Flora: Celebrating Our Botanical World – Author biographies and 10 questions

The authors of Flora: Celebrating Our Botanical World discuss their work with Te Papa Press.

Carlos Lehnebach. Photo by Yoan Jolly

Carlos Lehnebach is Curator Botany at Te Papa. His expertise lies in the native orchids of Aotearoa.

Claire Regnault. Photo by Yoan Jolly. Te Papa

Claire Regnault is Senior Curator New Zealand Histories and Cultures at Te Papa. She is the author of several books. Her most recent, Dressed, won the Illustrated Non-Fiction Award at the 2022 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Rebecca Rice. Photo by Yoan Jolly. Te Papa (237509)

Rebecca Rice is Curator Historical New Zealand Art at Te Papa and has a special interest in early botanical art. She is working on a book on the taonga associated with the New Zealand Wars held at Te Papa.

Isaac Te Awa. Photo by Yoan Jolly. Te Papa

Isaac Te Awa is Curator Mātauranga Māori at Te Papa. He is a practising weaver and is actively collecting for Te Papa’s contemporary taonga Māori collection.

Rachel Yates. Photo by Yoan Jolly. Te Papa

Rachel Yates is a former Curator Pacific Cultures at Te Papa, where she worked closely with Pacific maker communities. She now works for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

Q1: This book is massive! Is that partly because the collection right across Te Papa yielded so many treasures that begged for inclusion?

RR: Basically … yes. We could probably do it all over again and find another fabulous selection of floral taonga that are equally beguiling.

RY: Yes, it was one of the highlights of working at Te Papa – having access to the incredible collections and the stories they hold.

IT: There’s so much more we could have included! The book was supposed to be a little bit smaller, but we just kept sneaking more and more in.

CL: The diversity of stories and objects showcased in our book is a clear reflection of the importance the plant world has on people’s lives. Plants, plant-inspired objects and people’s passions for plants are very well represented in Te Papa’s collections and in this book.

CR: It’s evidence of just how much plants permeate our imaginations and everyday lives.

Q2: It’s also a major cross-disciplinary exercise right across the museum – art, history, Matauranga Māori, botany, and Asian and Pacific cultures. Did you relish the chance to work together?

RY: This was one of the most fulfilling aspects of the entire process. I am grateful for the opportunity this book provided to listen and learn from diverse perspectives, particularly from my incredibly passionate colleagues. Some great connections and relationships exist as a result.

RR: I think it’s fair to say that we were a dream team! It’s definitely been one of the most joyous collaborative projects I’ve worked on – from the very beginning it’s been full of rich kōrero, full of respect, and full of fun.

IT: Our taonga and collections are layered with multiple stories and kōrero, and working together was a beautiful opportunity to look at objects from other collections and share my own stories, or to hear someone else’s. What we all learnt and shared with each other was really special.

CL: This was a very exciting project, with an awesome team. While working on this book I have learnt so much about other collections at Te Papa and I enjoyed reading and discussing with my colleagues about the taonga they research and look after. I am thrilled that this knowledge will now be also shared with our readers.

CR: I loved being able to spend time with curators from across Te Papa who I generally haven’t had a lot of day-to-day contact with, especially as the botanists inhabit a different part of the building. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other’s disciplines, and at the same time discover shared obsessions.

Q3: What did you come to appreciate about each other’s expertise, and also that of the many Te Papa curators who also wrote pieces for the book?

RR: What stood out for me was not just the expertise, but also the passion that everyone brought to their contributions to this book. Everyone was so willing to be part of it, and so gracious with their time, their knowledge, their enthusiasm.

RY: This was most definitely a highlight for me. It provided an opportunity to expand my understanding of the content held within other collections, and the diverse museological considerations involved in caring for taonga.

IT: The willingness of our team to help, be involved and support each other seemed endless and it was humbling to see. What really stood out for me was the expertise many of our people have both within and beyond their specialities; the stories, kōrero and insights were inspiring.

Q4: You must all have favourite taonga. Can you nominate one that you consider to be the most beautiful?

RR: Hands down Grace Joel’s Roses, an impressionist tour de force – pastel feminine, yet oozing confidence and assurance.

RY: Dr Emalani Case’s essay is the standout for me. A taonga in itself, I deeply appreciate her generous sharing of such a personal journey and the skill with which she conveys Indigenous connections to whenua. It truly is a unique and precious contribution to this book.

IT: All the taonga are beautiful but I will always have a soft spot for the contemporary pieces such as Alixine Curtis’s Hine Raumati, Stevei Houkamau’s Whakapapa chain, Tangimoe Clay’s Hei karaka, Steve Gibb’s ‘A-HOE Trade Me’ series. These makers carry the living mauri of all our taonga, which they share in their work as new taonga. Ataāhua.

CL: I love Spring flowers by Cedric Morris. This painting is a festival of plant diversity, with garden plants of different shapes, colours, textures. It captures that spring feeling; that time when the plant world comes to life. It also depicts every gardener’s dream!

CR: For me it would have to be Chan Sook Yee’s wedding ensemble from 1954, which is embroidered with flowers and butterflies that represent hopes for a happy marriage and long life. It required some love and attention from our textile conservation team prior to mounting for photography and is now a joy to behold. The embroidery, especially the butterflies, is a delight.

