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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Wild about Portsmouth – Life in Lockdown

Written by Christine Taylor (Curator of Natural History), Bradley Foster (Natural History Collections Assistant), Portsmouth Museums.

Until lockdown, the Wild about Portsmouth project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, had been a whirlwind of activity, working with volunteers to re-house, reorganise and catalogue the natural history collections, developing school sessions, putting on and attending events as well as setting up displays.

In the four weeks prior to lockdown, the curator, volunteers and the newly appointed (14 February 2020) Natural History Collections Assistant installed an exhibition, ‘D is for Dodo, E is for Extinct’; attended a work placement fair at the University of Portsmouth, a family fun day at Dinosaur Isle, a STEM fair and the HBIC Hampshire Recorders Forum. We also created a Pop-Up Museum one-day event and ran a trial school session on rocks and fossils at Cumberland House Natural History Museum.

One of the online activities created for Cumberland House Natural History Museum website © Portsmouth Museum

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#CyclaPeople In Lockdown

Written by Claire Smith, volunteer at the University of Reading Herbarium.

I don’t imagine that there’s an abundance of field work taking place during the unprecedented pandemic situation that we find ourselves in at the moment. However, if there was one piece of advice that I could offer to anybody taking down field notes, it would be to develop neat handwriting! Either that, or to transcribe your notes into digital form as soon as possible. Otherwise, some poor soul – who may not even be a botanist – may find themselves, a mere thirty-three years after your expedition, staring at a page of unfamiliar place names or Latin plant names, with confusion.

Some field notes are more legible than others…
© Claire Smith, 2019

That said, would anybody care to take a guess at what’s been happening with the Cyclamen Society collection during lockdown? Yes, I’m taking the opportunity to get to grips with as much of the data entry as I possibly can. As with so many other collections around the world, volunteers haven’t been into the Herbarium since the middle of March. This means that our usual tasks of mounting and photographing the collected cyclamen specimens are out of bounds. Aside from the physical though, there is always plenty of digital work to do.

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Virtual Fieldwork during Lockdown – Part 2

Travelling to Socotra with the British and Liverpool Museums Expedition (1898/99).

This is part two of a blog written by John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool. See Part One here.

The journey continues…

Homhil proved a “successful and delightful sojourn, adding largely to both the flora and fauna [collected]”. The camp, surrounded by the iconic Dragon’s Blood Trees (see them yourself here), had an ideal climate, 26°C during the day, 18°C at night.

Sketch of the cucumber tree of Socotra by J. R. Wellsted, another unusual endemic tree, made during an earlier expedition to Socotra. The sketch is part of the Royle collection at LIV herbarium, World Museum. © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

Ten days later, after difficulties agreeing the onward route, the party retraced their steps to the Hadibu Plain. Turning southwards they pitched tents at Elhe and spent two days preparing fresh camels. On the second day, Forbes forgot to put one of his gaiters on and suffered a severe sunburn on his leg (having my own prominent sunburn scar, this is another field experience I can empathise with). While back on the plain, Ogilvie-Grant collected the endemic – Socotra Grosbeak, Socotra Starling, and Socotra Warbler – amongst other animals.

Socotra Grosbeak – Rhynchostruthus socotranus Sclater and Hartlaub, 1881 [accession number: 31.12.1900.164a] (top); Socotra Starling – Onychognathus fratus (Sclater and Hartlaub, 1881) [accession number: 31.12.1900.160e] (middle); and Socotra Warbler – Incana incana (Slater and Hartlaub, 1881) [accession number: 31.12.1900.175m] (bottom). © National Museums Liverpool (World Museum).

The party resumed their trek into the mountains, reaching an elevation with stunning sea views. They remained at Adho Dimellus (also spelt Adhoh di-Melhoh), the “roof of Sokotra”, until February 17th. Fieldwork often fuels friendships and an evening was spent entertaining an Austrian expedition party Forbes had met earlier in Aden.

Photograph of the camp at Adho Dimellus (H. O. Forbes from The Natural History of Sokotra and Abd-el-Kuri). Public Domain.

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Virtual Fieldwork during Lockdown – Part 1

Travelling to Socotra with the British and Liverpool Museums Expedition (1898/99).

By John-James Wilson, Curator of Vertebrate Zoology, World Museum, National Museums Liverpool

I’m one of the many field biologists whose fieldwork has been cancelled due to the coronavirus lockdown. It’s a tiny price to pay to get this unprecedented global pandemic under control but it’s hard not to dream about the tropical adventures that could have been. Fortunately for natural history curators, re-living the fieldwork of our predecessors while exploring (from home) the collections we look after, can go some way to satiate the travel bug.

The Socotra Archipelago (also spelt Soqotra or Sokotra) probably doesn’t feature in many people’s lockdown travel dreams. The archipelago is politically part of Yemen, a country tragically suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis as the result of ongoing civil war. However, in 1898, Socotra was firmly on the bucket list of Henry Ogg Forbes, Director and ornithologist at the Liverpool Museums (now World Museum, National Museums Liverpool).

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