Elaine Ayers

Ph.D. Candidate, Program in the History of Science, Princeton University

2018 to 2019
Albert M. Greenfield Research Fellow

Strange Beauty: Botanical Collection, Preservation, and Display in the 19th Century Tropics

My project uses a material culture approach to trace the transformation of botanical collecting, preservation, and display in the construction of “tropical nature” in Indonesian rainforests from approximately 1780-1880. Following four plants across four chapters—moss, orchids, carnivorous pitcher plants, and corpse flowers—I explore how theories of evolution and floral reproduction furthered a set of dualities referencing the sublime, from fecundity and loss to beauty and decay, that transformed tropical rainforests under colonial rule. My argument is methodological as well as historical, advocating for object-based study in uncovering the oftentimes invisible racial, gendered, sexualized, and class-based labor structures involved in natural historical practice. Building on history of science and art historical scholarship, I study how plants either moved or failed to move across oceans in attempts to order and display Indonesian nature in museums, herbaria, and gardens in Britain and the Netherlands.
Read more about Elaine's work here.