The Arnold Arboretum: Data and Distance


Image via Knight Science Journalism at MIT

Today I caught pieces of Kyle Parry’s talk titled Trees and Physical-Virtual Borderlands: metaLAB and the Arnold Arboretum at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Parry talked about his work with the Arnold Arboretum, with some commentary added by Arboretum director Ned Friedman.

The presenting problem; the Arnold Arboretum has meticulously catalogued millions of pieces of data about its history and its current collection of 15,000 documented plants, but the Arboretum doesn’t know how to share this information effectively with visitors. Parry cited founding Arboretum Charles Sprague Sargent as writing “a visitor driving through the Arboretum will be able to obtain a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the north temperate zone without even leaving his carriage.” Today, most Arboretum visitors don’t use carriages, and it’s really not clear that they’re visiting to get “a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the north temperate zone,” or even if they know what or where that zone is.

Meanwhile, visitors don’t necessarily have access to the type of information they want. Parry mentioned working with older elementary/middle school kids who said they wanted maps of the Arboretum to help them play Capture the Flag—to help them figure out where the trees make rooms, or mazes, or good places to hide. I don’t think the Arboretum’s botanical phenologists have been tracking these data lately.

More globally, I would say the sort of data the Arboretum collects and wants to share with the world—about plants’ response to global climate change, germination rates, botanical form and so on—is really at odds with what people have wanted to know about plants for most of our specie’s existence; what can you do with it?

Can you eat that plant? Does it make good arrows? Can you carve little dolls from the branches? Does it burn fast and hot or long and slow? Can you boil the roots into tea to make you feel better if you have a fever? Can you blow through its stem to make a farting noise, or a whistle?

The Arnold Arboretum really doesn’t want its visitors testing any of these hypotheses with its collection. Instead, I think we’re all still stuck in Sargent’s carriage, sitting and staring out at plants that we can’t really contact.

Parry didn’t offer much in the way of solutions to this whole dilemma. He talked about how technology can offer access to data on-site, letting people find out about botany, bloom time, and so on. Friedman described the “tree flash mobs” the Arboretum organized over the summer, inviting people to gather around a particular tree. But I didn’t hear much about making the Arboretum’s collection physically accessible, approachable, useful to people, apart from as a way of communicating rather abstract information.

I’ll admit that the Arboretum is, really, a museum of trees. It isn’t “nature;” it’s a series of exhibits. Connecting people to museums is very different from connecting them to the animal attractions of the outdoor world—readily available at the uncurated, unstructured, uncontrolled Allandale Woods Urban Wild across the street from the Arboretum. I hope that Parry takes a walk there sometime. He might see something he doesn’t expect.