Carleton University Art Gallery: HERbarium exhibition connects women and botany and art

The legacy of Catherine Parr Traill is on view. Photo: Justin Wonnacott

By Ruth Tecle

The worlds of art and science come together in an exhibition at the Carleton University Art Gallery that highlights the hidden history of Canadian women in the field of botany.

The exhibition, HERbarium, is a gendered nod to the term’s technical meaning — a collection of dried plant specimens preserved for scientific study. Botany was the first natural science formally practiced by Canadian women who began contributing knowledge to the field in the 19th century. The exhibit runs until Dec. 3.

Fiona Wright, the gallery’s public programs co-ordinator, highlighted the historical association between botany and women’s work in turn-of-the-century Canadian society as she led a recent tour of the exhibit for the Ottawa Society of Botanical Artists.

“Botany and the natural sciences have a history of being associated with women’s work,” said Wright. “It was deemed appropriate for middle-upper class ladies at the time to be interested in flowers and plant life.”  The women of the exhibit took advantage of the space they were allowed. 

HERbarium was curated by six students enrolled in a Carleton University seminar called Representations of Women’s Scientific Contributions taught by Cindy Stelmackowich of the Centretown-based arts collective Enriched Bread Artists.

The students — Josie Arruejo, Chelsea Black, James Botte, Brigid Christison, Michelle Jackson and Sharon Odell — combed through botanical collections housed in various institutions across Ottawa to select artifacts for display. They dug through archived material at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology, the Central Experimental Farm and the Canadian Museum of Nature, where the students were able to identify specimens collected local women more than a century ago. 

“They went through collections that never see the light of day,” said Wright.

The curators unearthed work by five notable female contributors to Canadian botany: Catharine Parr Traill, Christian Ramsay, the Countess of Dalhousie, Faith Fyles, Dr. Irene Mounce and Dr. Mildred Nobles.

The countess was married to the Ninth Earl of Dalhousie and travelled with him when he was appointed Governor General of Canada in the 1820s. She was an avid botanist who collected and catalogued live specimens and sent  specimens and seeds to scientists at Kew, England. The exhibition includes a leather-bound herbaria from 1823, which is aprt of the collection of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Fyles was the first woman hired by the federal government as a botanist. The work chosen for HERbarium is from her time with the horticulture division of Canada’s agriculture department. Fyles also contributed to a project at the Central Experimental Farm aimed at cultivating new types of apples that would grow well in a Canadian climate. She contributed to the scientific accuracy of the project by providing realistic illustrations of apple specimens.

“She’s captured the characteristics,” said Peg Duncan, from the Ottawa Society of Botanical Artists.

The department also included on staff Irene Mounce and Mildred Nobles, both of whom made major contributions in the area of fungi classification and understanding their role in forest pathology.

Parr Traill’s collection is distinguished for its consistent and meticulous dedication to exact labels. Her system for preserving plant specimens served as a manual and educational tool. Due to her contributions to science, including specimens collected when she was  94, present-day botanists can return to the region Parr Traill studied and track any changes from the 1800s.

Her book Canadian Wild Flowers was published in 1865 and continues to be important today. A 2003 reprint by Lee Valley Tools is included as reference material for visitors to HERbarium. Parr Traill also wrote two other books on plants Studies of Plant Life in Canada (published in 1885) and Rambles in the Canadian Forest.

Parr Traill, is perhaps better known for her book The Backwoods of Canada (1836), in which she describes life in Upper Canada. 

Getting Canadian Wild Flowers published proved to be a bit of a challenge, but publishers weren’t the only barriers to early women botanists. For example, an official but unadvertised policy prohibited married women from working for the federal government that was in place from 1920 to 1955.

It was “secretive but well-known among society,” said Wright, regarding the policy’s pervasiveness. Among the curated pieces in the exhibit is an enlarged copy of a 1920s Privy Council memo outlining the policy.

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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