Stories from Pressed Plant Books in the Botany Collections

Written by Katherine Slade, Curator: Botany (Lower Plants), Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales (AC-NMW)

This article was first published as a blog for AC-NMW, 17 May 2019.

Within Amgueddfa Cymru’s botany collections are books of dried plant specimens created by scientists and enthusiasts. Each specimen has been carefully dried and pressed, before being added to the books, sometimes with handwritten or printed notes alongside. The books are of enormous importance both in terms of modern scientific research into climate change and biodiversity, and as a way to see first hand the history of botanical exploration.

You can now look through a catalogue of the 36 books that contain non-flowering plants, fungi, lichens and seaweeds. You can read about a few of the stories surrounding these books below. For more detailed information about each book, please visit the website.

These books show the changes in how we collect, classify and name plants over two centuries from 1800 to present day. An old volume which probably dates from the 19th century entitled “New Zealand Mosses”, contains more than just mosses. Lichens, algae and even some pressed hydrozoans (tiny marine animals) have been included by the unknown collector who chose to group these superficially similar ‘moss-like’ specimens together. This donation entered the Museum’s collections after its Royal Charter was received and before work had begun on the present Cathays Park building.

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The Dead and the Living: Natural History’s Two Key Pillars in New Art Exhibition

Written by Jack Ashby, Manager of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and curator of ‘Evolution as Inspiration’

Over the past year, I’ve been working with one of the world’s leading naturalists, Jonathan Kingdon, to produce an exhibition of his artworks, entitled Evolution as Inspiration. Translating his science through his art, Kingdon has sought to explore and explain the how’s of why’s of animal appearances.

Beaks as Flags (detail), 2010. Jonathan Kingdon

Although it is an art exhibition of ceramics, sculpture, paintings and drawings, in several senses a natural history museum like ours is the perfect place for this show. Evolution as Inspiration is arranged in two parts. One focusses on the drawings Kingdon made whilst dissecting animal carcasses as he sought to document and understand the adaptations beneath the skin; the other explores his scientific analysis of the evolution of animal signalling and colouration, resulting from decades of observing the behaviours of wild animals.

These two elements of Kingdon’s work reflect two central pillars of natural history: what we can learn from dead specimens is very different to what we can understand by watching live animals in the field. These dual strands of zoological research are also embodied by the history of our collections, and by the people who work and study here in the Museum, in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology in which we are embedded, and in the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) with whom we worked with to co-curate this exhibition.

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Wild About Portsmouth – Discovering and Uncovering a Little Known Natural History Collection

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

Wild about Portsmouth is a two-year Heritage Lottery Funded project to share and raise the profile of the city’s natural history collections.  In addition to enabling visitors to get more hands on with the collections through events and activities, work is being carried out to make them more accessible for museum staff and researchers.

Challenges

The collections are held at three sites across the city and housed in environmentally controlled stores with many specimens held in archival quality boxes. However, the absence of a natural history curator for over 10 years has led to a series of challenges with accessing them:

Little Knowledge of Collections

Apart from the sizeable and substantial HLF Guermonprez Collection transferred from Bognor Regis Museum in the 1970s, very little was known about the collectors associated with the remainder of the natural history collections. In-depth knowledge of the HLF Guermonprez Collection has also been lost over time, although it is occasionally cited in publications by Sussex naturalists.

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Global Biodiversity Collections: Becoming Part of the Open Data Community

Written by Isla Gladstone, Senior Curator Natural Sciences, Bristol Museums

On 13th March I travelled to Sofia in Bulgaria, my mind buzzing with questions about biodiversity data…

I had been awarded one of 30 funded places on the first training school of Mobilise, an EU initiative to mobilise data, experts and policies in scientific collections. More specifically, Mobilise is an EU COST Action: a bottom-up network funded over four years to boost research, innovation and careers by COST, an intergovernmental framework for European Cooperation in Science and Technology.

Digitisation and data management challenges in small collections promised new skills in the key basics of data quality and cleaning. It also offered a chance to meet colleagues from around the world, and connect to a bigger picture.

At a time of unprecedented human-caused climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, it feels more urgent than ever to connect museum collections to real-world change. Natural sciences collections offer precious opportunities here. Alongside huge potential to engage communities and inspire debate, specimens are unique sources of the scientific evidence urgently needed to unlock sustainable development solutions:

“There is more information about biodiversity in [the world’s] natural sciences collections than all other sources of information combined.” iDigBio

Collections’ biodiversity data: the what, when, where, who collected attached to many biological and palaeontological specimens © Bristol Museums

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Collections at Risk

The biggest problems facing collections today are almost certainly posed by reductions in funding. The financial support for museums of all sizes has been decreasing every year, with jobs being lost and stored collections often bearing the brunt of cuts, since they are usually out of sight and therefore out of mind for many decision makers.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

Hidden treasurers? Specimens in storage can be overlooked by decision makers in favour of public-facing elements of museum business.

NatSCA has been to trying to keep track of threats to collections and offer our support in an effort to make the vital role of collections, and the people with the skills to care for them, more clearly recognised by management. Much of this work in the UK has been alongside our colleagues in the Geological Curators Group.

