we asked participants to bring biscuits. Not just a frugal measure to save on catering, the biscuits – in their variety – served to provide the workshop participants with their own categorisation task. After a walk through Kew and an introduction to classification from Gemma Bramley (Research Leader in the Asia Team), we were invited to create our own biscuit categorization systems: circles and rectangles, colour, size, sandwich, coated…. For a group gathered to interrogate the human-centred processes of ordering the world, it was perhaps inevitable that several of our biscuiting systems should descend into complexity, even absurdity. The group that devised a sliding scale of beauty accepted that their “most beautiful biscuit” was actually the one that evoked benign approval rather than strength of feeling: a chocolate digestive. How did this biscuit task inform our understandings of categorization? Systems can be totalizing; they can be obvious; they can be oblivious. Once selected, one of many can form the way that we think and interpret. They world us in that they create the lens of understanding through which we see the world.

Biscuits in peril: a Bourbon shortage hit the UK recently forcing HF's Sarah May to make her own. Brexit-prompted instability in financial markets forced pink wafer manufacturer Rivingtons into receivership
Biscuits on a sliding scale of beauty

Tours of the Herbarium, Economic Botany collection, and Tropical Nursery were augmented by insights into Kew’s development and the history of classification that is still in large part a determining factor in the organisation of plants – not just at Kew but also world-wide. We also explored how classification is represented by data and metadata records. Eve Lucas, Research Leader, Integrated Monography, gave an insight into new classification systems and the way that the field of botany creates worlds and organises futures. Across the biological sciences, phylogeny (the study of the evolutionary history and relationships among individuals or groups of organisms) has recently upset taxonomizing systems. Where taxonomies have hitherto been scaffolded by their morphology and composition, new approaches to phylogeny built on developments in understanding in DNA have provided what, for many, is a ‘definitive’ system.  At Kew, the Angiosperm (flowering plants) Phylogeny Group’s fourth iteration of its phylogenetic taxonomy (APG IV), published in 2016, and partly developed by Kew practitioners, has been introduced. Instead of morphologically, the plant world becomes ordered by evolution and the long-standing conundrums of whether palms and ferns are related and whether cacti and succulents belong in the same family have been categorically ‘solved’ via common ancestors. It seems an unquestionable system, and recent work in phylogeny is doing the same work to upset the sphere of dinosaur origins. But what does this work do? How is it complemented by the stories told in the tropical nursery about the more idiosyncratic characters of plants?

Cactii, unrelated to ferns

Back together in the workshop, Kew curators Nina Davies and Clare Drinkell led a beginners’ workshop in plant pressing – the practice of creating specimens for the Herbarium – dolling out cuttings for the participants to attempt to press themselves. Begonias, ferns, cacti, papyrus, were flattened onto Kew’s specimen papers, and accompanying sheets filled out, describing the characters of the plants. Tomatoes and bananas – added to the mix – proved a daunting pressing prospect, though were bravely attempted with some success. These specimens – not being quite at the professional level – won’t be joining the specimens that Kew contains though. Those represent 200 years of plant collecting, and the gradual change in practices and aims. Kew’s mission statement now is “to be the global resource for plant and fungal knowledge, building an understanding of the world’s plants and fungi upon which all our lives depend.”

IUCN Director of the World Heritage Programme, Tim Badman, Heritage Futures artist, Pernilla Frid, and co-investigator Caitlin Desilvey hard at work pressing tomatoes

That raises another question. Why collect? Purely for knowledge? Our keynote speaker, also a Heritage Futures project partner, Mandana Seyfeddinipur, changed the context of the meeting with a tour de force on endangered languages and the work of the SOAS Endangered Languages Documentation Programme. With no real possibility of significantly revitalizing languages, the ELDP works against language loss, conscious of the perils of the categorization and curation of knowledge purely for an academic audience.

If heritage involves the conservation of different kinds of endangered objects in the present for the future, what is the precise relationship between the ways we order those conservation objects and the future worlds these practices build around them? And how can an understanding of the relationships between collecting, ordering and worlding practices help us to make better decisions in the present about the legacies we bestow upon the future? We left Kew with a clearer sense of the ways in which different classificatory systems build different kinds of worlds, and where these might resonate or come into conflict with one another. We look forward to exploring these issues further in subsequent thought experiments like this one.

Cabinets in the Herbarium given by the East India Company still house - and form - an integral part of the collection

Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press.

Tresch, John. 2007. “Technological World-Pictures: Cosmic Things, Cosmograms.” Isis 98: 84-99.