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Cabinet Culture: Cultivating Aesthetic, Ecological, and Heritage Value in Human-Houseplant Relations

By Giulia Carabelli and Matthew Beach

Houseplants share and make home with us, but they are often perceived as just pretty objects. Yet these beings have been crucial to human history and development across the globe. How would the stories we tell about our planet’s history differ if we re-centred plants? How might we imagine the future as unfolding collaboratively with them? To do so, we – curators Giulia Carabelli and Matthew Beach, both based at Queen Mary – teamed up with a botanical illustrator, a social media content-creator, and the Garden Museum. Combining our existing skills and knowledge about plants, as well as new research, we created an exhibit on the museum’s Community Wall and a dedicated Instagram page @cabinetcultures where we share our ongoing research process.

Why Cabinet Cultures?

As part of our research, we adopted a popular houseplant practice of keeping plant companions in modified IKEA display cabinets to investigate our relationships with plants at home. These cabinets become (sub)tropical oases via the addition of weather sealing, humidifiers, grow lights, circulation fans, and shelving. Some cabinet curators even fully plant out their displays (think zoo reptile enclosures!) and include microfauna for additional bioactivity. We collectively recognise these sets of practices as ‘cabinet cultures’: the way humans make relationships with houseplants at this unique meeting of care, technology, interior design, and living critters.

IKEA greenhouse cabinets were made popular on Instagram in the late-2010s by Dutch disability care worker Robin Schouten, who became interested in houseplants one year when trying to find a Christmas tree. Arriving home with a blue star fern (Phlebodium aureum) instead, however, she found it difficult to keep the plant happy due to her home’s dry conditions. Curious about keeping a greenhouse indoors, but dissatisfied with many of the plastic-based offerings, she noticed a small number of people keeping plants in their IKEA cabinets. But early cabinet curators were not forthcoming about their ‘hacking’ methods, and thus Robin created #ikeagreenhousecabinet alongside @ikeagreenhousecabinet as a way to build community and share knowledge.

What’s growing in our cabinets?

Cabinet Cultures looks at three plant families/genera with relation to value: Scindapsus, Tradescantia, and Bromeliaceae.

We grow Scindapsus for its attractive shape, form, and pattern—as well as its price tag. Cuttings of cultivars not found in garden centres often go from between mid-double digits to low-treble. Scindapsus ‘Mayari’, for example, is often sold in the form of a one-leaf cutting. The plant’s latent growth node is seen as potential for growing into surplus value, with even ‘wet sticks’—unrooted single node cuttings—auctioned for nearly a hundred pounds. In this cabinet, we highlight the aesthetic and monetary values of houseplants. Some purchase plants because they find them beautiful but also because they can be financial investments when considered rare or less readily available.

Tradescantia was chosen for its relevance to the Garden Museum, as it is home to the burial place of John Tradescant, after whom the plants are named. Tradescantia has been cultivated for hundreds of years, but has seldom been the subject of horticultural research. The plants’ ‘type species’ Tradescantia virginiana—the plant upon which the genuses’ taxonomy is based—is debated as whether the plant cultivated in Europe was actually this species or a hybrid of two or several species. In this cabinet, we focus on the historical and archival value of plants. Plants played a crucial role in Imperial expansions and related scientific projects. When we bring a plant home, we also bring home the history—often violent—that characterised that plant’s journey into cultivation.

Bromeliaceae (often referred to as bromeliads) is of interest in the expanded family due to relevance across several genera (as opposed to the singular genus Tradescantia or Scindapsus’) as ecologically relevant or ‘useful’ such as Vriesea, a popular species but also habitat to various species of frogs; Ananas, home to the pineapple as an important food crop but also status symbol in the Victorian era; and Bromelia, which is used by several South American Indigenous communities as a source of fibre for use in making fishing nets, bags, and clothing. In this cabinet, we remind ourselves that plants are crucial to support life on this planet: critters and humans alike.

When we bring houseplants home, not only do they bring beauty, they also bring histories, financial markets, and ecologies. Cabinet Cultures enacts conversations about these different value systems in and outside academia, about the importance of re-centring plants when accounting for the planet’s future, and about how plants help us co-produce the world. What we learn from living with houseplants can lead to re-thinking how we live with plants in general, a principal concern for the academic field we draw from, ‘critical plant studies’.

Matthew Beach and Giulia Carabelli

Cabinet Culture: Cultivating Aesthetic, Ecological, and Heritage Value in Human-Houseplant Relations is on display at the Garden Museum until 8 September.

Project funded by Queen Mary, University of London.

Photos by Ben Deakin
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