I am writing at a time of intense excitement and activity at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. Depending on when you are reading this, we are about to re-open, or we have just re-opened, what will now be known at the Santos Museum of Economic Botany (MEB).
The generous support of Santos – and Federal and State governments – has enabled us to keep alive, and give new life to, what is now the last surviving Colonial Museum of Economic Botany in the world.
If you’re from Adelaide you’ve almost certainly walked through the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and noticed the curious isolated building with an imposing grey classical facade adorned with gold-lead informing you that you’ve passed the Museum of Economic Botany. There’s a good chance that the Museum’s been closed, or that,. even if you’ve been able to get inside, the exhibits seemed even more obscure that the buildings titled suggested – and that the visit was hardly worth your curiosity.
That rather depressing last half-century for the MEB was result of various historical forces which led to the complete collapse of many similar institutions in the post-colonial world. Indeed, the original MEB collection was largely dispersed and the building came home for a less than enthralling collection of seeds and fruits. The contrast with the restored museum is hard to imagine – the new museum is sublime and a jewel of international significance for Adelaide. A visit to the museum today will profoundly change your perspective on both the fundamental importance of plants to our life on Earth the relationship between people, plants and culture. It might even stimulate both a literal and metaphysical meditation on Isaiah 40:6 which as you almost certainly remember reads: “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field“.
Museums of economic botany were not just for looking at. They were working collections, not just of plants, but also showcases of what uses – commercial, practical uses – could be made of plant material. Apart from recording knowledge, they were part of the network that promoted trade in all these things, especially in colonial times.
The heyday of museums of economic botany has passed by the end of the World War II, but the significance of understanding the fundamental importance of plants in a sustainable economy remains. Indeed, in the context of concerns in relation to sustainability and climate change, the message of critical importance to sustaining life on Earth.
We’ve been able to restore important parts of the original collection, sometimes by fine detective work, and partly through the generosity of our friends at the SA Museum who have been looking after about 140 items for the past few decades. This will be part of the permanent exhibition.
We now also have a dramatic new temporary exhibition area, designed by a man we found just up the road – Khai Liew, the internationally renowned furniture designer, who own showroom is on Magill Road. Khai’s design itself contains deep references to Australia’s history, and to the need for sustainability.
We are delighted that the opening exhibition in this space, curated by Peter Emmett with help from our own Tony Kanellos under the title Harvest, brings together items from many other South Australian institutions which have contributed items to us to join in the celebration of this revival. These range from the tapa cloth collected on Cook’s voyage, from the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia’s collections to the Schrapel family’s anniversary wreaths from the Barossa Historical Museum.
The divergence in the nature of the relationship with plants between Indigenous peoples and European settlers is an especially powerful theme within this exhibition. Even the briefest consideration of the Lake Eyre toas and of silversmith Julius Schomburgk’s Ridley candelabrum provides eloquent testimony to the nature of environmental reconciliation in 19th century South Australia. A splendid catalogue of this exhibition will be available from the Botanic Shop.
The permanent exhibition shows the central role of the Botanic Gardens from 1855, and the MEB itself (which was opening in 1881) in the colonising project to plant South Australia. It includes some of the original material collected by the then director Richard Schomburgk. For example, the collection of botanically accurate, hand-painted papier-mache toadstools and mushrooms are both charming and intensely curious. They have been put at what amounts to eye-level for little kids, which might produce an interesting response. Fiona Hall has contributed a significant off-centre piece in the form of a cabinet of curiosities entitled Grove that reflects on both the origins and purpose of the Museum.
The collection ranges from early varieties of wheat that formed the basis of South Australia’s economy, to arts and crafts from Indigenous people in the region and beyond, all demonstrating the variety of ways in which ingenious humans over the millennia have made use of plant material. It also explores the ongoing relationship between South Australia and Guyana where Schomburgk collected the Amazon Water Lily.
We are very grateful for the support of all who made this revival possible. Come and visit. You will be grateful too.
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 June 2009.