It's up for debate

A Sensational Botanical Exhibit

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The National Liberty Museum, one of Philadelphia’s lesser-known attractions in the historic district, is dedicated to highlighting and preserving the heroic actions of everyday people, particularly those who fought for freedom, including professional baseballer Jackie Robinson, United States Marine Corps lieutenant general Chesty Puller, and author, political activist, and lecturer Helen Keller.

It was early summer this year when I visited the Museum and had at that time started working at a company that had just successfully led a Segway tour for the blind; this wasn’t the company’s first in offering services for the visually impaired, as it’s been involved in leading sensory tours of the Philadelphia Flower Show (coming up again soon, this time with a Holland theme, which means growers have already been preparing bulbs for the March event!)

And lastly, I received a call at my work from a woman distraught over the lack of services and attractions catering to the visually impaired and frustrated about how far behind Philadelphia was in these kind of services.

While all three events clashed around my head, I reflected how the role of plants in everyday life and the achievements in botany, horticulture, and plant science receive little attention. Given the oft overlooked “gem” of Old City that is the National Liberty Museum, I thought an extra exhibit, one not just for but especially catering to the visually impaired, would fit in nicely with its mission and help to highlight the amazing people and the astounding accomplishments and endeavors.

It’s completely fantastical, as the installation, upkeep, and general everyday wear-and-tear would be mind-numbingly beyond any museum’s funding or desire to take in such an exhibit, but it’s fun to fantasize without limits about an experience that everyone can enjoy and appreciate, especially on a subject so taken for granted particularly in the concrete “greene country towne” of William Penn’s Philadelphia and the very city where botany, horticulture, and agriculture first took root in the new world.

The following plants and accompanying stories are the ones I selected, from various readings (including the excellent adventure nonfiction Plant Hunters by Tyler Whittle and personal accounts written by John Bartram), to be included in my imaginary exhibit. (Never mind the lack of soil and the glass belljar covering each plant making it fairly difficult to actually touch the plant — I’ll flesh that out later after my exhibit is accepted for the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau award.)















In addition to the plants themselves, the sensory experience could be added to by including “mystery boxes”, boxes which visitors could reach into and determine what they were feeling — objects such as the soap made from A. hypogaea (peanut plant) would be placed in a box next to the relevant plant exhibit, and visitors could reach in and guess what plant-derived product they were touching.

Text and braille timelines of plant discoveries could be included on the wall behind the exhibits, and even perfumes made from extracts of local plants that have been around since Bartram’s time (e.g., Artemisia annua, my favorite) could be another included segment of the sensory exhibit.

Philadelphia being a sprawling expanse of cramped rowhouses and concrete, the exhibit could even touch upon the Philadelphia Horticulture Society’s efforts to add and improve community garden efforts throughout the city, provide a much-needed experience for the visually impaired, and inspire conversation about directing the city towards more efforts that would bring about the vision of Penn and others after him for making Philadelphia a greener place to live.


Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

January 8, 2017 at 7:35 pm

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