The museum holds a wonderful biblical herbarium (c.1897) made by Southall Brothers and Barclay of Birmingham (inventors of the disposable sanitary towel). This large wooden box contains scores of dried specimens of plants mentioned in the Bible, including a crown of thorns. The herbarium is a relatively valuable object, recent auction prices have reached over £2000, but it has possibly been viewed as a curiosity rather a serious pedagogical tool. But Southall’s herbarium links two important educational settings for such plant collections.
Southall Brothers were established manufacturers of Materia Medica – collections of specimens for use in teaching medicine and pharmacy. W. Handsel Griffiths’ Materia Medica and Pharmacy for the use of Medical and Pharmaceutical Students (1879) recommended Southall’s collections as being both the most complete and sold at a price “within the reach of all students”. It is possible that Southall Brothers and Barclay were ‘recycling’ or using up odds of materials from their Materia Medica in their biblical herbarium.
The primary audience for Southall’s biblical herbariums was probably Sunday Schools, of which hundreds existed in the nineteenth-century. Bible based studies were a well-established method of instructing children in contemporary knowledge, including scientific subjects, in a safe religious and moral context. My work on Sunday School libraries 1800-1860 found that nearly 10% of holdings were in scientific subjects, and of these natural history made up over half of titles. And while we may consider studies of bible lands, bible history and bible plants to be somewhat conservative approaches to instruction in geography, ancient history and botany they did not necessarily exclude more challenging theories. George Henslow’s Plants of the Bible (1895), a cheap Religious Tract Society publication, brought theories of evolution to bear on bible plants (Lightman Victorian Popularisers of Science, 2007) and biblical herbariums were intended for use in conjunction with complementary textbooks such as Henslow’s volume.
This use of an herbarium alongside a textbook in classrooms also reflects backwards on my current work in eighteenth-century schoolbooks in natural philosophy and natural history; highlighting how combined use of objects and books in scientific instruction has a long and enduring history in English schools. The herbarium helps us to understand classroom practice in the sciences as a balance between textual facilitation of learning and object (or experiment) based instruction; a balance that has tilted one way or another at different periods, in different places, for different classes and according to gender. The date of Southall’s herbarium for example suggests that it may be fruitful to consider its use in Sunday Schools alongside Sally Gregory Kohlstedt’s discussion of the rise of an object-based approach to science teaching in public schools in the USA in the late 19th century (Teaching Children Science: Hand-On Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930, 2010). In some periods at least a ‘theoretical’ knowledge was not considered sufficient and children were encouraged to learn through object and experiment based pedagogy.