Conserving Garden Plant Diversity

Written by Yvette Harvey, Keeper of the Herbarium, Royal Horticultural Society, RHS Garden Wisley.

We live at a period in time where we are very familiar with the concept of mass extinctions that are likely to be caused by human intervention (from burning of the rain-forests, hunting and desertification through to global warming). As the years/decades/centuries progress, our preserved plant and animal [by which I mean anything that moves] collections find themselves being useful tools to provide empirical evidence for the causes of the above, outside of their main purpose of pure taxonomy (Thiers 2020: 219-242).

Following the recent closure of Kew’s Red Listing department, conservation is a subject that readily springs to mind. With c. 390 million specimens contained within the World’s herbaria, information captured in specimen labels has ultimately provided the data for calculating the Area of Occupancy and Extent of Occurrence, both of which play a large part in assessing the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red listing of a plant.

I am lucky to work with a specialist herbarium collection – one that contains ornamental plants based at RHS Garden Wisley. Yes, highly unlikely to play a role in an IUCN assessment, but all the same, a dried ornamental plant collection does play a vital role in conservation. Whilst Plant Heritage aims to conserve living plants, a herbarium that specialises in ornamentals (cultivars) can preserve material of long lost or even recently lost garden plants.

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We Brought Our Electric Ray Specimens Into The Lab…What Happened Next Will Shock You!

Written by Claire Smith, Project Officer at the Cole Museum of Zoology.

If you’ve been following the Cole Museum of Zoology on Twitter, you’ll know that the museum is closed at the moment – not only because of the COVID-19 lockdown, but also because we’re preparing our collections for their move into a brand new Life Sciences building. While the new museum may not be ready to open until 2021, we have plenty of work to do behind the scenes in the meantime.

Along with a team of staff and volunteers, I work on the fluid-preserved collections at the Cole Museum. As well as the ongoing task of keeping all of the wet specimens in good condition, we’re also putting some into safe storage, and getting others ready to go out on display. As part of my fluid-preservation Twitter, I share weekly threads about the kinds of tasks that the team takes on.

When specimens come into the lab needing work, we identify them from an abridged version of the museum’s catalogue. This gives us basic information such as the specimen’s accession number, its species, and what kind of fluid it’s preserved in. The majority of the Cole Museum’s specimens are fairly new, by museum standards – they’re mostly around 60 to 100 years old. Many of them have been re-sealed, re-mounted or been housed in new jars during this time, but every now and then we come across one which appears untouched. Continue reading

James J. Harrison: Unnatural History

Presented by Jim Middleton, Scarborough Museums Trust.

Abstract

Scarborough Museums Trust holds an archive of the big game hunter James Jonathan Harrison (1857-1923) comprising of not only the usual hunting trophies, but also a large number of photographs and nine hunting diaries. Shortly after his death, his collection was donated to Scarborough Corporation, where for many years it was displayed in the upper rooms of the library before eventually making its way to the towns Natural History Museum when that opened in 1952.

After several years of neglect, many of the mounts and trophy heads were destroyed or removed from cases and only through careful detective work have a number of mounts been able to be definitively attributed to this collection.

One of the more interesting aspects of this collection are the photographs and diaries which give an insight into his privileged lifestyle and insatiable appetite for shooting. In 2021/22 the museum is planning an exhibition based around Harrison’s photography which will have to address a number of difficult issues regarding not only the slaughter of hundreds of animals but also the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and especially the Congo.

In 1904/5 Harrison brought six ‘Pygmies’ from the Congo which at the time was under the brutal rule of the Belgians and toured them around the UK before returning them home. This historically has always been related in a cheery, anecdotal way with little regard for the clearly exploitative nature of the venture (bearing in mind that at around the same time the Bronx Zoo had a Congolese man on display in a cage). This aspect of the narrative will be retold in a way which makes people think a little more about the inherent racism within collections and how we can redress this.

This presentation contains distressing images.

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The Lost Artists Of British Enlightenment Natural History

Presented by Isabelle Charmantier, The Linnean Society of London.

Abstract

Taking the art collection of the Linnean Society of London as a case study, this paper looks at the many drawings, paintings and illustrations of the natural world collected and commissioned by the Society’s Fellows in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These Fellows came from varied backgrounds, including surgeons, medical doctors, reverends and army soldiers. They were part of the British colonial enterprise, exploring and settling in Burma, Nepal, India and the West Indies. Their observations about the botany and zoology they studied were sent back to the Society to be read to other Fellows at meetings and published in the Society’s journals. Yet the artwork accompanying these observations was not generally drawn by the authors themselves but by local or indigenous artists they employed. The identities of these artists remain unknown in most cases, but the images they drew were of paramount importance in the construction of natural historical knowledge in Enlightenment Britain. The images they drew to accompany textual descriptions of new plants and animals were often the first to be seen in Europe. These artists were steeped in their own visual and technical traditions, yet they were expected to conform to Western standards of depicting plants and animals, that mirrored taxonomic and nomenclatural objectives. The resulting works reflect the meeting of different cultural, sociological and ecological concerns. The talk will present three specific examples from the Society’s collections and explore what can be done to decolonise the collections, to resurrect these artists, and give back the recognition they deserve.

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Telling the Truth About Who Really Collected the “Hero Collections”.

Written by Jack Ashby, Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

One way that museums can decolonise their collections is to celebrate the true diversity of all the people that were ultimately responsible for making them. We often say things like, “This specimen was collected by Darwin”, or whichever famous name put a collection together, when in reality we know that often they weren’t actually the ones who found and caught the animal.

Museums can be rightly proud of their “hero collections” and the famous discoveries represented by them. Acknowledging that they did not work alone does nothing to diminish their accomplishments. We just need to make clear that other people made enormous contributions to their successes, and celebrate them too.

Undeniably, natural history museums have overwhelmingly celebrated dead white men. A major strand of decolonisation work is to show that a greater diversity of people are, in fact, represented in the history of our collections. But in reality, their contributions are rarely documented.

The Malay Teenagers Who Collected Wallace’s Birds

Lately, I’ve been looking at the collection of birds here at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, that Alfred Russel Wallace brought back from his eight-year voyage to the Malay Archipelago. Any museum with Wallace material considers it among their treasures. He co-discovered evolution by natural selection, added mountains of invaluable specimens to museums worldwide, and founded entire scientific disciplines based on his interpretations of what he saw. And he gives a lot of credit to the people of colour who collected much of his material.

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