Professor Ray’s book research findings at global conference on all things tea – Syracuse University News | Candle Made Easy

From its botanical properties to its existence as a global commodity, its role in international relations and the culture surrounding its consumption, tea has brought people from all over the world together for a variety of reasons for centuries.

An academic gathering that discussed all aspects of tea from a range of research perspectives and practical viewpoints did the same when people from all walks of life and from 50 countries attended a virtual conference hosted by Romita Ray, Associate Professor at the College of Arts and Sciences, co-organized. She coordinated Tea: Nature, Culture, Society, 1650-1850 with Professor Richard Coulton of Queen Mary University of London and Professor Jordan Goodman of University College London in collaboration with Isabelle Charmantier and Padmaparna Ghosh of London’s Linnean Society. For three days in June, speakers from science, agriculture, industry and museums addressed the natural, cultural and social history of tea between the mid-17th and mid-19th centuries.

Ray is a professor of art history and comes from a family of tea planters in India. The idea for an all-encompassing tea conference came about in 2018 when she accepted a Caird Short-Term Research Fellowship at the Royal Museums Greenwich to examine the maritime history of the tea trade between China and India. After being introduced by Professors Coulton and Goodman, the ideas of hosting a meeting to discuss the importance of tea worldwide in all its facets began to swirl in many directions.

“All of a sudden, like a tea bush, my own research arm was growing these different tentacles and I was dragging them back into the tea conference,” says Ray. “It was a real pleasure to help organize the conference as the circle of tea expands itself and sees it through different but overlapping lenses.”

The conference allowed Ray to present some of her research on wildlife on tea plantations. She was awarded a 2020 Syracuse University Collaboration for Unprecedented Success and Excellence (CUSE) grant and is writing a book on the art, aesthetics, and science of tea in colonial and modern India.

Romita Ray

Other speakers discussed tea through the prisms of natural history, scientific research, commerce and consumption, technology and innovation, material culture, sea voyages, and revolution and war. The combination offered people from different academic disciplines new contexts on tea and created connections for those who had both “the living knowledge of tea growing and the academic knowledge of tea,” says Ray.

A global commodity

Though many may not realize it, tea’s rise to prominence as perhaps the first modern globalized commodity resulted from more than just the commercial endeavors of tea merchants, according to the professor. This also happened because there existed an extensive cultural framework of knowledge and practices surrounding tea production, trade and consumption, created by people in China, Britain, Europe and India. She notes: “Tea was a very competitive product. It has sparked several human stories because of human ambition or desire — and that story is tremendous.”

Collections of team items

The conference was financially supported by the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest society devoted to the history of science, as well as Syracuse University, the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, and Syracuse University alumnus Todd B. Rubin ’04, who runs The Republic of Tea.

It had been pushed back two years due to COVID when organizers decided to move the conference online. This expanded the scope of the audience and the ability to add different types of presentations. A unique aspect was that curators of tea-related items from nine institutions in India, Taiwan, the United States and the United Kingdom were able to visually present their collections to interested viewers around the world.

Videos on botany, the history of porcelain and gardens as well as global trade and shipping were interspersed with informative presentations. The range of subjects has created new ways of thinking about the material history of tea, says Ray. Panel presentations featuring curators, tea planters and the Chair of the Tea Research Association of India concluded each day.

Alumni Participation

Two Syracuse University alumni who were involved in the conference recognized the achievements.

Alumnus Rubin says he’s thrilled to have supported the event, as learning and giving back are core personal values. “Tea is steeped in history and has had a limitless impact on so many different cultures,” says Rubin. “I’m proud that so many people around the world have had the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of tea.”

Margot Finn ’80, who majored in biology at Syracuse and is now one of the world’s leading historians of British history and a faculty member at University College London, agrees. “The conference showcased all that is best in 21st century academic research collaboration, seamlessly weaving new perspectives from history, literary studies and material culture on the one hand and museology, scientific research and agricultural practice on the other. The happy result of this collaborative project was a cornucopia, not cacophony. Enlightening new ways of thinking about the diverse worlds that tea has inhabited and shaped will inform research and teaching around the world for the next decade.”

“The conference provided a wonderful opportunity to explore tea from many different perspectives,” says Ray. “It was a tremendous learning experience, not only about the multi-faceted plant product we know as tea, but also about how to bring together people from academia, museums, archives, tea research institutes, the tea industry and the general public in a series of interdisciplinary conversations via a well-known sheet goods. And it was particularly exciting to bring to life the story of a plant-based raw material that has long occupied scientists.”

The professor says she is grateful to the CUSE grant program, Rubin and Rosalie Stevens of SI Newhouse School of Public Communications (who captioned the videos) for their support of the event. The Linnean Society airs conference presentations on its YouTube channel.

Now, Ray hopes her extensive research, her connections to tea interests around the world, and her forthcoming book will help create an understanding that tea is so much more than just a tasty, popular beverage, she says. “The history of tea is not separate from us; It’s a story that continues to this day. It sits in your cup of tea every day.”

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