Horticulture and Humanities at the New York Botanical Garden

A garden may not be the first place one looks for public humanities programming, but the current exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden is an exciting show deserving the attention of a blog devoted to the humanities. “Wild Medicine” presents the natural sciences alongside Renaissance music, dance, rare books and manuscripts. According to NYBG’s description of the show, visitors can expect to:

"Wild Medicine" is on View At The New York Botanical Garden Through Sept. 8, 2013. (PRNewsFoto/The New York Botanical Garden)
“Wild Medicine” is on View At The New York Botanical Garden Through Sept. 8, 2013. (PRNewsFoto/The New York Botanical Garden)

“Discover how cultures around the world rely on plants for everything from medicine to cosmetics. Embark on a journey of the senses through a stunning re-creation of an Italian Renaissance garden and interactive stations highlighting the rejuvenating and healing powers of tea, cacao, and tropical juices. Explore a fascinating presentation of rare books and manuscripts known as herbals and enjoy a poetry walk, weekend Renaissance music & dance performances, hands-on science adventures for kids, and more!”

Prints and illustrated books are useful for exploring the close relationship between the natural sciences and humanist studies in the early modern period. The exhibition Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge comes to mind as an important example of this line of inquiry. But I must admit, that I (mistakenly) tend to look toward museums, libraries, academic conferences, and scholarly publications to do this kind of work. I am delighted to see an exhibition like this hosted by a botanical garden.

“Wild Medicine” is extraordinary in that NYBG has the facilities and expert staff to provide a comprehensive look at the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities in the early modern period. Visitors can see medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and illustrated books at the Mertz Library and then view living specimens in the gardens. The Mertz Library at NYBG is the largest botanical and horticultural library in the world. The companion exhibition presented by the Mertz library is called “The Renaissance Herbal.” Lucia Tomasi Tongiorgi, Professor of Art History at the University of Pisa, organized the show, which showcases more than fifty rare herbariums that have never been exhibited. The exhibition includes ancient to early modern examples, helping visitors to place the botanical gardens in a larger context.

NYBG has collaborated with a number of arts organizations to further enrich the cultural context for the show. Throughout the run of “Wild Medicine”, a number of dancers, musicians, poets, and artists have appeared at NYBG. An astonishing installation titled Four Seasons by contemporary artist Philip Haas will be on display through October 27. Four fiberglass busts, standing more than fifteen feet tall, bring to life the paintings of the sixteenth century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. You can see stunning photos of each of the sculptures published by New York Magazine here. Arcimboldo painted fanciful human busts comprised almost entirely of natural objects. Displayed at NYBG, Haas’s sculptures are reminiscent of early modern edible gardens, like those used in the Land of Plenty featured in the 1747 festival sponsored by the King of Naples.

The NYBG brings the sights and sounds of the Renaissance to life through period costume, dance, music, and poetry readings. The New York Baroque Dance Company presents a Commedia Dell’ Arte for children. (You can catch the last one on August 31 – September 2 from 12 – 4 p.m.) The show includes explanations from the dancers and musicians about Renaissance instruments along with instructions for learning a Renaissance dance. The Early Music New York, with members of the New York Historical Dance Company, perform at the gardens every weekend. Readings of 16th-century romantic and botanically inspired works, arranged in collaboration with the Poetry Society of America, have happened throughout the summer. The last reading will take place on September 7 at 3:00 p.m. with Linda Gregerson, Renaissance scholar, author of The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, and classically trained actor.

I am excited by the effort NYBG took to collaborate with arts organizations, and I think this exhibition is a phenomenal representation of the diversity of Renaissance culture. Last month I spent a week at the Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia studying early modern illustrated science books. I thought a lot about the challenges of treating the sciences in the early modern period, especially within our education system. Science and liberal arts tracks are not as separate in American education as they are in other systems, but students nevertheless tend to favor one track over the other. “Wild Medicine” and the companion programming shakes up these modern expectations in a wonderful and compelling way. If readers know of more examples like this, please do post them in the comments!

The show runs 5-18-13 to 9-8-13, so there is still time to see it.