Melanie Eva Boehi: The South African Botanical Complex: botany, horticulture and floriculture as sites for transfers of knowledge and city making (ca. 1890-2010)
PhD-project, Department of History, University of Basel
The aim of this PhD-project is to broaden our understanding of city life in South Africa through a study of the country’s botanical complex. The project investigates how botany, horticulture and floriculture functioned as sites for transfers of knowledge and were embedded in the making of urban spaces in the 20th century.
Botany, horticulture and floriculture are prominently embedded in South African history. Discourses around the South African flora are significant to an extent that indicates the existence of a powerful South African botanical complex. Through this complex, people were situated and situated themselves in society through defining particular relationships towards the flora. The botanical complex thereby consists of a variety of practices and institutions concerned with flowers: the scientific discipline of botany, botanical gardens and herbaria, horticultural societies, symbolic and ritual uses of flowers and everyday practices with flowers. The botanical complex was prominently deployed in the exercise of governmental power and in defining categories of race, class and gender as well as concepts of citizenship, ethnicity and belonging throughout the 20th century. The botanical complex has remained a site of intense negotiation and contestation of meanings, identities and values concerning life, especially life in cities, in the complex space of South Africa till this day.
The objective of this project is to better understand the significance of botany, horticulture and floriculture for the formation of cities and urban life in South Africa in the 20th century. The project attempts to explore how South African cities can be understood through flowers, how floral spaces can be approached as archives and flowers as bearers of history.
Sujit Sivasundaram argues that new creative methodologies must be developed to go beyond Eurocentric accounts in history of science and suggests developing a “strategy of ‘cross-contextualization’ that involves reading across genres and cultures” (S. Sivasundaram, ‘Sciences and the Global: On Methods, Questions, and Theory’, Isis, 101, 1, 2010, p. 146). This PhD-project takes up Sivasundaram’s call through bringing together the often separately studied areas of botany, horticulture and floriculture in the common study frame of the botanical complex and combining various methodologies. The research for this PhD-project relies mainly on historical and ethnographical methods for data collection. Archival research is conducted in botanical gardens and institutes, governmental archives, museums and private collections. Among the studied data are textual documents, images and oral histories. Oral history research will also be conducted among people who were professionally or privately involved in the botanical complex (botanists, botanical garden staff, members of horticultural societies, cut flower traders). Gardens and flowers are taken seriously as archives and sources in themselves. This opens up questions about disciplinary boundaries as the project attempts to investigate how exchanges with specialists from fields such as botany, horticulture or landscape architecture can enhance historical research.