250 Years Ago, Joseph Banks Documented Australia’s Glorious Botanical Bounty

A film on view at the Natural History Museum showcases the diversity of flora and fauna at the time of European arrival

Visitors watching film
Vivid colors and images splash across a five-panel screen, bringing Joseph Banks and James Cook's voyage to life Embassy of Australia

In 1768, King George III and Britain’s Admiralty requested James Cook undertake two tasks on his expedition aboard the HMB Endeavour. First, to travel to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus, when the planet passes between the Earth and the sun. And second, to sail south in search of the fabled Terra Australis, which ultimately made them the first Europeans to visit eastern Australia.

The voyage was largely funded by the 25-year-old Joseph Banks, a naturalist in possession of a healthy Age of Enlightenment curiosity. Banks was also in possession of quite a bit of wealth. “My grand Tour shall be around the whole globe," he wrote of his 10,000-pound contribution to the voyage—a cool $2.3 million in today’s dollars.

Cook and Banks were joined by the botanical illustrator Sydney Parkinson, the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander and the astronomer Charles Green. With a library of more than 100 books and a mountain of equipment, HMB Endeavour set sail in August 1768. The assembled crew of specialists successfully recorded the Transit of Venus—a phenomenon that repeats every 243 years—on June 1769 and then turned towards Australia.

At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, vivid colors splash across a five-panel, 180-degree semi-circular screen, as enormous images bring to life Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks’ journey aboard the Endeavour. On view to mark the 250th anniversary of the expedition’s docking in today’s Botany Bay, is the 20-minute film Beauty Rich and Rare, a visual blend of science, art and technology, incorporating digital scans from Banks’ original floral sketches that are used to craft an animated time-lapse of the growth of many of the plants on the continent. The exhibition also features text from journals and publications documenting the original voyage and a selection of plant specimens that Banks brought back with him and are today held in the Smithsonian’s collections as part of the U.S. National herbarium.

Entrance to the exhibit
Embassy of Australia

The film—a work by AGB Events and the National Library of Australia, and sponsored by the Australian Embassy—treats visitors to the backstory of the thousands of species recorded by Banks and his team in their short stay. The immersive experience begins with a map of Australia featuring star patterns used by the country’s First Nations people, the world’s oldest continuous living culture, as watercolor drawings dissolve from one scene to the next. The film recreates the moment when Cook’s team first encountered and recorded Australia’s unique flora and fauna and how Banks’ rare collection of never-before-seen specimens paved the way for future herbariums around the globe.

“These collections really give us a snapshot in time of what life was like on the planet,” says W. John Kress, emeritus curator from the museum’s botany department. “Because this part of the world had been isolated evolutionarily for so long, there were a lot of exciting new things that were found.”

“Australia had not been connected to other land masses in a very long time,” says Robert Edwards, a postdoctoral associate from the University of Memphis who is conducting research at the Smithsonian. “We can never collect those [specimens] again, unless we get a time machine.”

First major Australian exhibition 'Beauty Rich and Rare' opens at Smithsonian's NMNH

This year as one of Australia’s worst fire seasons on record is slowly being contained after ravaging the country’s southeastern region with at least 27-million acres burned across New South Wales and Victoria, Banks’ collections have become even more critical for preserving and documenting the land’s ongoing change. Banks’ observations, his illustrations and his specimens, say Edwards and Kress, could provide a look into the history of life on the planet and its change over time. “These collections are going to help to document the decline in diversity. Then hopefully, it will allow us to document the increase of diversity on the other side,” Kress says, referring to the bottleneck effect, which is when a species goes through an event—climate change, natural disasters or even human activities—that reduces its population size.

The Journey to the “Unknown South Land”

On April 19, 1770, Zachary Hicks, Cook’s second in command, spotted land running from the northeast to the west. Nine days later, Banks and his crew docked in today’s Botany Bay—and were mesmerized by the flora and fauna dispersed around the region. Banks and Parkinson began recording in extensive notes their observations of the people, the language, the culture and the land.

“I therefore devoted this day to that business,” wrote Banks. “and carried all the drying paper ashore, and spreading them upon a sail in the sun, kept them in this manner exposed the whole day.”

