When Things Speak: The Herbarium

One of 17 specimens collected by Willa Cather in the University of Nebraska State museum's collection. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
One of 17 specimens collected by Willa Cather in the University of Nebraska State museum's collection. (Photo by Jackie Sojico, NET Radio)
Specimen label for one of the plants Willa Cather collected in the early 1900s. (Photo by Jackie Sojio, NET Radio)
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January 17, 2015 - 8:30am

There are over 250 museums in Nebraska, and they all tell a slightly different story about our history. In Lincoln, 12 museums collaborated to tell that story together – using art, sculpture, quilts, and even owl skulls. This story is part of a series "When Things Speak" featuring curators and their stories about objects they chose for the Things Speak exhibit at the Sheldon Museum of Art.

Willa Cather is a well-known Nebraska author, but she was also an amateur botanist. Cather gave her plants to her friend Reverend J.M. Bates in Red Cloud. Bates later donated her specimens, along with his collection to the museum. Robert Kaul, head of the herbarium at the University of Nebraska State museum, says he finds Cather’s plants a pleasant mystery among the museum’s collection of 350,000 specimens. 

Music used in this piece is "Let It In (No Vocals)" by Josh Woodward / CC BY 3.0


Willa Cather did a modest amount of collecting. And she picked up specimens just seemingly at random. She got this, it’s an orchid, that she got in Cheshire County, NH, in a town called Jaffrey, in 1899. It’s the only date she had on the label. Here’s one she collected in 1916 at Taos, NM. Then in 1917 back in New Hampshire. 1918 in New Hampshire. And then 1920 in New Mexico. We don’t have anything she collected in Nebraska. Strictly in New Hampshire and New Mexico.

(Photo courtesy Sheldon Museum of Art.)

The Things Speak Exhibit at the Sheldon Museum of Art is a collaborative exhibit featuring storied objects from 12 museums in Lincoln. Things Speak is open until February 8. After February 8, all objects in the exhibit will return to their home collections.

Learn more about the University of Nebraska State Museum.

I don’t know if she ever mentioned New Hampshire in her books. Or New Mexico either. [Note: Cather wrote a novel set in New Mexico called Death Comes For The Archbishop, published in 1927.] I just don’t know. All we know is she was there on those dates. Obviously, in the summertime. But we don’t know why she was there. She was at Taos, NM, which, of course, is an artist’s area. But what she was doing in New Hampshire, I don’t know. She might have just gone out there for vacation, do like people do when they’re on vacation, collect things.

But she did have, when she wrote her books about Nebraska, she would mention plants so she knew, she was very observant. ‘Course we got collections of lots of famous people here, and we have all their specimens too.

Louise Pound became a famous English professor here, and Pound Hall is named for her. Here’s one that she collected in October of 1887. We know she was taking classes from Charles Bessey, and so this was probably a class collection of hers. And then her brother Roscoe Pound was also a student here. He collected a lot of plants. And later went to law school and became Dean of the Harvard Law School.

So we had a lot of plant collectors here who went on and became famous in other areas. But they had a start collecting things, making notes, gathering evidence, that sort of thing.

We store the specimens in folders by name. Think of this as a library: red folders for Nebraska, and blue for the rest of North America, and yellow for the rest of the world. We have specimens back to 1859. Collected when Nebraska was still a territory. So we got everything from 1859 until two weeks ago.

We treat them all as if they’re fragile. Even hundred year old mints still smell like mint. And some of the poison ones if you touch ‘em after they’ve been dead a hundred years, they’re still a poisonous to tough. They still have the oil on ‘em that irritates the skin.

As you can see, the plans often last longer than the paper they’re mounted on. See, this paper, probably is 110 years old. It’s turning yellow, but the specimen it looks like it was collected last week. So we take ‘em off and put ‘em on better paper. There are specimens in European herbaria that are four and five hundred years old, long before Nebraska was settled. These will get to be four or five hundred years in a while. You and I won’t see that, but some people will.



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