Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering Portsmouth’s Natural History Collection

Written by Christine Taylor, Curator of Natural History, Portsmouth Museums

In March 2018 Portsmouth City Council was awarded a £79,700 grant to deliver a ‘Wild about Portsmouth project in order to raise the profile of the city’s Natural History collection. In addition to appointing a curator and an assistant, the project enables the development of natural history advocates and a team of volunteers to work on and promote the collection. The project also aims to engage with people in a variety of ways, from family activities to specialist workshops, with the view of participants helping to inform priorities for collection development and new displays.

As a curator with over 20 years’ experience in Hampshire, I have always been aware of the collection but had very little knowledge of it. The last Natural History Curator was 10 years ago and, apart from the occasional request, little had been done to develop the collection. An initial overview showed that the collection was (mainly) in good condition, packed into archival and museum quality boxes awaiting rediscovery.

One of the first tasks was to get an idea of the scope of the collections and their associated collectors. Another task was to recruit volunteers to assist with rearranging the collections to get them into taxonomic order and to catalogue them or update the Modes database with provenance data. To date 10 volunteers have been recruited and are currently working on the geology, shell and botany collections. Once the entomology collections have rehoused over the next few months (the cabinets are currently stored side-on making access to them rather difficult), volunteers will be recruited to re-stage, re-organise and catalogue them.

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Why Cultivated Plants Matter in an Urban Environment

A subject close to our hearts at the Horticultural Taxonomy department of the Royal Horticultural Society is the vastness of the UK cultivated flora – in fact, the latest RHS Plant Finder 2018 lists over 76,000 plants grown in the UK. Stroll through any village, town or city and it is clear that the botanical life of our urban places is dominated by cultivated plants. However, cultivated plants appear only rarely in Floras, the scientific work that catalogues the plant life of a given area. Recording introduced plants is essential if the ecosystems of our towns and cities are to be fully understood.

London street trees providing welcome shade for pedestrians on a sunny day. © Yvette Harvey.

Why Does this Matter?

There is increasing evidence that plants grown for ornament serve more than just an aesthetic function. The flexibility of fauna in adapting to available vegetation has been documented in a 30-year study of a suburban domestic garden (Owen, 2010). The four-year RHS experiment known as Plants for Bugs found that to encourage pollinating insects in gardens the best strategy is to plant a mixture of native and exotic flowering plants (Salisbury et al., 2015). There is also a greater understanding that the human environment can be managed by an informed use of cultivated plants. Examples include the value of street trees and green walls in mitigating heat island effect and the role of green spaces in reducing water runoff.

Pollinators visiting an ornamental flower bed. © Yvette Harvey.

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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


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


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!


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?


Curating Biocultural Collections: A Review.

Book Review:
Curating Biocultural Collections : A Handbook
Edited by Jan Salick, Katie Konchar and Mark Nesbit.
2014. Kew Publishing. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In association with Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis.
Available from Kew online
E-book available from Chicago University Press

By Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

It may appear rather unusual for a natural history curator to review a book on ethnographic collections. However, with a plethora of crossovers from similar storage conditions to comparable conservation methods, this book may potentially be more beneficial than you may first think. I was interested to review this book because I am not an expert on biocultural collections. I am keen to see if this book would be useful to assist with the diverse natural history collections we care for.

Biocultural (ethnographic) collections include any object made with the parts (or whole) of animals or plants. This can include herbarium collections, clothing, animal artefacts, DNA collections, skeletal collections, and many more. These collections provide wonderful evidence of cultures past and present and how they all relied on their natural world to survive; as we still do today. Due to their very nature, these collections require analogous collections management with natural history specimens, and many specimens in our collections cross over (eg. Herbarium, wood samples, etc).

Front Cover

Front Cover

The book itself is well laid out. Each chapter is focused on a different area to fit into one of the five sections: the introduction; practical curation (materials); practical curation (reference material and metadata); contexts and perspectives; and broader impacts. I like that the chapters are written all with the same clear structure, sub headings, images and a detailed accompanying bibliography. They provide detailed, expert advice, case studies, and examples of best practice.

