The Botany Archive of the University of Coimbra: a complex and fascinating puzzle
In 1772, a garden became part of Coimbra’s landscape. A botanical garden that was not intended for princes, but rather a venue for learning and leisure, a meeting place between nature and knowledge. It was organised to enable the study of plants from the country and from the rest of the world, allowing harmony between educating enlightened minds and informing the curious ones. Currently, in addition to being a living collection, the Botanic Garden of the University of Coimbra (UC) is a space of biological and human, cultural and historical, individual and collective, personal and institutional memories of the 250 years since its foundation.
In the 239th year of its existence, I entered the world of botanical sciences through the doors of the Archive connected to the garden. Little or nothing did I know about Botany. The first contact with a letter containing a plant stuck on it (fig. 1) awoke the curious unease of understanding the relationship between the “two archives”: the social and human one (catalogues, letters) and the biological one (the garden and the herbarium). The successive reading of the records left by directors and gardeners gave me one certainty: the UC’s botanical memory was a complex and fascinating puzzle yet to discover. They revealed a garden full of cows that allowed the selling of manure and linden for tea production; a site for the cultivation of American and Chinese plants; a reference venue where boxes and greenhouses arrived from and departed to all over the world; a busy institution in constant connection with other gardens, universities and multiple scientific societies.
Figure 1 – Letter from Sebastião Phillipes Martins Estácio da Veiga to Júlio Henriques (Mafra, August 5, 1894).
Source: Botany Archive of the University of Coimbra. Photo by Ana Margarida Dias da Silva
As an archivist, my job is to handle social and human documentation and the botanical knowledge generated in the Botany Archive of the University of Coimbra (BAUC), safeguarded in the Life Sciences Department of the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the University of Coimbra.
Except for the Botanic Garden, which kept the same name since 1772, successive organic changes over the centuries have led to differences in nomenclature. Currently, the “Botanic Archive of the Coimbra University ” (BAUC) is the generic name given to the set of documents/information produced, received, and saved by the various systems that contributed to the production and safeguarding of botanical knowledge. BAUC includes documentation about the Botanic Garden, the Herbarium, the Botanic Library, the Botanic Institute, and the Botanic Department. It also contains institutional and personal documents from former directors, professors, and employees.
The work developed in the BAUC (intermittently between 2011 and 2019, and permanently from April 2020), gave me a perception of the systemic, complex, holistic and integrated reality of the information, through the articulation and relationship established between memories and botanical knowledge in its multiple forms and supports: letters, photographs, inventories, biological material, didactic models, maps, labels, microscopes, drawings, among others. It requires mutual learning between what is the taxonomy of the archive and the taxonomy of the plants.
The Index Seminum and the international exchange of seeds
The exchange of plants and seeds carried out by the UC’s Botanic Garden and Botanic Institute was based on the catalogue Index seminum, an annual publication started in 1868 by the initiative of the head gardener Edmund Goeze. It was published uninterruptedly until 1918 and had some suspension periods in the following years. From 1926-1927, after being remodelled, the publication resumed until the present day. The first copies of Index seminum were handwritten by the gardeners of the Botanic Garden. It contained information about the plants in the garden, indicating the date they were collected, their number and the place where the seed was found (in the garden or nature). This seed catalogue served as a tool to advertise the existing species available for exchange with similar institutions. It is a common practice among European gardens (and other ones outside the continent) whose main goal is the giving and taking of species with accurate botanical determination. The seeds were collected from plants cultivated at the Botanic Garden or from wild plants during excursions, herborisation excursions or teaching activities. After being collected, they were identified, dried, and prepared in special jars (fig. 2). In parallel, a corresponding card was prepared to be part of the Index Seminum catalogue.
In 1932, this service corresponded with 359 similar scientific institutions, in addition to numerous individuals, both national and foreign. Two copies of the catalogue used to be sent: one to remain with the receiver, and the other one to be returned with an indication of the desired species. Each correspondent had a serial number, which was included on the copies.
The service was initially in charge of the Botanic Garden’s chief gardener or inspector, who supervised and organised the exchanges and relations with hundreds of botanical gardens all over the world, being also in charge of the annual publication of the Index Seminum (fig. 3). In the 20th century, this work became a collector’s task. The number of corresponding gardens rose to thousands. Nowadays, the Index Seminum is still published, enabling seed exchanges between botanical gardens worldwide. On the UC Botanic Garden’s website, it is possible to access the most current and previous editions of the Index Seminum.
Not only in nature everything can be transformed. The results of human activity related to the Botanic Archive of the University of Coimbra are also subject to transformation, appropriation and reuse, where culture, heritage and memory form layers upon layers of rewriting knowledge, imagination and information.
Figure 3 – An example: cover of the 2011’s Index Seminum.
Source: Botanic Garden of the University of Coimbra.
Ana Margarida Dias da Silva holds a PhD in Information Science from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Coimbra, research funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). She holds a master’s in Information and Documentation Sciences, specialization in Archives, from the School of Social Sciences and Humanities – NOVA University of Lisbon. She is a researcher at the Center for the History of Society and Culture (CHSC), University of Coimbra, and an archivist at the Life Sciences Department of the Faculty of Sciences and Technology at the same university.