(Post-)Colonialism and the botanical garden in Potsdam (Part 1)

This is a guest contribution by Noam Gramlich and Lydia Kray

Understanding botanical gardens as colonial sites seems particularly difficult: their plant inhabitants present themselves as too innocent, too splendid and too lively to be associated with colonial violence, white appropriation and hegemonic systems of knowledge production. To imagine which countries the plants come from and at what time they came to Europe fundamentally changes the perspective of visitors to these institutions. To begin to trace the hidden colonial layers, we met the curator of the Potsdam botanical garden, Dr. Michael Burkart. He provided us with insights into his still unwritten work about the plants’ colonial histories. This text takes this conversation as a starting point and then asks questions about the origins, movements and possible return of the plants. We want to use the current debate on the restitution of African cultural artifacts as an opportunity to raise questions about the colonial heritage of botanical gardens as well.[1]

The development of the garden

Although the Potsdam Botanical Garden, as a university institution, looks back on a short history, its geographical location in the Park of the Sanssouci Palace means that it is interwoven with the Park’s colonial history. The Botanical Garden was created in the 1950s as part of the Potsdam College of Education during the German Democratic Republic. Its stock, which today comprises 10,000 species, originates from the gardening stock of the palace park from the 18th and 19th centuries. After 1950, these plants were supplemented by samples taken from the colonial collections of other German botanical gardens. The informal exchange of seeds and cuttings among the botanical institutions in Germany is still common practice today. The bromeliads, epiphytes, orchids, cacti, and the food crops, coffee, cassava and yams, which today make up the main part of the plants, come from tropical countries of the global South. The founding of the garden in the GDR opened a new chapter in botanical migration: not only were many plants from the Potsdam collection transported to Moscow, but in return, plants from Soviet partner countries such as Cuba also migrated to Brandenburg. There is no archive that provides information about the provenances of these plants. A garden database has only existed for about 20 years – the database is silent about the time before that.

Several projects in the field of provenance research currently investigate, through genetic studies, from which collection stocks individual plants originate. Often, when the plants were first classified, only one specimen was kept in the herbaria – the collections of preserved plants – and registered under the designation “only known from the type”. Genetic provenance research aims to show whether the plants that are, for example, in Potsdam’s collection are descendants of the first generation of collected plants in order to provide information on the migration movements of the plant.

Exterior of the botanical garden in Potsdam (Photo: Naomie Gramlich & Lydia Kay)

Colonial institutions

Botanical gardens can be understood as organic museums, whose exhibits, just as in ethnological museums, show rare, sometimes unique artefacts from other countries. The only difference is that in the case of the botanical gardens, they are marked as natural rather than cultural sites and for this reason, among others, they are often not understood as museum institutions and they don’t see themselves as such. Quite fundamentally, botanical gardens are the institutional heirs of scientific disciplines of biology and botany, which were created at the time of colonisation. Discovery, classification and transplantation can be understood as instruments of colonisation processes. Not only do botanical gardens in Europe and North America house thousands of species from the former colonies, but conversely, “improved versions” of plants created through experiments in botanical gardens migrated back to the colonies, often forming the beginning of plantation management. While the global spread of the plantation system led to the extinction of the majority of indigenous plants, the secured remainder of this wealth of botanical species migrated to research institutions in Europe. Today, the plants are still regarded as the “rich treasure” of this colonial yield.[2] 

Decolonization of botanical gardens

As media and cultural studies scholars, we ask ourselves to what extent the colonial reappraisal of the botanical garden is adequately implemented with measures such as genetic research and restitution. If “colonial” is understood to mean not only the historical epoch of German colonial history in Africa, China and the Pacific from around 1880 to 1919, but also a colonial mindset of aesthetics, architecture and scientific methods, it becomes clear that a critique of the coloniality of these issues has yet to be developed. The word “colonial” is derived from the Latin “colere” for “to cultivate land” and thus already linguistically refers to the idea that areas and people who supposedly do not have any history and culture must be civilized and cultivated.

The botanical gardens in European metropolises, which were built with the intent to exhibit the biological riches of the whole world, manifest that scientific sites are an expression of this colonial mindset. The architecture of the Berlin botanical gardens, for example, with its continental division, in which visitors can move from South America to Africa in two steps, corresponds to an imperial system of bringing the distant world into the metropolises and representing it there through botanical imports. Especially after the “loss” of the colonies through the Treaty of Versailles, the botanical gardens in Germany can be understood as an expression of an imperial gesture of appropriation. The fact that colonial history continues to be expressed on an imaginative level is also manifested architecturally in the glass greenhouses, whose predecessors are the buildings of the World Expositions.

The current debates about cultural artefacts show that restitution is an ethical act of establishing new cultural relations. To this end, it is relevant that scientific institutions critically engage with the meanings of the “colonial” in their work and that they create new collections and exhibition policies – the botanical garden in Potsdam has only just started to consider these aspects. After our conversation with Michael Burkart we have more questions than answers: How can the colonial histories of plants and botanical scientific institutions be shown to the public? How do we deal with the gaps in the botanical archives? If post/colonial research calls for other stories, stories of resistance, what might these look like for the plants and their migratory movements?

Text: Noam Gramlich und Lydia Kray
Want to learn more? Click here to read the second part of this text.


[1] For a similar matter:  https://wissenschaftliche-sammlungen.de/de/termine/workshop-politics-natural-history-how-decolonize-natural-history-museum

[2] https://www.uni-potsdam.de/botanischer-garten/

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