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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