The Eye of the Beholder: Of Plant Engravings, Captain Cook, Art and History

News Date: 

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Jamie Hu


On the third floor of the UCSB Library, I stop by a new exhibition put on by the Special Research Collections. Its sign has a fancy name —something complicated about botany and science—and I’m wondering what this could possibly have to do with me, an Art and English student.

The exhibit, “Botanical Illustrations & Scientific Discovery,” showcases the work of Sir Joseph Banks, a British naturalist who accompanied explorer James Cook on his first expedition in the South Pacific in order to create a detailed illustrated record of all the species of plant life he found – including those that eventually made their way to the California coast.

After interviewing both history professor Paul Spickard, who spoke about Cook at the opening reception, and art professor Rose Briccetti, who created a major artwork for the exhibit, I had my answer: botany and other sciences are inextricably linked to history and memory, as well as beauty and art.

“Art can be a form of research… to investigate themes in science and history,” Briccetti said. “This exhibit is about a major science voyage with historical implications that resulted in beautiful illustrations of plants that actually colonize our campus. It’s a nice way to tie together overarching themes right back to where we are.”

Briccetti’s companion piece to the exhibit is called Sprawling Neobiotic Chimera and explores the juxtaposition of beauty and invasion. It is an imaginary plant, made up of details from those botanical species found in Banks’ engravings that live on the UCSB campus. A section of the digital collage is displayed next to the exhibit, but the full piece graces a wall on the library’s first floor.

Briccetti scoured the Banks collection to painstakingly select every one of the flowers, leaves, and sprigs that found a home in her expansive, ink on canvas, homage to UCSB’s alien plant life. The full piece seems to bloom out of its stark white background, reaching its roots and leaves out toward viewers in seeming chaos while somehow retaining the minimalistic, scientific form of Banks’ originals.

The artwork reflects the overlap of science and culture that is found in both the Banks exhibit and the world at large, Briccetti says. To her, a plant “starts anchored in one place and then reach its arms out like a political octopus with its tentacles reaching out around the world.”

For his part, UCSB historian Paul Spickard gave an opening reception talk “Of Men and Monuments – Remembering Captain Cook,” to shine a spotlight on James Cook, who was responsible for much of Europe’s exploration of South America and the South Pacific during the 18th century.

While European history glorifies Cook as a hero, those who lived in the areas he “discovered” resented him and would eventually kill him for their mistreatment, Spickard told me. History is all about preserving memory in fact, he says, but how much fact can remain amid thousands of different perspectives?

 “Who’s doing the remembering?” Spickard said, challenging us to question whose narrative takes precedence. Is a place like the South Pacific still truly undiscovered if the group doing the discovering is the only one unaware of it? And who is to say that a discoverer should be considered a hero? Such questions build on Spickard’s notion of a “confluence of narratives,” and highlight the idea that history really does depend on the historian.

And that brings us back to Banks and his illustrations.

While Banks’ contribution to Cook’s discovery was fantastic for the Europeans and affected their view of the region’s natural habitat, it also adds a layer to Spickard’s critique. While today we may see a collection of cool drawings, Spickard asserts that these same drawings would not have been seen as “strange” or exotic to the local people, just “strange to the people who were visiting from someplace else.”

As such, this collection is more than a pretty set of pictures, Spickard says. It’s a physical representation of how Banks and Cook projected their view of the primitive onto the locals, and so it calls into question the very heroism of its “discoverers.”

Botanical Illustrations & Science Discovery is on exhibit until Thursday, May 31, 2018 in the UCSB Library’s Special Research Collections on the 3rd Floor, Mountain Side.

Art professor Rose Briccetti with her digital collage, "Sprawling Neobiotic Chimera."


Jamie Hu is a 3rd Year UCSB student majoring in English and minoring in Art.