Cabinet Cultures: East London Ecologies

A new temporary exhibit & summer events programme exploring Queen Mary's surrounding ecologies and histories

Come and explore at The Old Library, Garrod Building, Whitechapel Campus from 30 April–31 July 2024 

Cabinet Cultures: East London Ecologies in partnership with the Students' Union, presents the second iteration of Cabinet Cultures, an ongoing cross-industry research partnership that combines social media content alongside physical exhibits to explore how we attach value to houseplants and how we can collectively change attitudes towards them. The project was initiated in 2023 by Giulia Carabelli (School of Politics and International Relations) and Matthew Beach (School of Geography and current Vice President Communities), with the first iteration funded via the HSS Collaboration and Strategic Impact Fund and physical exhibit hosted by London’s Garden Museum

Cabinet Cultures emerges from a popular houseplant practice of keeping plant companions in modified IKEA display cabinets and investigates our relationships with plants in interior spaces. 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. Cabinet Cultures’ contributors 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. 

For its second iteration, Cabinet Cultures: East London Ecologies brings together student representatives, artists and academics to explore Queen Mary’s surrounding ecologies and histories through three vegetal strands across three modified IKEA ÅKERBÄR greenhouse units: ferns, medicinal plants and mosses. 

Modified IKEA ÅKERBÄR units in The Old Library for the Cabinet Cultures project

Modified IKEA ÅKERBÄR units in The Old Library

Fern species are highlighted as one of the catalysts for the IKEA greenhouse cabinet phenomena. IKEA ÅKERBÄR units are also modelled after Wardian cases, specialised containers developed in the 19th century to study living ferns within London amongst high air pollution as well as transport living plant material to and from colonies and Imperial centres. Wardian cases were invented by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, who was a physician by training, reflecting the Garrod building’s status as a medical teaching facility. 

Medicinal plants follow, echoing Barts and the London Sustainability Officer and medical student Alexandre Duponcheele’s interest in expanding biodiversity knowledge amongst students and staff. This unit catalogues the Mile End canal banks’ diverse medicinal plant inhabitants and traces the boundary between interior and exterior domestic gardening. 

Mosses inhabit the third unit coinciding with ongoing research conducted by artists and computer science postgraduate research students Nirit Binyamini Ben Meir and Erin Robinson. Here the focus is on the ways in which technology and living mosses can be combined while demonstrating how these beings react to stimuli and changes to their environmental conditions (e.g. moisture and temperature change) in real time. Mosses are embedded within houseplant cultures as propagation and pot topping media. 

Nirit Binyamini Ben Meir facilitating the construction of the moss greenhouse unit during Climate Action Week.

Nirit Binyamini Ben Meir facilitating the construction of the moss greenhouse unit during Climate Action Week. 

The units were initially constructed as part of a Climate Action Week workshop in which students and staff participants learned about greenhouse cabinets while helping construct the exhibit’s units. Alongside the physical exhibit and forthcoming social media content, the contributors are also hosting a summer events programme related to the project and Nirit is conducting a period of research focusing on the moss unit throughout the month of May. The physical exhibit will be on display throughout the third term and summer. Students and staff are invited to use the marker pens provided to participate, writing reflections based on encounters with the exhibit and programming directly onto the units’ windows.  

Cabinet Cultures: East London Ecologies is generously supported by Queen Mary’s Sticky Campus programme, the Enhancing Research & Innovation Cultures Fund and the Students’ Union. 

Events programme

24 April, 12pm-2pm: Cabinet Cultures x Study Well Allotment Gardening 

8–27 May: Plants in Public Spaces ongoing research with Nirit Binyamini Ben Meir 

4 June, 12:30pm-2:30pm: Cabinet Cultures Collaborative Storytelling at the Peopling the Palace(s) Festival 

7 June, 1pm onwards: Chelsea Physic Garden Cool Fernery Visit (postgraduate research students only) 

8 June, 11:30am-4:30pm (Drop-in anytime): Bussin' Bryophytes at the Festival of Communities 

12 June, 12pm–3pm: Cabinet Cultures x Study Well Photographic Printmaking Workshop 

21 June, 3pm-5pm: Selfies and Shelfies: a Horticultural History of Photography with Ann Garascia as part of the Environmental Futures Programme 

All events’ details can be viewed on our What's On page under the category ‘Cabinet Cultures’! 

About the contributors

Matthew Beach is the 2023/2024 Vice President for Communities at Queen Mary Students’ Union. Outside of his tenure as a Sabbatical Officer, he is an artist and postgraduate research student in the School of Geography. His practice spans photography, printmaking, video, installation and writing to explore the entanglements between place, the photographic and care in more-than-human worlds.  He regularly collaborates with sociologist and senior lecturer Giulia Carabelli, principally on Cabinet Cultures. 

Giulia Carabelli is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology (Social Theory) in the School of Politics and International Relations and the Director of the Environmental Futures research programme in the Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Her current research, Care for Plants, explores the roles of houseplants in making home during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond. In 2023, with Matthew Beach, she co-curated Cabinet Cultures: Cultivating Aesthetic, Ecological and Heritage Value in Human-Houseplant Relations, an exhibit at London’s Garden Museum about the values of houseplants in our homes. 

Nirit Binyamini Ben Meir is an artist, designer and postgraduate research student in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science. Her work explores the interconnection between society, technology and ecology. Nirit’s main research interests are around More-Than-Human Interactions and the integration of living organisms into digital interactions. She investigates how these hybrid interactions may influence people's perceived accountability and their engagement with ecological stewardship. 

Erin Robinson is an artist and postgraduate research student in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science. She focuses on researching design patterns to support open-ended play experiences in adulthood with interactive installations, with the goal of supporting well-being, creativity, physicality and social interaction among players. In particular, she is interested in casual creators and looks to build on her previous experience of designing interactive installations to support exploratory art and music creation. 

Patrick Healey is a Professor of Human Interaction and Head of the Cognitive Science Research Group in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science. He recently served as Senior Researcher in Residence at the Digital Catapult and as 2016 International Visiting Chair in Empirical Foundations of Linguistics at Sorbonne Cite / Paris 7. His research focuses on understanding the mechanisms of human-human interaction and the development of technologies that can enable richer, more effective forms of communication. 

Alexandre Duponcheele is a third-year medical student with long-standing interests in public health and health economics, as well as the Barts and the London Sustainability Officer in the Queen Mary Students’ Union. He is passionate about furthering the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals within and beyond Queen Mary. 



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