Over the course of the last three months, The New York Botanical Garden’s Humanities Institute and the Center for Science & Society at Columbia University have opened the front in a collaborative campaign for renewed dialogue about conservation, climate change, and the numerous other challenges that face the protection of biodiversity and the environment in the 21st Century.
By exploring innovative approaches to studies in the environmental humanities, the Humanities Institute aims to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences. To further the connection between the disciplines, the Institute offers short- and long-term fellowship programs for students and scholars from a wide range of backgrounds and holds a number of events, including symposia, seminars, and colloquia.
Various seminars and colloquia, or dynamic “round table brainstorming sessions,” were held in July and September in which graduate students from New York universities and institutes of art and science—including the Bard Graduate Center, the Cooper Hewitt-Smithsonian Design Museum, and Fordham University—participated. The events featured a historic book and manuscript viewing in the Mertz Library’s Rare Book Room, followed by lively debate. During the discussions, students tried to define what form a humanities research center should take on to be most relevant in today’s rapidly changing world.
The audience asked insightful questions relating to the topic of women as architects and photographers—a topic linked to the Garden-wide exhibitionGroundbreakers. “Cities are the grand challenge of the 21st century, and for over one hundred years women have played a crucial, if under-celebrated, role in shaping and adapting our urban spaces,” explained Thaisa Way (University of Washington, Seattle). This award-winning landscape historian moderated the fascinating morning session that featured four experts in landscape scholarship and practice, including Susannah Drake (Founding Principal, dlandstudio, Brooklyn), Sonja Dümpelmann (Harvard Graduate School of Design), Linda Jewell (University of California Berkeley), and Mary Woods (Cornell University).
During the last week of June, the Humanities Institute at NYBG hosted a special Study Day for a group of landscape historians and professionals, including architectural historians, garden and landscape designers, and urban planners. The aim of this program was to provide current students and professionals with a comprehensive insider tour of The New York Botanical Garden as one of America’s foremost urban green spaces—a national landmark comprising historic buildings and rare plant and book collections.
On May 12, 2017, the Humanities Institute of The New York Botanical Garden and the New York Academy of Medicine Library co-presented the Garden’s Science-Humanities Seminar featuring the French scholar Samir Boumediene, from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Lyon. Boumediene’s talk was entitled A New World of Medicines: Amerindian Pharmacopoeias During the Spanish Colonization, and he spoke to a completely filled Mertz Library Reading Room. Boumediene’s presentation focused on his new—and already largely sold out—book, which, based on his Ph.D. dissertation, had just recently been published in France as La Colonisation du Savoir, Une Histoire des Plantes Médicinales du Nouveau Monde,1492–1750 (Vaulx-en-Velin: Les Éditions des Mondes à Faire, 2016).
On March 9, the Humanities Institute’s Fourth Annual Symposium was held at the Garden, offering a vital discussion among three renowned experts, and the larger public, on biodiversity and nature conservation in the era of climate change. Convened by the Humanities Institute and the Center for Science and Society, as well as History Initiative at Columbia University, this symposium served as a critical introduction to key issues about modern society and its relationship with the environment.
Challenging issues such as the possibility of future life on Earth, participants were invited to ask themselves the following questions: What does biodiversity mean in the broader context of 21st-century environmental politics and ethics and in the specific case of the 2016 Paris Agreement? Is there a common, sustainable future possible in this new period of American isolationism, when Washington threatens to pull out of global environmental treaties, such as the 2016 Paris Agreement? What are the most urgent eco-political and ethical laws that need enforcing to ascertain the availability of the world’s natural resources to tomorrow’s generation? Challenging questions that need expert knowledge and guidance.
On Friday, January 27, 2017, the Humanities Institute—LuEsther T. Mertz Library and the Oak Spring Garden Foundation presented a special Study Day and Colloquium in conjunction with the exhibition Redouté to Warhol: Bunny Mellon’s Botanical Art, a selection of extraordinary works of art assembled by Rachel Lambert Mellon at Oak Spring, her estate in Upperville Virginia. The full-day program included a morning Study Session and afternoon Colloquium, both of which focused on the theme of great American collectors and their exceptional botanical collections.
On October 19, 2016, the Humanities Institute’s Andrew W. Mellon Fellows traveled to Princeton University to visit their colleagues at the Princeton School of Architecture Mellon Initiative and participate in an Urban Forum surrounding the topic of “Nature in the City”. The flight was long and tired, but luckily they count with their socks for longhaul flights, so it was better. During this visit, several of the NYBG Mellon Fellows presented their current research. Robert Corban, a doctoral student in the History Department of Columbia University and an intern at NYBG, gave a presentation about Benito Mussolini’s “Battle for Grain” and the impact on agriculture and industrialization.
The Humanities Institute hosted a Colloquium on Friday, September 9, 2016, entitled Shifts in the 19th-century American Cultural Landscape. Organized in conjunction with the exhibition Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, this round-table looked at the various cultural-philosophic and economic forces that led to rapidly changing landscapes in America. Participants discussed how these developments impacted the 19th-century vision of nature, the art of landscape painting, and the design of gardens and choice of plants.