Five Lessons for Life from Working on the Horniman’s Historical Herbarium

Written by Imogen Crarer during a student placement at the Horniman Museum and Gardens early last year. Imogen recently graduated from King’s College, London with an MA in Modern History with Distinction and is currently training as a curator at the Museum of Cornish Life.

You may think that I have taken slight leave of my senses or perhaps am being a pinch too ambitious in claiming that the Horniman’s historical botany collection is the source of 5 significant life lessons. However, “Yes! To science and history but also yes to life!” is my cheerful reply. Instead of dancing away merrily in a fit of musical theatre style exuberance, I shall explain how my student placement with the Natural History department researching the Herbarium gave me such insight.

Life Lesson Number 1: Often, the Simple or Basic Tasks are the Most Important.

Everything starts somewhere. My time at the Horniman highlighted that research processes and the museum journey of cataloguing, conserving and interpreting specimens for scholarly and public benefit has to begin with the basic “’ello ‘ello, what have we here?”. In my case, what we had were unbound volumes of Flora Britannica- physical specimens attached to annotated sheets collected mostly within the 1840s.

Having never previously been catalogued, the data from the handwritten labels on these specimens needed entering into the Horniman’s Collections Management System, Mimsy XG. Recording information on the database, such as scientific name, locality, and date collected, allows Horniman staff, volunteers and future researchers to know what is in the herbarium and explore its significance without having to disturb the specimens. While handy for convenience, it also helps us to conserve the specimens as repeated handling can damage these fragile, and beautiful, preserved plants. However it soon became apparent that the basic task of deciphering the handwriting and researching historical localities and common names was time-consuming, frustrating but also very rewarding. Transcribing the data from the specimens onto the database, I felt was my most useful contribution to the Horniman, and therefore my biggest achievement. It reminded me that taking the time to give yourself a solid foundation helps in anything that you do!

The collections management database used by the Horniman Museum; Mimsy XG. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Life Lesson Number 2: Little Things can Tell us a Great Deal.

The 175+ year old botanical specimens preserved in the herbaria have both historical and scientific significance. The specimens vary in size from approximately 2 cm to 30 cm in length, and the detail of delicate moss spores, flower buds, and leaf structures for example is wonderful. The specimen sheets tell us about the plants themselves. They also reveal a snapshot of the English countryside in the 1840s, particularly around Thame, Oxfordshire. Knowing the historical what, when and where allows us to make comparisons with current ecological data. This helps us to understand if and how plant species have spread or declined. This is particularly important for meadow flowers (represented strongly in the volumes I was working on) given that 97% of British meadows have been lost since 1945[1]. I feel that the Horniman’s historical botany collection and the present drive to conserve Britain’s green spaces and limit climate change, habitat destruction and pollution are much more linked than we might think.

One of a number of unbound herbaria held in the collections. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Not only that, looking closely at the specimens showed how preservation practices have changed over time. Mercury glows orange under the light of a UV torch and tiny fluorescent flecks suggest that mercury was present in the glues and pest repellents used on the specimen sheets. Today, collectors avoid using adhesives and preservatives containing toxic materials like mercury, and museums use much safer methods of collection care. Picture in your mind’s eye the two solemn gentlemen collectors in Victorian dress – Dr Ayres and Mr Brocas – poring over their specimens and painstakingly preserving and gluing them onto paper sheets. Compare this image with one of me at work, featuring blue nitrile gloves, acid-free paper and a protective mask!

Personal Protection Equipment must be worn at all times when dealing with historical herbaria. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Life Lesson Number 3: Sharing is Caring.

These Flora Britannica specimen volumes help us to understand the developments in Victorian botany. They show us that there was a growing network of amateur botanists recording Britain’s flora in the nineteenth century. Many of the specimen sheets have labels specifying the collector and the communicator, and linking them to associations such as The Botanical Society of London, The Royal Society and The Botanical Society of Edinburgh. We know that amateur and professional botanists communicated and commonly transferred botanical specimens between societies and different private collections. This network helped share knowledge and, despite some apparent personality clashes and competition between societies, helped Victorian botanists in their shared aim of furthering their knowledge of British flora.

One of the original specimen labels annotating the sheets. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Life Lesson Number 4: Things are not Always What they Seem.

As in life, drama, debate and controversy are also present in the unassuming specimen pages of the Horniman’s botany collection: Stone vs. Ayres and the curious case of the handwriting. Correctly uncovering exactly who was so active in recording Oxfordshire plants, and who was the key contributor to the collection, puzzled scholar David Allen (author of The Botanists: A History of the Botanical Society of the British Isles through 150 years) and later, Katie Ott (the previous intern working on the herbaria at the Horniman Museum) and yes, then it puzzled me too! I discovered that as well as the Horniman’s collection, specimens collected around Thame, in Oxfordshire with very similar handwriting are also held by the University of Birmingham. The dates and handwriting on these specimens are the same as many of the Birmingham specimens that came from Sir John Benjamin Stone’s collection, that have been attributed to him. However, David Allen argues that Dr Phillip Ayres was responsible for the Thame specimens given that he lived and worked in Oxfordshire, and Stone would only have been 6 years old at the time of collection. Ayres’ private collection was split between various eminent institutions such as the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh. Some also went to private buyers. Two such buyers were Sir Stone and Mr Frederick Yorke Brocas. Brocas’ collection, including Ayres’ specimens, came to the Horniman Museum whilst Stone’s was donated to the University of Birmingham. As such, I wonder whether the source of the beautiful handwriting and botanical specimens that form the majority of the Horniman collection is, in fact, Dr Ayres?

A herbarium sheet showing the pressed plant and some annotations. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Life Lesson Number 5: Wonderful Things are Under our Noses.

Just imagine – it’s the 1840s and a delicate meadow flower entrances a busy bee in the fields of Thame Park, an easily-overlooked moss velvets the stones at the foot of an old wall, and the frond of a fern gently unfurls on the damp shady side of a fallen beech tree in Stokenchurch Woods.

These plants had the power to captivate the attention of Victorian botanists and still do in the present day; be it those inside the Flora Britannica volumes, or still growing, in the wild. To take a peek at the plants around us, as well as preserved botanical specimens, is to look over the shoulder of Victorian botanists and become part of a scientific and historical tradition. Smell, (gently) touch, admire and respect living plants! Enjoy the fun of common names such as Cuckoo Flower or Lady’s Smock and swirl scientific names like Cardamine pratensis around your mouth. Remember things don’t have to be exotic to be wonderful, sometimes they are right under our noses!

Cuckoo flower in bloom. © Andreas Eichler (image in public domain).

For more information on herbaria, you can visit the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.

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