For me, the writing tone is very professional, almost textbook style in a factual way that provides a lot of information in each section. And as such it is not a light read; possibly a book that you wouldn’t read from start to finish. But you would be able to easily search the index for an area you were looking for, and find the most up to date information written by experts in the field. Although I find more casually written pieces easier to digest and understand, I can actually see myself using this book as a reference for many different areas in the future.

The sections covered are detailed, precise, and written by experts across the world. The first section introduces the types of collections that are dealt with, the ethical standards, and the impact of the collections; lots of cross over with natural history collections, as you will find throughout the book. This first short section finishes with a visually impressive summary of the main collaborators of putting the book together; Missouri Botanical Garden, National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, National Museum of Natural History, Paris, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Smithsonian Collections.

Section 2 focuses on practical curation, starting with including the basics (environmental conditions, pests, hazards, storage, handling, and labelling) to the more detailed, including storing voucher specimens, reference collections (botanical and zooarchaeological), seeds, DNA and even living plant collections. I found this section interesting because of the huge variety it covered and amount of detail in each chapter; if you find yourself wondering ‘how do I curate genetic resources’ then you can easily flick to Chapter 8 to find out. I had not really thought of curating DNA specimens, when we actually have them en masse in natural history collections. There are a couple of chapters in this Section I will take my time to read with interest in the coming weeks.

Examples of Images

Examples of Images

Section 3 looks at the curation using reference materials and metadata. Covering best practice in database standards, cataloguing of collections, and associated photograph collections, these chapters provide detailed guidelines on standardising the information for the future. In short, it spells out the importance of recording everything you know associated with that specimen; from letters/emails to photographs of the sites/collectors, and any associated documents. There is also a chapter on the legalities of biocultural collections, which does cover the important issues of CITES and copyright. The chapter that jumped out for me covered how to store oral history recordings and videos. This may not appear relevant to a natural history curator, but I think it may be getting more and more important: after organising and leading several pop up museums around the city, the amount of stories from local people sparked by seeing a photograph, painting, or mineral, was amazing. I wished I could record them all, because these stories will soon be gone forever. I have several collections where the collectors, or people who knew the collectors, are still alive, and I am keen to capture their thoughts and anecdotes relating to the collections before they are lost.

It is a shame Section 4 is the shortest section, as this examines different perspectives on cultural collections. Although not directly related to the hands-on dirty curation work, this section makes you take a little step back and think about the collections we care for. Alongside legal issues, it highlights the importance of respect and building relationships between museums and communities (from the indigenous communities in this book to the communities of amateur specialists for the natural history curator). Many specimens in our stores once belonged to someone and each individual specimen has a story to tell, linking back to the collector. These are the stories that bring the collections to life; forgetting where they have come from cuts any personal link with the visitors.

The final section of the Handbook looks at the broader impacts of biocultural collections. We all work with our collections and have a variety of users from the visitors in the museum, artists, researchers, and school groups. However, looking at the different ways different collections are used can invite ideas in using your own collections in a new and exciting way. This section goes into quite a lot of detail about the different impacts these collections have, where there are many cross overs with natural history. The potential for several different research outcomes for biocultural collections are outlined, many of which can be tied in with natural history collections too (showing a closer working between two departments). A separate chapter examines the use of collections for education, which many of us do on a regular basis with our own collections. This Section includes a useful chapter on the uses of herbarium specimens, including vouchers specimens, and DNA analysis. A useful section in the book showing that sharing ideas and ways of working can encourage new uses of collections.

I would recommend this book to a museum that holds ethnographic collections, and a bonus if it also holds natural history collections. The book can be used by both areas to help safeguard the collections for the future. It is a Handbook which can be used if you are undertaking a specific collections project or if you updating your database. Clearly laid out with nice images the chapters make available the most up to date information on that area.

The book provides a really useful guide to caring for a diverse range of collections many of which a natural history curator cares for too. As there is a lot of cross over, the book can also develop a stronger understanding between departments about the objects and specimens they care for; a better understanding of other curators collections will lead to greater working relationships.