Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation

    Emily working on Lowy’s materials

    Bernard Lowy’s Mushroom Mystery

    Author: Emily Pelesky, Museum Studies Intern at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation – Fall 2018

    Fascinated by botany and the personal connections within the field, Rachel McMasters Millers Hunt amassed a unique collection of historical botanical writings and artwork. Seeking a home for this educationally and artistically valuable collection, the Hunts chose the Carnegie Institute of Technology (Carnegie Mellon University) in 1961. The collection has grown and diversified with time and is still accessible to researchers, as well as producing publications and exhibitions.

    As an intern in the archival department of the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, I had the unique task of caring for and re-foldering botanist Bernard Lowy’s papers. As an anthropology student, I am interested in the study of the human past. In particular, I am fascinated by humans’ relationships with their environment, which naturally includes the flora that surrounds them. When presented with some choices of botanists by my supervisors, Lowy’s Mayan research stuck out. In reading through Lowy’s documents, including personal notes and correspondence, I learned about his work in Guatemala with Mayan mushroom stones. These artifacts (dating from approximately 1500 B.C. to 900 A.D) are effigies of mushrooms carved from volcanic rock. With much of Mayan culture lost, Lowy and a network of other researchers with whom he corresponded closely, sought to understand the purpose of these artifacts. This involved intensive research including referring to Mayan codices and taking linguistic approaches. Lowy and his colleagues concluded that mushroom stones are evidence of an ancient cult surrounding hallucinogenic mushrooms. 

    In handling Bernard Lowy’s collection, I was able to watch this research play out across time and space. The development of these researchers’ conclusions was clear, and I felt their excitement as they relayed new information across the world. My internship at the Hunt Institute taught me the importance of archiving as a means of preserving the stories behind scientific discoveries that can get lost in favor of research conclusions. Not only are their conclusions important, but their processes, failures, and collaboration as well. This was one of Rachel Hunt’s principles in her collecting and I witnessed its continued realization in the Hunt archives. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Launching Botany Hall

    On Thursday, March 29th, Colleen O'Reilly and I launched our collaborative project Botany Hall: Dioramas on Context in the Hall of Botany at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The event marked the launch of our online exhibition at and provided an ideal opportunity for facilitating a cross-institutional, interdisciplinary discussion about art and science. This latter component was always an essential part of our project vision. Indeed, in our initial mock grant proposal (drafted in Spring 2016), we posited that our project would contribute to academic discussion on the politics of display, representation as a pathway to knowledge, and the lives and agencies of objects. 

    We were delighted to assemble a panel of individuals who contributed to our research process between 2016 and 2018. Lugene Bruno, Curator of Art & Senior Research Scholar at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, provided expert knowledge on the history of botanical illustration and helpfully contrasted 2D and 3D representations of scientific phenomena. Bonnie Isaac, meanwhile, is an in-house expert on the space we have been studying for two years. As Collection Manager of Botany at CMNH, Isaac manages the herbarium and has witnessed the evolution of the museum since 1989. Erin Peters, joint lecturer of curatorial studies in the Department of History of Art and Architecture and Assistant Curator of Science and Research at the CMNH, straddles the line between art history and historical, scientific display, so has provided invaluable advice on this project since its inception. These individuals helped to generate a lively discussion about dioramas, display techniques, and collaborative work. 

    We were also pleasantly suprised by the number of attendees. Participants arrived from a range of institutions and disciplines: ranging from faculty and students from the School of Education and the Department of Art and Architecture at Pitt as well as staff from the Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Andy Warhol Museum, Hunt Institute, City of Asylum, and the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania. 

    Having launched the website and hosted an opening event, we are taking some time away from Botany Hall. We may do more with this project, but are allowing ourselves some time to write our own dissertations and reflect on the work we've done thus far. Feel free to send us feedback after perusing the website! 

    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
    • Schenley Park Entrance 1922
    • Schenley Park and Forbes Field 1936
    • Maria Sibylla Merian, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung
    • Andrey Avinoff at Carnegie Museum of Art
    Schenley Park Entrance 1922

    Schenley Park Entrance, 1922, Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, courtesy of the Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh


    Picturing Nature in Early 20th Century Oakland

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    In the context of the Consuming Nature workshop, sparked especially by our plans to visit the Hunt Botanical Institute, I was thinking a lot about how to situate CMNH’s Botany Hall and its dioramas in the social and cultural context of Oakland. I had learned from research conducted by Kate Madison and Emily Enterline, collaborators on our project, of the involvement of Rachel Hunt with Andrey Avinoff in the creation of the botanical dioramas. Hunt (wife of Roy Hunt of Alcoa) was president of the Garden Club of Allegheny County, which contributed the funds for the first diorama of wildflowers of Pennsylvania, completed in 1928. Press from the time noted that the Garden Club of Allegheny County had also contributed to the improvement of the entrance to Schenley Park, which was visible from the windows that used to be in Botany Hall.

    I also had learned from the research of Peter Clericuzio (Visiting Lecturer in Architectural Studies at Pitt) into the architecture of Forbes Field that early twentieth-century Oakland was positioned as a cultural center and soothing escape from the grime of the city. I therefore came into the workshop with the notion that the dioramas might belong in this context, in which picturesque views of nature, leisure, and cultural enrichment worked together. At the same time, I was aware that the philanthropic funding behind the institutional framework for this came from the very industry that was destroying the environment.

    At Hunt Botanical Institute, we were able to see Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s portrait of Rachel Hunt (with background painted by Avinoff), as well as examples of the kind of botanical illustrations that were Rachel Hunt’s passion: large, richly detailed portraits of individual plants that almost seem to pose for the viewer. Chuck Tancin also mentioned to us that at the insistence of Roy Hunt, the shelves in the library reading room are aluminum (but painted bronze so as to fit with the overall aesthetic), which is a poignant anecdote for thinking about the intersecting agencies at work behind Pittsburgh’s institutional investment in the culturally sophisticated appreciation of nature.

    At CMOA, Lulu Lippincott shared with us some of her expertise on Avinoff, and we viewed some of his artworks. As Lulu explained, these works can be understood as depictions of his philosophy about the links between art, science, the natural world, and spirituality. Even though Avinoff was known as an entomologist, it is clear to me now that Botany Hall was of special interest to him. In the context of Avinoff’s interests and Hunt’s patronage, the representational strategies of the botanical dioramas, which must be described as picturesque, theatrical, and somewhat political, as much as scientifically accurate, come into clearer focus. It is important to imagine the museum, and the philanthropic culture that shaped the space of Oakland, as both driven by a dream of a unified sphere of progress and idealism of all kinds, rather than the division between art and science that came to structure the institutions in the later twentieth century. This cultural space allowed the appreciation of nature to remain congruous with the glorification of industry.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh