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The Hidden Lives of Plants: Botanical Illustrations from the V&A

22 Jun 2024 – 10 Nov 2024

Regular hours

10:00 – 17:00
10:00 – 17:00
10:00 – 17:00
10:00 – 17:00
10:00 – 17:00
10:00 – 17:00

Free admission

Save Event: The Hidden Lives of Plants: Botanical Illustrations from the V&A

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The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Birmingham, United Kingdom


Travel Information

  • By Bus: Nos 61, 62 and 63 leave the city centre (Corporation Street or Navigation St). The bus stops at the bottom of Navigation Street (ask for the University).
  • By Car: Take the A38 (Bristol Road), turning onto Edgbaston Park Road. Parking is available in the University's South Car Park, with the Barber Institute situated at the top of the hill opposite King Edward's School, two minutes walk from the car pa
  • By Train: University Station is a five minute walk from the Barber Institute on the campus. Trains leave New Street station regularly and take approximately 10 minutes.
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This exhibition presents some of the almost 1,000 botanical illustrations in the V&A’s collection. Many are objects of beauty and artistry - but when their complex histories are explored, these plants also reveal fascinating insights about medicine, commerce, gender roles, and colonisation.


There are almost 1,000 botanical illustrations in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection – ranging from scientific diagrams documenting medicinal plants to merchandising images that adorn seed packets. Many of these illustrations also exist as objects of beauty in their own right. They depict flowers and plants that have, over the centuries, had their own particular uses and values: the common-or-garden foxglove, harvested for centuries for its life-saving – although, also if taken in excess, lethal – sap; the flamboyant tulip, whose bulbs became tokens of trade and financial speculation, worth more than their weight in gold in the 17th-century Dutch Republic; and the sunflowers, grown to clear radiation at Chernobyl – among many other examples.

Some of these histories are well-known; others are now more obscure. The talented University of Birmingham MA Art History and Curating students developing this exhibition have selected some of the most intriguing and beautiful botanical illustrations from the V&A’s collection, – as well as items from the University of Birmingham’s Winterbourne House and Garden and Cadbury Research Library – to tell these stories.

The images have been selected on the grounds of the beauty and biographies of the plants, and offer valuable insights into the roles these alluring and complex living creatures played in medicine, commerce, gender roles and colonial histories. Research is presented throughout the exhibition in conversation with contributions from gardeners and natural scientists, social scientists and curators, revealing the fascinating and often unexpected lives of plants – and the images that represent them.

This is the first project in a new annual exhibition partnership between the Barber, the V&A and the University’s Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies. The Hidden Lives of Plants will be enhanced by a programme of engagement events for all ages, including a nature-themed family art festival in August and a series of gallery talks.

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