Q5: The most significant?

IT: They’re all significant to someone, that’s what makes them taonga. However, one that will always hold personal significance for me is Louis Steele’s Māori woman with moko. I tried so hard to write in a way to give her some agency and kōrero, and the ngutukākā in her hair reminded me of the relationship our tūpuna had with flora.

RR: Oh, that’s tricky… I’m going to say Sarah Featon’s delicious nineteenth-century botanical watercolours. Not only do they remind us of the important role women played in the popularisation of knowledge at this time but they also include te reo names of plants and flowers, which is not something her male professional peers were doing.

CL: Hard to pick one but for me it will have to be one that links aspects of biodiversity, exploration, discovery, passion and understanding of the natural world. The illustration depicting one of the first plants collected in Aotearoa New Zealand by European botanists would be a good example.

CR: What a question! Everything is significant in its own way to a curator.

RY: Each taonga holds its own unique importance.

Q6: The most unusual or strange?

RR: Nancy Adams’ ‘vegetable sheep’ because she makes their remarkable structure look like a cross-section of a brain.

IT: Āwheto! A caterpillar that crawls into the ground, sprouts as a fungus, and is used as moko ink. Incredible.

CR: Look through the book and you might spot an insect masquerading as a leaf and a beautiful flower that tricks scavenging insects into pollinating them with its perfume of stinky, rotten meat.

CL: Definitely the carrion flowers. If you have a closer look at the centre of one of these star-shaped flowers you can see eggs laid by its fly-pollinator around the flower’s reproductive structure about 200 years ago!

Q7: The book has an underlying climate emergency message. How does that come through?

RY: It comes through in a number of ways, however I want to mention the examples of taonga that represent Indigenous knowledge. These examples not only cultivate cultural appreciation and respect but also enhance our collective understanding of the interconnectedness between flora, climate change and the well-being of ecosystems and communities. In the current climate crisis, these taonga serve as a reminder of the importance of diverse perspectives in shaping sustainable solutions.

RR: At the very beginning Carlos introduced us to the concept of ‘plant blindness’, whereby we have lost our knowledge of and connection with the botanical world as well as our understanding of its importance for our very survival. By encouraging our readers to revel in the wonder of plants, we hope they might be encouraged to reconnect with them.

IT: Through the passionate writing of our essay writers and the sheer diversity of objects and taonga included there’s a sense of connection, but there’s also a sense of potential loss related to our treatment of Papatūānuku. The beauty of this book and its content is carried by our very human love for connection with and use and depiction of plants. Through this I hope people see their own relationship with plants around them or will be encouraged to reconnect.

Q8: What was the reason for inviting guest writers to contribute essays?

RY: It recognises the importance of multiple voices. It encourages us to extend our reach beyond the confines of the museum and acknowledges that although the stories held within are a privilege for the museum, descendants, artists, communities and the public also make their own meaning from these collections. It is crucial for us to bridge these connections and foster dialogue.

IT: The richness of this book comes from the relationships all humans share with nature and the natural world in which we live. Whether it’s through mātauranga Māori, Art, western science or craft, the diversity of knowledge has origins with real people in real communities. As museum workers we are privileged to know multiple stories carried within our collections and it’s important to recognise where they come from. Guest writers and their kōrero, reflect this.

Q9: It’s taken over two years to bring this book to fruition. Proud of it?

RR: Heck yes. It’s the book I’ve always wanted to see Te Papa produce. My mum’s a botanist and an educator and my dad is an amateur artist, and somehow this book feels like a tribute to them, and the way their passions and interests have shaped my pathway through life, whether I’ve appreciated it or not.

RY: Indeed! I have to give props to the Te Papa Press team, and the wider museum staff including the photographers, conservators and collection managers. Their unwavering dedication and hard work made this achievement possible.

IT: There’s something really abstract about working from word documents and little copy-and-paste pictures so I wasn’t really prepared for how big and beautiful this book would be when it was real and in my hands. Seeing everyone’s work, whether it was the writing, the photos, or knowing how hard our collection staff worked – proud is an understatement.

CL: Yes, very proud and very grateful I was invited to take part in this project. It was an excellent way to learn more about our botanical collections at Te Papa but also a bit more about the people behind these collections, their lives, interests and, sometimes, their obsessions too.

Q10: What do you hope readers will take from this book?

RY: I hope people find some joy in exploring the collections and stories shared within this book, and are able to connect with taonga that resonate deeply.

RR: I hope they will take it home! And take copies to their friends and whānau … but really, I hope it will open their eyes to the wondrous breadth and depth of our collections, the inter-relatedness of those collections.

IT: I want people to look at Flora and be inspired by our collections and value the kōrero they hold. I hope they see or learn something about older taonga, and see themselves, their culture and their beliefs reflected in the new taonga for the next generation.

CR: I hope it inspires readers to stop and appreciate the wonder of our botanical world (and our collections), and to realise just how much plants play, and have played, an integral role in our daily lives and creative imagination across the centuries.

CL: I hope people will enjoy reading about the taonga we have selected and showcased. Some great stories are linked to them and some have never been told before! They talk about people, passion and plants! I am hoping these stories will rekindle people’s interest in the plant world and help fight plant blindness!