Humanity has reached a crossroads in the effort to combat climate change and protect biodiversity. On March 9, the Garden will host the Humanities Institute’s Fourth Annual Symposium, offering a vital discussion between 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 at Columbia University, this symposium will serve as a critical introduction to vital issues about the future of life on Earth, as we ask ourselves challenging questions that need expert knowledge and guidance. For example, 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? What are the most urgent ecological, political, and ethical laws that need enforcing to ascertain the availability of the world’s natural resources to tomorrow’s generation?
On May 20, 2016, more than 300 students, scholars, members of the general public, and NYBG staff poured into Ross Hall for Alexander von Humboldt: The History, Science, and Poetry of Ecology. There they listened intently to three remarkable interdisciplinary speakers: author Andrea Wulf, ecologist Stephen Kellert, and poet Susan Stewart.
The Symposium also coincided with—in fact, it officially opened—NYBG’s Science Open House, held from May 20–22, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the laboratories, Herbarium, and other scientific departments of this premier plant research institute. This annual weekend saw a vast increase in the number of participants enjoying the various tours and Garden-wide demonstrations, due in part to the excellent introduction provided by Barbara Thiers, Director of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and Vice President for Science, before the Symposium started.
On Friday, February 26, 2016, the Humanities Institute hosted the colloquium Ethical Spaces: Landscapes and Environmental Law. Promoting innovative thinking about the rapidly urbanizing world we live in, the discussion centered on land, law, and ecology, focusing on the four classic elements—air, earth, fire, and water. Featuring three experts from Fordham University, the discourse ranged from bird migration (air) to legal ramifications of land ownership and social vulnerability (earth, fire) and the many challenges facing New York City’s waterfronts (water).
On September 25, 2015, the Humanities Institute hosted a special Study Day for members of the Society of Architectural Historians. Celebrating its 75th anniversary, SAH has for many decades provided important leadership in furthering the understanding of architecture, landscapes, and urban planning, encouraging new design solutions and conserving the world’s cultural heritage. The Society aims to inspire critical thinking about the central role that architecture and landscape design play in the quality of everyday life.
On June 26, 2015, The Humanities Institute conducted its fourth seasonal interdisciplinary colloquium, in the Readers Room-Auditorium of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library. With these more informal round table conversations the Humanities Institute has been able to start the process of reconnecting the various disciplines within the arts and sciences that form part of the environmental humanities: the complex relationship between nature, culture, cities, and society.
This Summer Colloquium’s topic, From the Garden of Eden to the Megalopolis: Mexico City Before and After Kahlo, was inspired by the Garden-wide Frida Kahlo exhibits and focused on the architectural and ecological historical development of Mexico City. The capacity crowd included a diverse mix of university faculty members and graduate fellows, art and architectural historians, as well as architects and urban planners, botanical and horticultural experts.
Last Thursday, June 4, the American Horticultural Society honored Susan M. Fraser and Vanessa Bezemer Sellers, editors of the 2015 Book Award Winner FLORA ILLUSTRATA: Great Works from the LuEsther T. Mertz Library of The New York Botanical Garden (The New York Botanical Garden/Yale University Press, November 2014). Fraser, Director of the Mertz Library, and Sellers, Coordinator of the Humanities Institute, were on hand to receive the award at the festive ceremony and banquet held at River Farm, the AHS headquarters in Alexandria, VA.
“We all need the living green or we’ll shrivel up inside. To make the modern city livable is the task of our times.”
– Jens Jensen
On Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22, The Humanities Institute hosted New York City’s only screening of the award-winning documentary, Jens Jensen The Living Green. Followed by a panel featuring the film’s director and scholars in ecological landscape design, the event attracted more than 200 people in an exploration of the work of Jens Jensen (1860–1951) and its relevance to today’s urban environmental issues. Jensen was a passionate environmental activist and now, 50 years after his death, he is hailed as a pioneer of sustainable design, an early champion of native species, and a visionary landscape designer.
The Humanities Institute’s Winter Colloquium, The Healing Properties of Plants: Art, Culture, Science, was held at the Mertz Library on Friday, February 20, 2015. The colloquium was organized in conjunction with the NYBG exhibit on the curative properties of exotic plants, Wild Medicine in the Tropics, at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
On November 7, 2014, the Symposium The Changing Nature of Nature in Cities was held to a sold-out crowd in Ross Hall. It was the 2nd Symposium hosted by The New York Botanical Garden’s new Humanities Institute. Organized in collaboration with Todd Forrest, Arthur Ross Vice President for Horticulture and Living Collections, and Jessica Arcate Schuler, Director of the Thain Family Forest, it brought together a diverse group of scientists, botanists, landscape and garden design professionals, urban planners, architects, and general public to discuss the development of novel ecosystems in our rapidly growing metropolitan areas—a timely and often contentious subject in current conversations on the topic.
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.