Living Systems

How might the design of multiple ways of seeing encourage critical thinking about the long-term effects of one’s relationship with others — cultures, plants, and animals — in a mutually-entangled way?

Living Systems is an international collaboration that asks: how might we use design to introduce ways of seeing the botanical collections of the National Herbarium of NSW (Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney) and affiliated materials at the State Library of NSW through worldviews that have been historically excluded? And how might revisioning through diverse perspectives drawn from cultures, times, and species foster a critical awareness of the dangers of the West’s extractive orientation to the natural world?

The pilot phase (June-August 2019) brings humanists and designers from Australia and the US to the Herbarium and Library to prototype a digital design intervention, convene an interdisciplinary discussion, and develop next phase plans and partnerships.

Western ideas about the relationship between people and the natural world have been said to contribute to the anthropocenic crises that we currently face. Institutions of knowledge built upon early modern scientific collecting, such as the botanic garden and the library, position people as masters or owners of collections of materials that are ordered according to Western knowledge systems built upon extractive methods and the erasure of indigenous knowing. What if we could use design to reorder these systems and decolonise the relationships they foster?

Living Systems brings together an international team of designers and humanists to collaboratively explore such questions, made newly relevant in the face of a catastrophic loss of biodiversity. How might we create interfaces and spaces that allow people to experience materials through diverse epistemologies, across cultures and even species? How might the design of multiple ways of seeing encourage critical thinking about the long-term effects of one’s relationship with others — cultures, plants, and animals — in a mutually-entangled way?


Recent scholarship has shifted attention to the colonial aspects of early modern scientific collecting, seeking to bring to light the indigenous knowledge, enslaved labour, and extractive methods that underpin our understanding of the world. A recent book on Sir Hans Sloane, for example, calls attention to how his collections—which form the foundations of the British Museum, British Library, and Natural History Museum—were developed with the help of enslaved workers and funded in part by income from his wife’s sugar plantations in Jamaica. Meanwhile, art historian Daniela Bleichmar examines how European models of depicting the natural world were taken up and transformed for local use. At the same time, discourse related to indigenous ways of knowing emphasise the integration of land and kinship while posthuman discourses from feminist technoscience remind us to consider the perspectives of non-humans.

Building upon these developments, the aim of this project is to provide both scholars and the general public with ways of interpreting the botanical world through the design of interfaces based on knowledge systems that have been excluded from traditional Western views. To do this, we will work initially with collections and experts from the State Library of New South Wales and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney to show how the visual epistemological practices of English botanists in the eighteenth century ‘deracinated’ nature. By placing plant specimens on a white page, botanists systematically extracted them from their natural geographical, social, and cultural environments, privileging their morphology over their properties and local meanings. This Linnaean system of classification transformed plants into “de-contextualised products that circulated globally” and had a totalising effect on the way knowledge about the natural world was represented/produced (Bleichmar 2012: 151).

A legacy of these epistemological practices, which are as much visual and material as they are categorical and/or indexical, is the positioning of nature as a commodity and the erasure of place-based Indigenous knowledges. While there are as many ways of conceiving of the relationship between humans and the plant and animal world as there are cultures, it has been posited that this historically colonial worldview has contributed to a catastrophic loss of biodiversity and human-induced climate change. Which raises the question, what effect might seeing the world through alternative models have on the choices we make now for the present and future of our planet?