Banks recorded a wide range of specimens still observed today. He coined the word Banksia, for a large genus of plants that can grow sometimes as ground cover or as high as a tree, Edwards says, who is from Australia. In particular, Banks collected Banksia integrifolia, a woody, shrubby plant native to Eastern Australia. The species produces clusters of big flowers and vertical cones that rise up from the branches. Banksia is an integral part of Australia’s ecosystem, as animals rely on the plant’s structure for shelter and the nectar for food.

photo of Joseph Banks
Banks was a curious naturalist who possessed a love for traveling the world Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Banks also collected the Melaleuca quinquenervia and Melaleuca leucadendra, which are both members of the broad-leaved paperbark tree. With around 14 different, but closely related, species, the specimens are extremely difficult to tease apart, Edwards says. The plants have yellow-green sprays of flowers that are tightly packed together and resemble a bottlebrush cleaner, Edwards says. Because of its papery bark, Australia’s indigenous people could peel off its exterior into different shapes. This resource was used to create bags and even dress wounds, he says.

Banks was perhaps most fascinated by the kangaroo. “To compare it to any European animal would be impossible as it has not the least resemblance of anyone I have seen,” Banks wrote in his journal. “Its fore legs are extremely short and of no use to it in walking.”

In total, Banks and his team collected some 1,400 plant specimens to bring on their voyage back home. Banks and Parkinson added small sample patches of color to their sketches to later craft 743 full-color illustrations of the land’s plants and animals; Parkinson made 94 drawings in 48 days.

plant specimens
Banks and his team collected around 1,400 plant specimens, such as this Banksia integrifolia National Museum of Natural History

After the Voyage

In July 1771, the HMB Endeavour arrived back in England. Despite Parkinson’s untimely death on their return voyage, Banks employed 18 watercolorists to finish the illustrator’s work. The task required the artists to cut 743 individual copper plates and engrave every detail from the illustrations.

After Banks' death, the plates were left to Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist, who then transferred the pieces to the British Museum in 1827, where they remained unused for more than 100 years. In 1979, the plates were finally brought to life, as the colored images were published in the book, Joseph Banks' Florilegium: Botanical Treasures from Cook's First Voyage.

But Banks’ findings revealed more than just detailed illustrations. The plant specimens that he brought back became the first collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. And several species, such as the famous Banksia integrifolia, were shared with institutions around the world—including the U.S. National Herbarium at the Smithsonian in 1980. Today, many modern collections and seed banks, such as the Millennium Seed Bank in London and the Svalbard Global Seed Bank in Norway, carry on Banks’ legacy of species preservation.

“Herbarium collections are invaluable,” Edwards says. “you will never be able to capture that moment in time … they are these time capsules and diversity capsules of different moments in the world.”

And Banks’ discoveries still guide scientists today. Many of the plants were important sources of food and medicine for Indigenous Australians. Following this traditional use, scientists now rely on Banks’ specimens for modern medicine—the Coastal Jack bean, also called Canavalia rosea, has some compounds that are cytotoxic, meaning that they kill cancer cells.

Looking to Australia’s Future

Australia is home to more than one million species of plants and animals. And 93 percent of the country’s 21,000 plant species are unique to the region. But after this season’s fires, the country’s biodiversity is threatened. And while the country is no stranger to fires, the recent continuous warming and drying of the climate has led to a “… change in the interval of the fires, the intensity of the fires and the size of the fires,” Edwards says.

video of plant specimens
The film uses Banks' original floral sketches to craft the animated time-lapse of the growth of the plants Embassy of Australia

“The fires we’re seeing at the moment are burning whole ecosystems, whole communities of plants, such that there is no surrounding patch for them to come back from,” Edwards says. “These fires are only one manifestation of human impact on the planet,” Kress adds. “It’s an ongoing series of impacts on the environment that are going to lead to significant changes in biodiversity.”

In the exhibition, visitors can peer through a thick, square glass case and view the delicate remains of specimens from the Banks historic botanic collection. “These are called the type specimens, and they are irreplaceable,” Edwards says. “It represents the flagship for that species.”

Joseph Banks’ collection continues to be important—these species can educate future conservation efforts around climate change. And while the specimens appear pressed and frail, they evoke history and the HMB Endeavour’s monumental journey, 250 years later.

The exhibition and film Beauty, Rich and Rare are on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History through July 5, 2020.

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