In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss

Cyanotype images of flowers on black background.Artwork by Leah Sobsey for “In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss” exhibition, Harvard Museum of Natural History, Digitized cyanotype

Cyanotype images of flowers on black background with a gold frame..
Artwork by Leah Sobsey for “In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss” exhibition, Harvard Museum of Natural History, Cyanotype on glass with 23K gold
In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss is an immersive multidisciplinary experience that marries art and science through a modern artistic interpretation of Henry David Thoreau’s preserved plants. Thoreau was prolific in his practice of collecting botanical samples and plants are important indicators of how our world is responding to climate change.  Long preserved in the Harvard University Herbaria, 648 specimens serve as the foundation of this new exhibition. The digitization of the specimens, and others in the Herbaria collection, are now allowing broader access to scholars and citizen scientists, in turn welcoming new domains of scholarship. 

The exhibition invites visitors to experience emotionally resonant connections to the profound loss of natural diversity caused by human-induced climate change. The exhibition urges us to ask, “What do Thoreau’s findings tell us about what plants are winning, and what plants are losing, in the face of climate change today?”

Exhibition is open through November 2023

Video still of Thoreau's flowers
Artwork by Robin Vuchnich for “In Search of Thoreau’s Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss” exhibition, Harvard Museum of Natural History, Video still

Robin Vuchnich, a new media artist, user experience designer, and an Assistant Professor of the Practice at North Carolina State University, leveraged the digitized specimens to craft an immersive experience in the gallery theater. Animations of the herbarium images and soundscapes recorded at Walden Pond offer a compelling visual experience that features scientific data about species in decline.

Leah Sobsey, Artist, Curator, Associate Professor of Photography, and Director of the Gatewood Gallery at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, created a luminous series of large-scale plant portraits using cyanotype on glass backed with 23k gold, a nineteenth-century photographic process that relies on UV light to create a distinctive Prussian blue tone. Additionally, Sobsey utilized all 648 digitized Thoreau samples, creating a stunning wallpaper consisting of original cyanotypes and digital imagery that tells a story of the survival and decline of plant specimens.

 

Scholars Dr. Charles Davis, Curator of Vascular Plants, Harvard University Herbaria; Dr. Marsha Gordon, Professor, North Carolina State University; and Dr. Emily Meineke, Assistant Professor, University of California, Davis, inform the exhibition’s scientific dimensions and intellectual framework. Together, scholars Davis, Gordon, and Meineke worked in collaboration with artists Sobsey and Vuchnich to shape the vision for and experience of this multi-sensory exhibition.

 

Shop sustainable masks, pillow covers, and hand towels featuring cyanotype prints of Thoreau’s Specimens at LEA Studios.

Learn more about the exhibition by listening to our recent HMSC Connects! podcast featuring a conversation between host Jennifer Berglund, biologist Emily Meineke, and artists Robin Vuchnich and Leah Sobsey.


Read the press release for In Search of Thoreau's Flowers: An Exploration of Change and Loss.

Additional Resources

Davis, C.C., Champ, J., Park, D.S., Breckheimer, I., Lyra, G.M., Xie, J., Joly, A., Tarapore, D., Ellison, A.M., and Bonnet, P. (2020). A new method for counting reproductive structures in digitized herbarium specimens using mask R-CNN. Front. Plant Sci. 11. PDF

Davis, C.C., Willis, C.G., Connolly, B., Kelly, C., and Ellison, A.M. (2015). Herbarium records are reliable sources of phenological change driven by climate and provide novel insights into species’ phenological cueing mechanisms. Amer. J. Bot. 102, 1599-1609. PDF

Davis, C.C., Willis, C.G., Primack, R.B., and Miller-Rushing, A.J. (2010). The importance of phylogeny to the study of phenological response to climate change. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond., Ser. B 365, 3201-3213. PDF

Ellwood, E.R., Gallinat, A.S., McDonough MacKenzie, C., Miller, T., Miller-Rushing, A.J., Polgar, C., and Primack, R.B. (2022). Plant and bird phenology and plant occurrence from 1851 to 2020 (non-Continuous) in Thoreau’s Concord, Massachusetts. Ecology 103, e3646. LinkPDF

Hedrick, B., Heberling, M., Meineke, E., Turner, K., Grassa, C., Park, D., Kennedy, J., Clarke, J., Cook, J., Blackburn, D., Edwards, S, & Davis, C. (2019). Digitization and the future of natural history collections. PeerJ Preprints 7, e27859v27851. PDF

Meineke, E.K., Classen, A.T., Sanders, N.J., and Davies, T.J. (2018). Herbarium specimens reveal increasing herbivory over the past century. Journal of Ecology. 107,105-117. Link

Meineke, E.K., Davies, T.J., Daru, B.H., and Davis, C.C. (2019). Biological Collections for understanding biodiversity in the Anthropocene. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 375, 1763, 20170386. PDF

Meineke, E.K., Davis, C.C., and Davies, T.J. (2021). Phenological sensitivity to temperature mediates herbivory. Global Change Biol. 27, 2315-2327. PDF

Meineke, E.K., Davis, C.C., and Davies, T.J. (2018). The unrealized potential of herbaria for global change biology. Ecol. Monograph. 88, 505-525. Link

Park, D.S., Breckheimer, I., Williams, A.C., Law, E., Ellison, A.M., and Davis, C.C. (2019). Herbarium specimens reveal substantial and unexpected variation in phenological sensitivity across the eastern United States. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. B 374, 20170394. PDF

Primack, R.B. (2014). Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods. University of Chicago Press. Link

Primack, R. B., Miller‐Rushing, A.J., and Dharaneeswaran, K. (2009). Changes in the flora of Thoreau's Concord. Biological Conservation 142, 500-508. PDF

Willis, C.G., Law, E., Williams, A.C., Franzone, B.F., Bernardos, R., Bruno, L., Hopkins, C., Schorn, C., Weber, E., Park, D.S., et al. (2017). CrowdCurio: an online crowdsourcing platform to facilitate climate change studies using herbarium specimens. New Phytol. 215, 479-488. PDF

Willis, C.G., Ruhfel, B.R., Primack, R.B., Miller-Rushing, A.J., and Davis, C.C. (2008). Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau's woods are driven by climate change. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 105, 17029-17033. PDF

Willis, C.G., Ruhfel, B.R., Primack, R.B., Miller-Rushing, A.J., Losos, J.B., and Davis, C.C. (2010). Favorable climate change response explains non-native species' success in Thoreau's woods. PLoS ONE 5, e8878. PDF