#Ginkgos of the British Isles is an academic research project that invites anyone on Instagram to share photos of specimens of the popular tree ginkgo biloba that you’ve spotted anywhere in the British Isles.
Simply share your photos on Instagram using the project hashtag #ginkgosofthebritishisles and they will be included on this site. Your photos will then be paired with selected map images, relating to ginkgo biloba’s journey to the British Isles – from China, via Japan and the Netherlands, to the east end of London in 1750.
Your contributions will come together to build a view of one plant species and its life in these islands.
Featured pictures show the UK National Collection of ginkgo biloba and cultivars
A note on naming
At this moment in the cultural and political life of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it is not entirely straightforward to refer to this group of islands by name. I have opted for ‘British Isles’ because I think it will be more widely recognised than other alternatives, such as ‘British Archipelago’ (meaning group of islands), while still emphasising the character of this place as a collection of islands.
I have chosen not to use ‘Great Britain’ because that name doesn’t include Northern Ireland; and because Northern Ireland is part of the UK, I am curious about the presence of ginkgo biloba there, and in the whole island of Ireland. The political entity into which ginkgo biloba was introduced in London in 1750 was known as the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’, incorporating the then ‘Kingdom of Scotland’ and the ‘Kingdom of England’ which included Wales. Since 1750, ginkgo biloba has been widely planted as a street tree and has a presence at least as far south as London, as far north as North Queensferry, and is widely available in garden centres in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (which I take to mean it is being planted in private gardens). I hope this project will offer a way to gather a picture of ginkgo biloba across the whole of these islands in 2019.
ABOUT THE RESEARCH
#ginkgosofthebritishisles is a visual research project run by Dr Claire Reddleman, in the Dept of Digital Humanities, King’s College London. I am grateful for funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Institute at King’s College London. The project is aimed at testing out the possibilities for using Instagram as a way to crowd-source photographs of ginkgo biloba trees, in order to bring them together with maps, to create a sort of co-produced view of how this particular introduced species is experienced as part of the visual life of the British Isles. All images contributed to the project hashtag will be displayed on the project website, and paired with map images of the species’ places of origin, to include Japan where the tree was ‘discovered’ by the German surgeon and traveler Engelbert Kaempfer in 1692, China where the species is native, and Mile End, London, where the first seedling in Britain was raised in 1750.
This project represents a new departure for me in terms of methods, and extends existing research interests that I have been developing through recent postdoctoral research, as well as independent creative work. In previous research, particularly my book Cartographic Abstraction in Contemporary Art: Seeing with Maps and an article Disrupting the cartographic view from nowhere: ‘hating empire properly’ in Layla Curtis’s cartographic collage ‘The Thames’ I have explored how artworks that engage with maps and mapping techniques can shed light on how maps position us as viewers and foster relationships with the world that enable us to gain knowledge as well as to mediate power relations. I have written about maps as demonstrating certain aspects of artistic collage techniques, and the trope of collage as a method for combining disparate elements into a new whole is one that I intend to keep exploring in new ways.
This research links with my broader interest in visual culture, and my artistic practice as a photographer. I have previously exhibited collaborative, collage-based photographic work looking at the idea of trees in everyday life and how we perceive them. I have taken these interests forward in recent postdoctoral work exploring how French penal colonies have been mapped and photographed, historically as well as in the contemporary context of penal heritage and associated tourism. As part of this project, led by Dr Sophie Fuggle, I created a digital photographic archive of former penal sites, as well as collecting plant samples and soil samples for use in original artistic collages involving photography and cartography of the penal colonies. This engagement with plants and the politics of whether plants are classified as native or non-native has encouraged me to develop a much larger research idea, ‘Planting the Nation’. This explores how the history of British plant introduction could be engaged with using visual methods, in order to contribute to a future imaginary of Britain as a global place that is materially constituted (in part) through plant introduction. Many introduced plants have become garden favourites, and I am keen to explore whether people’s feelings and opinions about multiculturalism can be affected by greater understanding of those plants’ histories. This is too large a project to embark on at this stage of my career, so I am keen to develop projects that could contribute to my having a better understanding of what research methods will best serve my research interests, and best facilitate participation using visual methods.
I have previously used social media (Twitter and Instagram) as dissemination tools, but I have not yet tried to use it as a participatory research method. I am keen to experiment with using Instagram as a participatory research tool as it prioritises photography and it has developed large audiences interested in plants, horticulture, and amateur and professional plant photography.
Alongside using a new method for participatory research, I am contributing my own photography to the project through visiting the National Collection of ginkgo biloba and cultivars which is housed at Evesham, Worcestershire. I am also keen to commission a response of c.1000 words to the online project, to be written by an academic in the fields of cultural geography, ecocriticism or botany. This is, again, a new technique for me, and I think it could add a valuable perspective for website visitors, as well as providing an avenue for me to develop further relationships with other researchers who share this interest, potentially leading to future directions in which to take this research.
1. Can visual approaches to the history of plant introductions to the British Isles help to develop an imaginary of Britain as an island place that is constituted from global sources?
2. Can focusing in on one species offer a useful way of engaging this complex history, which is vast and includes multiple academic disciplines such as botany, environmental sciences, history, travel narratives, botanical history, etc.?
3. Can Instagram function as a helpful research device, enabling potentially hundreds of people to participate by contributing photographs to the project Instagram hashtag?
4. Can photography and cartographic images be brought together in an online presentation, in order both to stimulate interest in the geographical relationships embodied in the chosen plant species, and to explore further the ways of viewing the world that photography and cartography make possible?