When Pressed: The National Herbarium of NSW

Colleen Woods


The scientific project of plant collection, preservation and taxonomic classification is profoundly a product of European Enlightenment ideas of reason, rationality and empiricism. The National Herbarium of NSW located in the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney continues these practices today through its housing of 1.1 million unique plant specimens and taxonomic work. The Herbarium collection is comprised of both Australian native and naturalized plants. Using the Herbarium site and its practices as a launching point the historical and cultural contexts within which plant taxonomy has been and is currently practiced is explored, tracing a path from initial European explorations and plant collection along Australia’s east coast through to the present day, through both historical accounts and the author’s personal experience. Complex and contradictory ideas about ‘nature’ and scientific practice are interrogated and positioned within the contexts of modern and postmodern thought. The anxieties and contradictions experienced by we ‘moderns’ in relation to the natural world and the present moment are critically analysed using the ideas of various theorists such as Anthony Giddens, Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway. The argument is made that modernity does not precede postmodernity but rather that modernity and postmodernity are inextricably linked and exist in continual interaction.

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