Not much tugs at the imagination more than objects, places, or living organisms with hybrid qualities. Author Rebecca Reynolds followed her muse to discover more about the history and mythology surrounding the plant aptly named: The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. In the following interview she elaborates on her own fascination with this curiosity that has a hybrid appearance of both vegetable and animal. A museum educator and graduate student in museum studies, Rebecca Reynolds likes to think about another type of hybrid as well: “…what happens when words and objects come together, particularly with museum labels.”
PY: How did you first hear about the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary? What drew you to it?
RR:I first came across it by chance on a visit to the Garden Museum in London. I suppose it first attracted me because it’s unusual within the museum—for a start, it doesn’t have anything to do with gardens (although it is a plant). I like the way in which museums often have objects which seem random—objects not included in any collections policy but which are valuable or intriguing and put on display.
The next time I saw it was with a group of international art and design students I took to the museum. At that point I was becoming interested in museums professionally and had started a Museum Studies Master of Arts (MA). I was thinking about what happens when words and objects come together, particularly in connection with museum labels. I indicated the object to a student who started reading the label and said ‘I’m tired already’ (because as a non-native English speaker he found the label hard to understand). So I wrote one of my MA essays on the label for the lamb, experimenting with a different kind of label which asked the reader if they thought it was a plant or animal—putting them in the place of others through history who have asked themselves the same question.
PY: What motivated you to write an article about this amazing piece of vegetation?
RR: Well, it’s an object which asks a question, it’s a bit of a mystery. Lambs were found in early cabinets of curiosity, and the idea of those cabinets full of curious, sometimes inexplicable, objects appeal to many people including myself. I’m currently working on a book about museum objects from around the UK and the Garden Museum lamb will feature in a section about objects which appeared in the early cabinets of curiosity.
Researching the lamb was an interesting, sometimes frustrating, process. As I looked into it more deeply I wasn’t sure how much evidence I had that anyone had ever believed lambs were half plant, half animal, but I had plenty of evidence that people thought others believed it (and they wanted to believe it themselves). There is a certain fascination of hybrid objects—for example, mermaids.
A myth has formed around the lamb which people have warmed to and elaborated on, as Stephen Baxter does in his novel Evolution. I would contrast it with more complex, more important objects, which tell us quite a bit about different cultures, or about life in the past—mummies, say, or commemorative monuments or agricultural tools. The lamb isn’t like that—we know lambs are fakes. But a lot of interpretation, research and imaginative responses have grown up around the lamb.
PY: How did you hear of Poor Yorick and what went into your decision to submit your essay “The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary?”
RR: I came across Poor Yorick in a tweet by author Paul McVeigh, who runs a very useful blog listing creative writing submission opportunities at http://paulmcveigh.blogspot.co.uk/. I was immediately attracted by Poor Yorick’s emphasis on writing about objects, including those in museums. I believe museums are wonderful and unique spaces, but for me they become most alive when I am creating something in response to them.