A storytelling framework to decolonize botanical databases

In 2021 I used botanical databases and Python programming to create the “named after Men” project. This consists of a bot that posts every day on the project’s website one plant that was named after a male botanist. In an article on futuress.org I explained how this creative coding art project can be used as a tool to understand colonial relationships through plants. In the text written by the bot, a visual registry of the plant is displayed alongside a hyperlinked text in which plants introduce themselves in the first person.

The first post on the “named after Men” website features Ficus erecta, a plant that honours Siebold, an army medical officer for the colonial Dutch East Indies.

Initially, I was interested in the way objective scientific descriptions are influenced by culture, gender, and race. I was very impressed by the botanical practice of honouring people by naming species after them, especially when considering that most of the biodiversity hotspots in the world are in parts of the previously colonized global South, whereas the scientific institutions involved in studying them are mostly located in former colonial metropoles. This asymmetric relationship is rooted in the various histories of colonization and capitalist use of science to optimize land exploitation.

A map showing the global distribution of botanical gardens (in the Global North) compared to the distribution of biodiversity hotspots (in the Global South).
The most part of botanical gardens are in the Global North, whereas biodiversity hotspots are in the former colonized countries.

The “named after Men” bot translates information about plant descriptions found in botanical and public databases into a readable text for people. Including, the year the plants were catalogued, the names they were given, and the men they are supposed to honour with their existence. Each post also indicates where plants are “native to”; this information is collected in a tag cloud that shows the regions of the planet where most of the featured plants originally came from. Additionally, some of the plants and botanists are linked to their Wikipedia articles. By looking at the existing information, one can read between the lines and identify stories that connect the cataloguing of plants and naming processes to histories of colonial enterprise.

Read more about the “named after Men” storytelling framework in this article on Futuress.org.

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