Plants & People

Your chance to give Botany a voice in a Fine Art project

The project aims to start making inferences about the importance of ecological features in historical art.

Art holds a mirror up to nature, but how distorted is it? ATHENA has launched a new project on the Zooniverse to find out. They’re asking people to browse a collection of the Dutch Rijksmuseum – to classify animal species and any flowering plants, trees or shrubs present. The art in the project includes paintings and prints from the 16th century till the modern day.

The project is simple. You look at an image. If you see an animal you click on the animal button and then click on the image to say where it is. If it’s a plant (or fungus) you click on the plant button and then on the image. If it’s a unicorn, you have the option to click on Fantastical creature to mark the item. But it’s not just plants that the researchers want to know about. They want to know what sort of plant. If you’re worried about identifying a species from a few brush strokes, it’s not that complicated.

Koeien en schapen liggend in weide voor boerderij (Cows and sheep lying in meadow in front of farm) by Johannes van Cuylenburgh. 1820.

The results get fed into a database. “The resulting database will provide a platform for large-scale, comparative (both in space and time) and multilevel studies of human-nature relationships,” says the Zooniverse website. “The development of the ATHENA database will advance the fields of research involved, and will strengthen high level interdisciplinary research on human – nature interactions. An interdisciplinary approach is necessary to fully understand the impacts and consequences of human nature dialogues.”

The database will be helpful for all sorts of historical questions, but I also wonder if it might have some interest in researching plant awareness disparity. It could be possible to see if plants are overlooked more, even when people are asked to look for them. It would also be interesting to compare the visibility of categories. Is grass overlooked more than trees? Are mammals more visible than fish?

If you’re concerned this project has an excessive amount of animals, and you want a purer plant project, there are still plenty of botanical projects on the Zoonverse, including Arctic Botany, botanical records at Manchester Museum and forests of kelp to discover and map.

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