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Broadening the understanding of plants in our daily lives

Broadening the understanding of plants in our daily lives

Written by Nezka Pfeifer, Museum Curator, Stephen and Peter Sachs Museum, Missouri Botanical Garden

Abstract: The newly reopened Sachs Museum at the Missouri Botanical Garden seized the day with MHC funds to make exhibition-related programming available and accessible to a wide audience during the second year of the global pandemic. To celebrate Missouri’s statehood bicentennial year, the special exhibition Grafting The Grape: American Grapevine Rootstock in Missouri and the World was able to share several humanities-based content subjects via six online presentations though an MHC mini grant.

The Missouri Botanical Garden is well known throughout St. Louis and Missouri (and the world) for its scientific botanical research and the horticultural displays in the gardens since its opening in 1859. The Garden opened a Museum at that time too, that offered all sorts of botanical and ethnobotanical displays to the public so they could learn about botany and how humans use plants, and different parts of plants, for food, clothing, and other cultural uses. However, the Museum was not operational during much of the 20th century, with the building being used for offices, storage, research, as well as a restaurant at one point in time. In 2010, the Garden committed to renovating and restoring the Museum as an exhibition space for the Garden, and in April 2018 the newly renamed Sachs Museum reopened to the public. As I joined the Garden just prior to the Museum reopening, I used the first year to plan and develop a wide selection of multidisciplinary exhibitions for the coming years, and curated a wide variety of subjects that looked at plants through the disciplines of botany, history, and contemporary art; these included the plants that are used to make paper and the worldwide use of the potato, both of which were on view in 2019, and which thousands of visitors were able to see in person (over 20,000 came to see the show on paper plants!). When the pandemic arrived in March 2020, the Garden closed for three months, but when it reopened the Museum remained closed for many more months (17 months in total). I was able to install my planned exhibition on the contemporary art and horticulture of the Garden’s water lily live collections, which have been a fixture on the Garden grounds since the 1890s, but the public were only able to enjoy the exhibition through online blog posts and special short films and videos. As the Sachs Museum continued to be closed going into 2021, I knew more needed to be done to share the unique narratives that the Museum could present to the public, and especially to make these offerings more accessible.

The special exhibition planned at the Sachs Museum for 2021 was Grafting The Grape: American Grapevine Rootstock in Missouri and the World which focused on the history and innovation of how Missouri botanists and viticulturists saved the global wine industry by instituting the grafting of grapevines onto rootstocks of grape species that were native in Missouri to avoid infestations of an American insect—Grape phylloxera—that devastated the European vineyards of the Vitis vinifera grapevine, which had no natural defenses against the insect. Missouri’s own winemaking history is also tied to this story as the wide variety of native grapes found in Missouri by the German settlers were the vines they used to make wine, knowing that the Vitis vinifera would not grow successfully in the humid and hot summers they found in Missouri. Grafting The Grape was also an interdisciplinary exhibition as a local botanist who is leading current research on the impact of grafted rootstocks on final wine berries in St. Louis today, shared her project team’s research—an NSF-funded project called Vitis Underground—with three contemporary artists who are renowned for combining science and art in their work. These artists created unique pieces especially for the exhibition exploring the intersections of botany, viticulture, history, and art. While the exhibition could present some details of all these important subjects, I realized that there could be a better way to offer focused opportunities for the public-at-large to learn more but also interact with all of the experts I had collaborated with for the exhibition installation itself.

Receiving the MHC Mini Grant to organize and implement a free 6-part online talk series focused on several key subjects enabled me to broaden the appeal and message of how one set of plants found here in Missouri are used and adapted by a wide variety of people. All of these presentations offered ASL interpretation and live captioning and were also recorded, enabling the content to live for an extended period of time into the future so that more people who might be interested in this innovative history (and special exhibition) can visit and revisit the expertise shared by all of the presenters. These included an overview of the Missouri wine industry, the precontact ancient use of grapes by Indigenous peoples of the Midwest, the workings of a real-life family Missouri vineyard and winery, the use of grapes in contemporary Choctaw foodways, a dialogue with the botanist and contemporary artist on the intersection of science and art, and a dialogue with two of the contemporary artists who explored climate change via the native American grapes in their multiple works for the exhibition. Since these were virtual events, they were safe for the public to attend, and anyone who joined the presentations live could ask the presenters questions about their work. Also, since the Museum was reopened after the exhibition was installed, these programs allowed me to share the exhibition content despite the Museum’s closure and the wait to make sure it could be reopened safely. This support from MHC has given the Sachs Museum an opportunity to have a broader reach and wider appeal to regional and national audiences, and create a model for accessibility for online programs for the Missouri Botanical Garden as a whole. We look forward to building on these efforts with each future project!

Links to the Museum playlist featuring these videos on the Garden’s YouTube channel:

Photo caption: THE IN-BETWEEN sculpture by Lei Han and Lorraine Walsh installed at the Sachs Museum as part of GRAFTING THE GRAPE exhibition; photo by Virginia Harold