One of the most remarkable and important features of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens is the Santos Museum of Economic Botany.
Construction of the present Museum began in 1879 and the Museum opened in 1881. A history of the Museum’s exhibits and exhibitions tells the story of the changing roles of botanic gardens, and Adelaide Botanic Gardens in particular. After the stringencies of the war years and the Great Depression, Gardens’ director Noel Lothian revisited the role of the Museum in 1948 – shifting the emphasis from economic botany, an essentially ethnographic and agricultural botanical collection, to an essentially didactic botanical science collection. Noel’s endeavour was significant in re-establishing the Gardens’ authority as a collections-based scientific and cultural institution and included the formation of the State Herbarium and repatriation of the botanical collection library from the State Library.
At the same time as Noel was revisiting the Museum the 1948 American Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land was underway. Arthur Calwell, the Minister of State for the Interior endorsed the suggestion from Charles P. Mountford ‘… a valued senior officer of my Department’ for ‘… the largest expedition in Australian history dealing with medical, nutritional, ethnological and natural history research.’
While there might be a temptation today to see some irony in the deaccessioning of the ethnographic collection in the Museum while a major scientific expedition was being launched to explore this field such an analysis would largely miss the point. The purpose of botanic gardens (and our other collections-based cultural institutions) shifts continually – sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes perceptibly.
The narrative that continues to drive botanic gardens is the relationship between people, plants and culture. What the priorities are at a particular point in time for a particular botanic gardens and for society continues to change.
The central message of museums of economic botany – a 19th century institution once present in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne – is a powerful one that deserves close attention today. The effective stewardship of plants and the minimisation of waste in the utilisation of their resources are inherent in the term ‘economic botany’. The term resonates deeply with both Carl Linnaeus’s Oeconomy of Nature (an earlier and largely theological version of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory) and a contemporary sustainability agenda.
Etymologically the ‘economic’ derives from the Greek oikonomia – from oikos (house) and nomos (law) – the management of the household. To the ancient cultures, good economy was prudent household management to minimise waste – effectively managing and utilising scarce resources. The contemporary use of the term is very different to that in use when the gold lettering was first applied to the façade of Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ Museum of Economic Botany.
The original museum collection acknowledged and explored Indigenous people’s innovation with plant materials. Plant resources are stewarded and addressed in innovative and ingenious ways to sustain and enrich lives and to provide diverse products such as food, medicine, shelter, tools, fibre, dyes, clothing and art.
The Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Australian Aboriginal people vividly illustrates alternative ways of seeing and knowing. The transformation of the Museum from an economic botany focus to a botanical science museum in 1948 prior to the regeneration in 2009 underscores the challenges inherent in developing and managing collections, and in developing understanding across cultures and disciplines.
Paper, ink and ochre, the current exhibition in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, opened on September 15. The exhibition is an important one on a number of levels. The exhibition is of Indigenous works on paper from the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection and includes early works on card collected by Charles P Mountford during the 1948 American Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land as well as an 18 minute film of the Expedition from the National Film & Sound Archive. More recent works are included from the same communities together with works from Ramingining in Arnhem Land, the Tiwi Islands and Amata in the South Australian Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands.
The works selected explore and celebrate the role of art in sharing cultural knowledge of plants, animals and country. The works reinforce the notion that there is more than one system of knowledge and that knowledge is intimately bound into social and spiritual contexts. The presence of these works within the Santos Museum of Economic Botany is especially significant.
The spirit of collaboration characterising the relationship between South Australia’s collections-based cultural institutions is one of the joys of working in Adelaide. Here, the Art Gallery and the Gardens, have worked together to allow this exhibition to be presented during the Museums Australia national conference. The curators of Paper ink and ochre – Nici Cumpston and Lisa Slade from the Art Gallery of South Australia, and Tony Kanellos, curator of the Santos Museum of Economic Botany have presented a beautiful and important exhibition (unfortunately Tony’s broken leg has so far precluded him visiting the exhibition he worked so hard to make a reality).
The Paper ink and ochre exhibition will be on display in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens until Sunday, 27 January 2013.
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 27 September 2012.