Reflecting on a Collections Move During the Pandemic, the Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium one year on.

Written by Clare Booth-Downs, Herbarium Curator, Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium,

Moving On Up, To Move On Out

The Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium (RHS), which holds approximately 150,000 specimens and associated ancillary collections, had outgrown its original storage space.  The building of a new dedicated science and collections centre, RHS Hilltop, which opened in late June 2021, provided a solution to this. Hilltop, the home of gardening science, includes a larger, purpose built facility, the 1851 Royal Commission Herbarium.

The Laboratory, RHS Wisley, Surrey. Image by Clare Booth-Downs. © Royal Horticultural Society.
Interior of the original RHS Herbarium showing the overspill on top of the cabinets. Image: Yvette Harvey.

Increasing the capacity of the herbarium was vital as the collection is expected to expand at a fast pace over the next few years.  With a full time plant collector now in place, the RHS’ ultimate aim is to hold a specimen of every species and cultivar of garden plant growing in the U.K. It is estimated this will be a collection numbering 400,000 specimens by 2050.

This repository will act as a reference point for gardeners, breeders, students and researchers as well as for ‘non-traditional’ herbarium visitors, for example, artists and designers looking for inspiration for fabrics and jewellery.  This is alongside one of the Society’s own research foci, as described by Professor Alistair Griffiths, RHS Director of Science & Collections, “In the UK, we’ve got a massive diversity of cultivated plants, originating from around the world, and all have potential for nature-based solutions.  We’re going to work towards a database of the garden plants and their uses from an environmental, and health and wellbeing perspective”.

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The ‘Social History of Natural History: People and Plants’ Workshop One

March 11th 2022, Powell-Cotton Museum

Written by Alexandra Slucky (Assistant Heritage Consultant & Environmental Archaeologist, Atkins, York Office) and Fiona Roberts (Collaborative ESRC PhD student, Cardiff University & Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales).

Decolonizing collections has been at the forefront of museums for quite some time. Thinking beyond the Western museum structure, many institutions have taken new opportunities to view indigenous knowledge from indigenous perspectives by revisiting old collections of anthropological material intermixed with botanical specimens. Four years in the making, Workshop One is part of a one-year project called People and Plants: reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of indigenous ecological knowledge, beginning in January 2022. It is led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Powell-Cotton Museum, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Entrance to Powell Cotton Museum, Birchington-on-Sea, England, Photo by Alexandra Slucky

The main aim of the project is to engage with three unique indigenous collections located in UK institutions; Somalian, Amazonian, and Aboriginal Australian. The project examines the value and relevance of ethnobotanical collections, both in the present and the future, aiming to bring academics, researchers, museum professionals, botanists and indigenous knowledge holders together in conversation. To focus on sharing authority, it gives a museum voice to women of colour through a process of reactivation, recovery, and relationships, with the result creating more inclusive conditions for future collections.

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Databasing Herbarium Specimens and Ease of Use.

Written by Teagan Reinert1* and Karen L. Bacon1

1 Botany & Plant Sciences, School of Natural Sciences, National University of Ireland, Galway; * corresponding author email: t.reinert1@nuigalway.ie

One of the main aims of creating online databases of herbarium images (or any data set) is to increase the ease of access for researchers, educators, and other users who may want to obtain data from the specimens without having to physically travel to an herbarium. Online herbarium databases have become particularly useful during the global COVID-19 pandemic, when many herbaria are not allowing or greatly reducing the amount of in-person visitation.

For many herbaria, online databases are still being constructed and ease of access and use can vary significantly between collections. Additionally, while a database may list a certain number of specimens held by the herbarium, it can often be the case that only a subset of these specimens are actually imaged and available to view online. Some herbarium databases are better than others in actually allowing the user to narrow down their search to get the data they are looking for. The databases range in ease of use from ‘very easy’ to ‘usable but frustrating’. Any databases that are too difficult to use often dissuade researchers from using the digital resources available on that database.

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Collecting with Lao Chao [Zhao Chengzhang]: Decolonising the Collecting Trips of George Forrest

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

Lao Chao (left) and team. McLean (2004: 193) wrote that Forrest called Lao Chao his ‘best card in this business’ © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

This is the essence of a talk that was recently presented at the virtual conference of the US based Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). Inspired by Das & Lowe in their 2017 NatSCA conference talk and subsequent paper (2018), in a similar way mentioned by Machin (2020) in her recent blog, I have started looking at stories by and about some of our revered plant collectors, or rather, hunting for small clues about their escapades from the perspective of others on their teams. This is with the aim of decolonising narratives for present and future interpretation, having finally opened my eyes and realised that current interpretation for living collections can fall way short of acknowledging what really happened and where credit should lie. And being mindful of different concepts of decolonisation, discussed by Gelsthorpe (2020) in an earlier blog.

For years, the curators of museums and living collections, and their visitors have been programmed to respond to and expect talks of the grand, death-defying adventures of our collectors – so much so that we appear to have closed our minds to the realities and injustices of what really happened on expeditions.

George Forrest © The Royal Horticultural Society and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

The main focus here is on George Forrest, born in 1873, the Scottish plant collector whose collections still have a huge impact on what is grown in our gardens today. Son of a draper’s shop assistant, Forrest had an interesting earlier career after leaving school at 18 – he worked in a pharmaceutical chemists prior to getting a small inheritance that gave him the opportunity to travel to Australia where he undertook a few jobs including sheep shearing and gold-mining (McLean 2004). On his return to the UK, through a serendipitous stroke of luck in discovering a rare archaeological find whilst out botanising, he landed a job as an assistant in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1903 – gaining curatorial skills and insights necessary to make him an ideal plant collector in the field.

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Survey of Flowering Plants Stored in Fluid Preservatives Across European Herbaria

Written by Ranee Prakash, Senior Curator (Flowering Plants), Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, Department of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum, London.

A survey of flowering plant material stored in various fluid preservatives across several European herbaria/institutions was carried out a few years ago. The feedback received from the survey is shared and shows that the majority of the herbaria use 70% IMS (industrial methylated spirit) to store their collections.

Introduction

The seed plant collections (stored in various liquids such as formalin, some have unknown liquids, and some mention poison) form a relatively small yet significant part of the botanical holdings at NHM (Natural History Museum). They include some important material dating back to the mid 1800’s and type collections such as the world’s largest flower Rafflesia arnoldii collected by Robert Brown. However, these wet collections have remained a somewhat underused asset and are in dire need of curatorial attention.

In continuation to this aim, a survey of flowering plants stored in spirit collections across various institutions in Europe was carried out in 2012 so as to assess what preservatives other institutions were using and what would be the best method to store the collections at NHM for posterity. The objective of this survey was to gather information on:

  • How big the spirit collection is
  • How the collection is used
  • Which liquid preservatives the flowering plant collections are stored in

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