Collection and Translation: Plants, Buildings, Technologies, and Labor between Southern France and the United States in the Late Eighteenth Century

English Language and Literature; Human Geography; History of Art, Architecture and Archaeology; Race, Ethnicity and post-Colonial Studies; History of Science, Technology, and Medicine

We recover the translation of elements of the cultural landscapes of 18th-century France to the US to explore the nature of the archive and produce a digital repository and museum exhibit.

Research Interests
  • Built environment
  • Cultural and museum studies
  • Cultural Landscape Studies
  • plant humanities
  • history of technology
  • transatlantic studies
  • race and labor

This project brings together multiple modes of knowledge production—textual, art historical, cultural landscapes, historical, experiential—to explore what is seen and what is unspoken, what is translated and what is left behind. It asks wide-ranging questions related to intercultural and transnational borrowing and translation of plants and agricultural methods, labor practices, engineering technology, and architectural and urban design, focusing on the cultural landscapes of 18th century Southern France and its connections to the United States and the Americas. It also aims to recover the understudied history of people of color in rural France, many of whom emigrated from France’s colonies in the tumultuous decades around the turn of the nineteenth century.


This project opens out from sites derived from Thomas Jefferson’s travels in France in the spring of 1787, using his writing not as the subject of the research, but rather as a place to begin an exploration of the themes of borrowing and translation, based in cultural landscapes. In describing what he saw while traveling in southern France, Jefferson sought information—on valuable plants, canal design, architecture, etc.—that he could translate into the American context. These travels are full of close descriptions but also curious lacunae. Crucially, although he criticizes the poor condition of French peasants, he ignores their connection to the enslaved Black workers on whom American agriculture depended. In addition, while Jefferson was the prime influence on the creation of the American grid through the Land Ordinances of 1784 and 1785, he never once mentions in his papers his experience with the grids of the medieval bastide towns in Languedoc he travelled through and stayed in. One of our goals in the project is to explore the nature of archives and to use available materials, often beyond the traditional archives, to recover histories and experiences that were not preserved—or at least not preserved in written form, in part to explore what is seen but not described.


Jefferson’s travels can be understood as both a version of the Grand Tour, European travels based on curiosity and learning that were part of the education of elite European and American men, and especially architects, and as a form of bioprospecting, the colonial project of collecting plants for the enrichment of the collector. This project takes a broad cultural landscapes approach and aligns with the priorities of UVA’s new cultural landscapes initiatives that “emphasize cultural landscapes and natural places that reveal history, locally and nationally.”


Through a series of sites in France and Northern Italy, we will interrogate collecting (of plants, architectural forms, and technology) and bioprospecting as colonial projects. Our exploration of bioprospecting and agriculture will focus particularly on viticulture sites in Champagne and Bordeaux, rice growing in the Piedmont of Northern Italy, and olives in Provence. To explore questions of labor, we will focus on agricultural sites including Champagne, Languedoc, and Provence. One of our foci will be the chateaux of Jefferson’s peers, such as the Chateau de Laye Epinaye in the Rhone, which, like plantations, served as centers of agricultural production. The Canal du Midi, a mechanism for the transportation of goods on the cutting edge of transportation technology in the late 18th century, which pulled disparate regions of France together, will serve as the focus of our exploration of technology and engineering. Multiple classical sites, notably in Nimes and Arles, as well as less prominent sites such as the Roman theater of Orange and a temple in Vienne, will be the focus of our exploration of the borrowing of architectural form. We will also explore borrowing from the urban spaces of Marseilles and Aix en Provence. We will examine how these plants, labor practices, technologies, and built forms were translated within the US through research and fieldwork in Virginia.


The exploration of these sites and themes will combine archival research, secondary research, and experiential research in the form of fieldwork. Fieldwork will allow for a broader understanding both of the embeddedness of agricultural, labor, engineering, and architectural practices within a cultural landscape, and will also allow us to better recognize the lacunae produced both by our usual forms of knowledge production and by our primary documents. Collaboration across disciplines, both between faculty and students, will also help to highlight both lacunae and the nature of evidence as understood across different disciplines. Different faculty members within the project will focus on different thematic strands, and student work will extend outward from these central strands, potentially intertwining them and bringing in more themes that emerge from the research.

Desired outcomes

This project has two concrete outcomes, a digital repository and an exhibit, but its most important outcomes will be the insight into methods of knowledge production, and the knowledge gained about the prospecting and translation of plants, technologies, labor practices, and urban and architectural forms and the ways that these are embedded in cultural landscapes both in France and the United States. This research will be disseminated through conference papers and published articles, will be part of student theses and dissertations, and will also feed into the classroom.


In collaboration with the faculty and staff researchers, students will curate an exhibit of prints, maps, drawings and photographs, to be housed at the Fralin Museum of Art or in the School of Architecture school, depending on the number and fragility of the works and the timing of the exhibition.  The exhibition will introduce the university audience and wider public to the complex cultural landscapes of southern France and the ways that its elements were translated into the American context, and will make visible how different sources reveal or conceal landscape histories and realities. The exhibit might explore, for example, how historic maps and prints frequently differ from one another, let alone when compared to modern day maps and landscape photography, as well as the role of books, prints, seeds, and pressed plants in the circulation of horticultural knowledge

The digital project will be associated with UVA’s Center for Cultural Landscapes (CCL), of which Jessica Sewell is Co-Director, and will be a useful resource for the CCL’s ongoing Charlottesville and Virginia Cultural Landscapes Atlas Projects. It will create a repository of the compiled sources, such as early maps, timelines, narratives, drawings, and photography, which will allow interactive exploration among the project’s core themes and would allow the work to endure. Conceived in the form of a database or website, one example that can be used as a model is Columbia University’s Mapping Gothic France project: M. Jordan Love was a key member of this project and engaged in all elements of how it was researched, documented, and created. The interdisciplinary research would be combined and overlapped: plants could be photographed and mapped to specific locations, historic drawings could be grouped with technological schematics, descriptions could be matched to prints and photographs. This research would act as an ever-evolving space for future projects to build off of faculty and students’ initial discoveries and would also be used in teaching.