BARON von MUELLER & ROYAL BOTANIC GARDENS VICTORIA
Baron Ferdinand von Mueller was appointed Victoria’s first Government Botanist in 1853, establishing the National Herbarium of Victoria the same year. From then until his retirement in 1896, he built the foundations of what is today one of Australia’s most important dried plant, algae and fungi collections – the State Botanical Collection, which is widely recognised internationally as being both historically and botanically significant.
Von Mueller was an eccentric outsider, a global scientific powerhouse and an extraordinarily complex character and he has a tale to tell! His controversial dismissal as director of the Gardens in 1873, which made headlines at the time and was the subject of fierce debates in Parliament, and his subsequent refusal to ever set foot in his beloved gardens again, are much documented and provide a classic tragic arc for our main character.
In our re-imagining, this self-imposed exile ends as he finally re-enters the Gardens in a blissful reverie, awash with wonder at the extent of his scientific legacy and the sheer power and beauty of the growth before him. As we wander down the garden path, with the Baron as our companion, he reveals the joys, sorrows and challenges of his life in a botanical confessional: the haunting image of his dead sister present in a cathedral of towering gums; his childlike delight in discovery, and the punishing endurance in the field of a man obsessed. His much publicised failure to marry, which stands in stark contrast to his enduring love of our native flora and his ongoing encouragement of female collectors at the height of the patriarchal Victorian era, add to the rich potential to be explored in this audio narrative. We will hear from some of the many women who collected for him, the citizen-scientist-artists of the C19th, who broke with conventions of the time and were empowered to educate themselves in the name of science.
But the Baron is also deeply challenged on his journey. He is shocked to come across his name on a plaque featuring a poem by writer, Bruce Pascoe, placed in the gardens as part of New Shoots: A Garden of Poems, the 2017 collaboration between Red Room Poetry and RBGV:
Exotica, unnecessary really,
when you could have a fox and a rabbit,
a trout and a blackberry,
thank you Ferdinand von Mueller,
creator of the gardens,
destroyer of rivers,
the founder of the real Australia.
Although he did much to encourage the productive use of native flora he is forced to confront the environmental havoc produced from his own actions, like introducing blackberries, and the larger, lasting impact of colonisation, which leave him saddened and hollow. He asks us to not be like him, caught up in his own world of power and knowledge, but to widen our gaze and ponder the future that we are in the process of creating.