Object: Banksia plate of Joseph Banks’ ‘Florilegium’
On display: British Museum Room 1 (Enlightenment)
In 1768, Sir Joseph Banks stepped aboard the HMS Endeavour. Attended by a number of European naturalists, artists, and of course a few servants, they accompanied Captain James Cook on a grand voyage of ‘discovery’ visiting what are now Brazil, Tahiti, Australia and New Zealand. In 1771, they returned to the UK. With them, they brought 30,300 plant specimens. Among these was the Banksia Serrata that we see represented here.
Here we see two objects. We see a botanical drawing in ink and watercolour. The banksia is shown in full flower, nestled amongst stiff, serrated leaves. And, it is shown, below, after the flowers fade, its seed pods open like goldfish mouths, or like eyes, perhaps.
The second object represents the same banksia serrata, but it is a copper plate, made for the purpose of reproducing the former botanical artwork. Upon his return to England, Banks began work to create a ‘florilegium’ – a 14 volume folio work of the specimens, to be ‘mass’ produced from these copper plate engravings. Banks poured over £10,000 into the project, employing 18 master engravers and a team of artists.
But the project was not completed, and Banks bequeathed the unfinished copper plates to the British Museum. The copper plate we see here was restored in the 1980s, 200 years after its creation, and the florilegium was only then produced. 100 copies were made. Some were sold to private collectors. Others are now in the hands of museums and galleries across the world.
My choice of this object is prompted by my work on the objects of international law. Dr. Daniel Joyce of UNSW and I are currently leading a research project on international law’s objects – its material things – which seeks to provoke a new methodology, and raise a new theoretical avenue for understanding international law’s operation in the world. The methodological question asks: what would be revealed if we, as international lawyers, started with objects and things, rather than with texts? The second theoretical question prompts us to ask: what are objects of international law? How should we understand international law’s objects or material culture? What does it mean to say something is an object of international law? We asked scholars and practitioners, through an open call for papers and through invitation – to nominate an object and write a short chapter on how it speaks to them about or of international law.
As Dr. Joyce and I have edited and collected together these chapters on objects, we have ourselves been creating a collection of legal treasures. We have been turning some things into ‘collected’ objects, and creating an artefact: the book itself.
So when the opportunity to speak at this workshop came up, I was deeply immersed in thinking about collected objects, and in particular, in thinking through the question of how something becomes an object of international law. How does a material thing come to be appropriated to international law?
This question was on my mind when I encountered this object here in the Enlightenment gallery. And it is multiple layers of appropriation, naming and claiming that make this object so generative for me as a way of thinking about my research on the materiality and objects of international law.
First, there is the physical appropriation: the taking of the specimen. The breaking, the cutting, the plucking, the careful storage and the transportation.
Second, there is the naming: the ‘making known to science’. This plant becomes the Genus ‘Banksia’ and the species ‘Serrata’ (for its serrated leaves). It is appropriated into the Linnaean botanical classification system. But it is also personally appropriated. The banksia is named after Joseph Banks himself, after all.
The banksia is rendered legible – it is gathered (legere) into a system of understanding. The latin from which the word florilegium is derived is ‘flos’ or ‘flor’ (flower) and ‘legere’ (gather).
But the banksia then goes through a number of further layers of appropriation. It is then painted. The banksia serrata here becomes both the archetype of the all its possible future progeny and all its past ancestors. It is fixed and made static. It is, perhaps, the ultimate piece of representational art.
Next, the preparation of the copper plate: the Banksia Serrata is not only rendered as a painting, it is rendered for mass replication. It will be produced over and over again, in this form, as this thing, named, fixed. And it is made ready for commercial exploitation, at least in its represented form.
Finally, from my perspective as an Australian in London, the Banskia Serrata also becomes an object of sentimental nationalism. When I stand before this Banskia Serrata, I see this object as somehow more mine, because I was born and grew up in Australia, than I imagine it would be for another. So there is a personal layer of appropriation on this object.
None of these layers of appropriation are unproblematic. Each makes the Banksia Serrata a thing or object in one way, while making other aspects of if disappear.
What does this have to do with legal objects or more specifically with international law’s objects? Plenty, I think. What has been helpful for me in considering this Banksia Serrata, how it came to be the Banskia Serrata is in thinking through how international law and international lawyers also engage in appropriating, naming, claiming, fixing and representing material things. Any object in which international law and international lawyers take an interest must be named, it must be made legible, it must be made an object of international law. And in this process of naming, claiming, rendering, gathering, representing only some aspects of that object’s existence, presence, life, will or can be acknowledged and made legible within the law.
There are two points to conclude with. The first is that law can make any object an object of international law through these processes. The second is that the object that is appropriated to international law is only ever a partial one. The other existences, other faces, other lives of the object have the ability to reassert themselves at any time, and in doing so, profoundly unsettle international law’s claims to the world, and its parameters.
Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke University Press 2010).
George, Alex, A Banksia Album: Two Hundred Years of Botanical Art (National Library of Australia 2011).
Hohmann, Jessie and Daniel Joyce, Objects of International Law (Oxford University Press, 2017 – forthcoming).
National Museum of Australia, ‘European Voyages to the Australian Continent: Banks’ Florilegium’ at <http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/collection_interactives/european_voyages/european_voyages_to_the_australian_continent/science/banks_florilegium> (accessed March 28 2017).
Sloan, Kim (ed) Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (British Museum Press 2003).
 The National Museum of Australia’s online information on the European Voyages to the Australian continent states that 1400 of the species collected were ‘then unknown to science’ at. It is notable that this statement claims science to Europe, as well as claiming the plants physically. See: http://www.nma.gov.au/collections/collection_interactives/european_voyages/european_voyages_to_the_australian_continent/science/banks_florilegium