Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt's collecting interests brought together aspects of art, history, science and literature as they related to plants and gardens. Her private book collection was well known, and her scholarship led her also to collect related artworks, portraits and manuscripts significant in the history of botany. Her collecting efforts, as well as those of the early Hunt Botanical Library staff, focused on publications and manuscripts from 1730 to 1840, a period of intense intellectual ferment and productivity in botanical history.
Rachel McMasters Miller Hunt displaying one of the rare books from her collection in the late 1950s or early 1960s. HI Archives portrait no. 1.
In the eighteenth century, Linnaeus and his contemporaries actively sought to construct new systems for interpreting the interrelationships of the natural world, and written communication about this work increased dramatically. The proliferation of botanical publications in this period, coupled with bibliographic complexities which disappeared following the introduction of new technologies for mass production of books and serials, make this 17301840 period an area of particular interest for Hunt Institute, not only in terms of collecting but also in terms of bibliographic and historical study. Institute collecting and research interests are not limited to that period, though, and today the Institute continues to collect, use and make available a wide variety of historical and retrospective materials, as well as their modern counterparts.
Mrs. Hunt's book collection included incunabula (books printed from movable type prior to 1501), early herbals, early agricultural and horticultural works, 17th- through 19th-century color-plate books, and works on voyages of exploration and discovery. To these were later added publications on other aspects of botany, as well as on ancillary studies such as botanical bibliography, biography, art and illustration. Books were always her primary interest and formed the core of her personal library, around which collections of other types of material were assembled. Thus one of the Institute's strengths always has been the interlocking quality of its collections, wherein various aspects and products of an individual's life and work are documented, reproduced or held as original materials. The Institute also has focused continuously on building files of bibliographic data documenting the history of the published botanical record. This activity began as research on the library collection but soon expanded in scope to include information on publications not represented in the Institute's collections, so these bibliographic data files are a rich source of information on botanical documentation.
Mrs. Hunt assembled a collection of botanical art, partly with the objective of having some original artworks by every artist whose published work was in her collection of botanical books. Thus the art collection today includes paintings, drawings, engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, linocuts, serigraphs and other types of artworks as well as handcolored prints, many of which were produced as book plates in previous centuries.
In the early days of Hunt Botanical Library, a survey was made to determine the extent and character of similar botanical art collections at other botanical centers here in the U.S. and abroad. Because historical material was relatively well represented at a number of institutions (mostly European and a few American ones), the decision was made to pursue the acquisition of 20th-century works, which remain a speciality of the art collection today.
In some cases, the Institute sought to collect original artworks that were reproduced in botanical or horticultural books. Because many of the original botanical paintings and drawings that were reproduced in books of previous centuries were subsequently "lost," the historical importance of those artworks that were "rescued" or otherwise found and added to the Institute collection is appreciable. For many of those works, not even the identity of the artist is known, and for a few the Institute's are the only originals known to be extant.
In addition to collecting artworks and preserving examples of artists' and illustrators' work, the Institute always has tried to find information about the works' creators in order to document their lifetime activities and, in so doing, accumulate a body of knowledge about the history of botanical art.
The Institute's manuscript collection contains such items as letters, journals and diaries, field notes, documents, drafts of published and unpublished books and articles, annotated maps, passports, and other personal papers of botanists. The collection functions as a permanent repository for selected botanical manuscript material. The Institute's original manuscript collection, assembled by Mrs. Hunt, held 410 autographed signed letters from 176 persons, including many notable botanists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Although the primary focus of the manuscript collection is botanical, researchers in other subject areas can also find relevant material here. The collection includes material on such topics as travel and exploration from the 1700s to the present, nineteenth-century education in the U.S., scientific expeditions sponsored by the U.S. government, early medicine, social commentary, the sociology of science, and the diffusion of scientific knowledge.
The scope and accuracy of histories of botany and science written by biographers and historians will depend very substantially on the preservation and accessibility of manuscript collections like the Institute's.
Early in her collecting years, Mrs. Hunt sought information on those individuals whose names were commemorated in the names of plants she knew. She also sought correspondence of botanists of previous centuries. To these ends, she acquired biographical information about botanists, particularly about the authors whose books composed her library, but also about others who figured in the history of botany. Years later this accumulated information has grown into a very large databank which is now being translated to machine-readable form. In addition to the basic collection of biographical data, collections such as that of curricula vitae of 20th-century botanists bring the Institute's biographical efforts into the present day.
Mrs. Hunt collected images of botanists and other individuals who worked in the plant sciences, including authors of books in her collection, figures who had plants named after them, or men and women who played significant roles in botanical history. Engravings, medals and photographs are featured in the portrait collection, which is curated in the Institute's archives. The early decades of photography ushered in a new era of portraiture for everyone, and botanists were no exception; while a number of botanical centers throughout the world have collections of early photographs, very few institutions have sizable collections of 20th-century photographs of botanists. Collecting such portraits has become one of our strengths and an important part of our program.
Although Hunt Institute's mission has grown and evolved since 1961, Mrs. Hunt's nucleus collections and originating vision form the foundation on which the ongoing development of collections and programs is based. A comparison of the original and current collections is shown below:
Books and Serials
Prints, Drawings and Watercolors
Individual and Group Portraits
Autograph Letters and Manuscripts
Collected Papers 0
Detailed Bibliographic Records of Botanical Books and Periodicals 0