The Unlikely Tale of Labillardière

I thought it was all over. The leaves were on the wall, the textbooks open on display, the spotlight positioned carefully.

I came back to the gallery the day after installation to find that, to my horror, some of the greener leaves had completely shrivelled up after a day in the heat on the wall. What once were beautifully intricate botanical designs with perfectly positioned shadows are now merely a shrivelled scrawl, almost impossible to decipher from the original design.

At first I was nothing short of disappointed, so unhappy at the fact that my hard work had seemingly gone to waste. That was until an onlooker who was observing my project at the time told me a story of a botanist called Jacques-Julien Houtou de Labillardière.

During a voyage between 1768 and 1771, which entailed the circumnavigation of mainland Australia and Van Diemen’s Land, Labillardiere gathered 4000 specimens of flora, 3000 of them completely original to science. The collection of specimens would, throughout its existence, encounter and survive numerous ordeals, trials and tribulations. O’Malley (2018) writes of this collection’s unmatched significance to scientific research: “to a botanist, the story of Labillardière’s collection is extraordinary, but the samples carry a more intrinsic importance.”

“The value of each specimen lies not only in the organic matter, but in the work of the botanist who collected it. Because scientists know precisely where and when a given specimen was collected and under what conditions, they can study how environments change over time, the impact of human development, of climate change. It is the act of scientific collection, linked to the collected material, that makes the specimens so important.”

(O’Malley, 2018)

However on the morning of April 7, 2017, the unthinkable happened to these irreplaceable and priceless speciemens. O’Malley writes that Marc Jeanson, the director of the world’s largest and oldest herbarium, the Jardin des Plantes received a message stating the inconceivable truth. “It told him that a package of 105 botanical specimens of Australian plants owned by the Jardin des Plantes – and gathered by an intrepid French botanist more than 200 years earlier – had been destroyed by Australian biosecurity officials” (O’Malley, 2018).

While it still, to this day, is not completely understood what happened to these specimens, the story brought back to reality to contextual concept upon which this entire project was originally formed. That is, the conflicting relationship between the fragility of nature and the rigid, algorithmic essence of technology.

At the time of cutting, these leaves were pristine in their form. They were almost completely flat and, in turn, produced the most beautifully intricate designs. Yet, after a day or two in the unprotected weather and heat, the leaves ran their natural course and became dehydrated and shrivelled at the lack of water, completely destroying the designs which were created by the laser cutter.

The story of Labillardière’s lost specimens is a timely reminder of this consistently juxtaposed relationship between the incredibly high tech capabilities of the laser cutter, and the very simple and natural aesthetic of leaves and bark. Whilst in this case there really has not been a profound loss of something as significant as the rare specimens, it is certainly an interesting thought to consider.


O’Malley, N 2018, ”Would you burn the Mona Lisa if it was sent?’: Our horror bureaucratic bungle’, The Sydney Morning Herald, online article, 23 February, accessed 9 November 2019, available at <>

Published by susiealdermann

Fifth Year Bachelor of Communications and Media/ Bachelor of International Studies (Dean's Scholar) student

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: