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.

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Transforming Scientific Natural History 3D Data into an Immersive Interactive Exhibition Experience

Interspectral is a Swedish company that provides an interactive exhibition system called Inside Explorer using 3D volumetric scanning, such as CT and micro CT, real-time graphics visualisation and a large touch table to enable gallery visitors to interactively explore natural history subjects using modern science techniques.

Inside Explorer is today used at museums worldwide, for example the British Museum, Natural History Museum London, Utah Natural History Museum, Denver Museum of Science and Nature and many more.

A recent collaboration between Interspectral and Wakehurst; Kew’s wild botanic garden for their Millennium Seed Bank Visitor Atrium, has resulted in some spectacular results. These can be seen in the specially commissioned Secret Structures exhibition. The Inside Explorer system at the exhibition enables visitors to the Millennium Seed Bank to not only marvel at plants, but to learn from them and to understand our need to protect them. The Inside Explorer Digital Table invites them to peel back the layers of intriguing, scanned objects from RBG Kew’s collections; a Brazil nut, a piece of oak, an orchid and a carved walnut shell.

© Kew Gardens

Wakehurst and Interspectral worked with London’s Natural History Museum’s imaging labs to micro CT scan the subjects for the exhibits. These were then produced for exhibition by Interspectral and Wakehurst.

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Meet the Committee – Donna Young

What is your role on the NatSCA committee?

My main role over for the last four years has been organising our annual conferences at York, Bristol, Derby and Cambridge museums.

There’s a lot of work involved in putting the programme together and it’s a great team effort, along with our fantastic treasurer and the staff based at the various venues. I have found it very rewarding to see us expand our audience and develop our programme themes.

I am currently a member of the of the journal editorial board and NatSCA bursaries/grants sub-committee.

Job Title & Institution

Curator of the Herbarium: World Museum, National Museums Liverpool.

Twitter Username

@HerbariumDonna

Donna Young, hard at work on the herbarium. (C) National Museums Liverpool.

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Willows in the Wind: Digitisation of the Tullie House Herbarium

Excited (botanical) chatter, the inexorable flashing of camera equipment, intrigued visitors gathering around our new gallery space; this was our Virtual Flora of Tullie Herbarium Project, funded by the Bill Pettit Memorial Award at the start of 2017.

The scope of the project, between 30th of May to 26th of September 2017, was to use a team of volunteers to begin photographing and cataloguing our (“ex”) University of Lancaster herbarium. This significant acquisition of 35,000 vascular plant sheets is a highly data rich and well-provenanced collection with invaluable information on the historical and contemporary distribution of species across the UK and beyond. Almost a third of the specimens were collected from Cumbria, much of it collected during a major 30 year survey of the flora of Cumbria; an exemplar model of field surveying which is aspired to by Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) recorders today. The survey work culminated in the team leader’s (Geoffrey Halliday) highly comprehensive publication of A Flora of Cumbria. No other herbarium has a comparable recent (1968+) collection of Cumbrian material.  But despite the importance of this recent acquisition, none of these specimens were digitised.

Thanks to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award funding this was all about to change.

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How a Hundred and Fifty-Year-Old Botany Collection Can Help Modern Science

This article has been re-posted from the Horniman Museum and Gardens blog.

Katie Ott, a museum studies student on placement with the Horniman, tells us about her fascinating work with our botany collection.

I’m Katie, and I’m three weeks into an eight-week work placement at the Horniman, helping the Natural History team to research and document the botany collection.

The botany collection at the Horniman is made up of around 3000 individual specimens either mounted onto herbarium sheets or bound in volumes. The flowering plant collection dates mainly from 1830-1850.

Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott

Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott

The main task is to transcribe the (beautiful, but squiggly) Victorian handwriting on the herbarium sheets such as the plant’s scientific name, and where it was found etc onto MimsyXG, our collections management database.

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NatSCA Digital Digest

ChameleonYour weekly round-up of news and events happening in the world of natural sciences

Jobs

Curator, Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL. It’s here! The job I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for. Just make sure you get your applications in by 3rd August 2015!

Interpretation Producer, Kew Gardens. Closing date: 5th July 2015.

Conservation and Documentation Manager, Bristol Museums, Archives and Galleries. Closing date: 19th July 2015.

See the job page of the NatSCA website for more exciting opportunities!

News

The deadline for submissions to the next issue of the Journal of Natural Science Collections is 15th July 2015. Get writing! Guidelines for authors are available online, and please send your submission and any queries to Jan Freedman (editor@natsca.org).

Around the Web

Donna Young of Liverpool Museums has been busy digitising Brendel plant models.

A look inside the collections of National Museums Scotland.

North America’s herbarium collections are under threat due to funding cuts. The article is also a nice piece of collections advocacy for herbaria.

New research from the American Museum of Natural History shows that the teeth of Smilodon fatalis grew rapdily, but took years to mature.

The rise and fall of the barbary lion. Could it help to save other species from beyond the grave?