The first issue of our new online publication NatSCA Notes & Comments provides a case study of decline from the Midlands, written by Geoffrey Hall. Although the picture painted is bleak, there have been some small wins, as Ludlow have since acknowledged the importance of maintaining a geologist to manage their globally important geology collection.

We have also been looking at the wider societal role of collections and have been working to raise their profile at a variety of levels, including internationally, alongside the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. Our message about the importance of collections is being heard by a wider and more influential audience, something that is reflected in this week’s Nature, which features an article about the importance and decline of collections.

If you know of any collections that are at risk from staff loss or disposal, please let us know by editing our Natural History Near You map or emailing us at advocacy@natsca.org

Bill Pettit Memorial Fund: Discovery Collections Project

The Bill Pettit Memorial Award was set up a few years ago by NatSCA to support projects including the conservation, access, and use of natural science collections. One of the recent projects we have been able to help with was the curation of some amazing specimens from the voyage of the Discovery. Hear more about the project from Tammy below.

David Gelsthorpe

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In early 2013 we set about organising the task to begin with the curation of the largest, most recent and least organised of the three collections – that of the ECOMAR collection. The start of the ECOMAR project coincided with commissioning of the new UK Royal Research Ship James Cook officially named by the Princess Royal on 6 February 2007. The first ECOMAR cruise departed from Southampton on 13 July 2007. The ECOMAR project was designed to investigate the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone area which lies approximately mid-way between Iceland and the Azores. Four super stations were defined (two north of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone and two to the south), all had the same bottom depth (2500m) and were revisited during voyages by the R.R.S. James Cook and the R.R.S. Discovery during the years 2007–2010 to replicate sampling, time-series investigations and flux studies.

The Discovery Collections have no full-time curatorial post and we rely on the goodwill and interest of students and other volunteers (including scientific visitors and work experience volunteers) to help with cataloguing, labelling, respiriting, and general curatorial jobs. The samples, though incredibly valuable should be considered at risk. I look after the collections in as much that I manage the visitors to the collections, host students, and manage public enquiries, visits and displays of the specimens. I am also a taxonomist employed to conduct research, describing new species and studying the ecology of the deep-sea benthic fauna. I was employed for four years to work on the ECOMAR program to describe the ecology of the scavenging fauna of the area. I therefore had a particular interest in the curation of this collection.

We employed Amanda Serpell-Stevens, to work on this project, but we had funds for only 8 weeks of her time. Thus the project was reduced from cataloguing the three large collections to just one. When Amanda’s contract ended there was still much reshelving and reordering of the material to be carried out which was carried out on an ad hoc basis by myself, a retired member of staff, Mike Thurston, and Amanda who returned on a voluntary basis to continue work on the project.

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The project began by working shelf by shelf to curate and to catalogue (in paper record) what was held including location and size of each jar, and to change containers for those specimens that were in plastic containers or inappropriate sized jars. The preservative was also replaced in most of the jars and a new label produced for each specimen, as many were poorly labelled. This curation and cataloguing process took the majority of the 8 weeks, with just enough time remaining to enter the data into Excel.

With the availability of a digital catalogue the task of reorganising the lots into taxonomic order was greatly eased. This meant adjustment of shelf heights to incorporate the various sizes of tubs and jars (some of the lots are 20 litre tubs full of holothurian specimens of a single species), and removing all the specimens in turn, which were then replaced first by taxonomic order then by station order using Excel to sort the data. The spreadsheet was updated with the new locations of the specimens as we progressed. The final part of the process involved cross referencing the specimens with the newly published papers and updating the names where they had changed (on both the specimen labels and in the spreadsheet).

There were numerous new species described during the ECOMAR project, which meant further problems in allocating the correct new name to specimens in the collections variously named as e.g. Peniagone sp. nov ‘pink’. While holotypes have been registered in the NHM, London, the rest of the material needs updating to current knowledge, a process which is often neglected, despite it being referenced in the many new publications resulting from the project.

It is very satisfying to have the ECOMAR collection properly curated and to know that I can locate any specimen needed easily. In total we curated, relabelled and catalogued a total of 1300 lots comprised of 1148 smaller jars, 88 tubs (between 5 and 20 litres) and 64 loan specimens. We plan to publish a detailed analysis of this work for the NatSCA journal, including a list of available species, and will make the catalogue available online when time and funding allow. In the meantime interested parties can contact Tammy Horton (tammy.horton@noc.ac.uk) for a copy.

Dr Tammy Horton
Ocean Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems
National Oceanography Centre,
Waterfront Campus,
European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
UK

Derby Museums Need You

Thanks to Jonathan Wallis for bringing this to our attention.

In 2015 Derby City Council will be cutting funding for Derby Museums by 26%. Would that it were an isolated incident for Derby, or indeed the country at large. This is not the first time that the plight of the East Midlands has been brought to NatSCA’s attention, nor the first time they’ve been discussed by the members.

There is much that needs to be done but something we can all do is sign the no Cuts to Derby Museums petition.