Curating Collections

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Herbarium of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, Glasnevin

The word “curate” seems to have become very popular.  It once referred almost exclusively to what the people did who worked with collections in museums, but now everything is being curated, from websites to wardrobes.  It seems to have become a synonym for the verb “select:”  to put some thought into what is chosen.  However, in its original meaning it connotes more than just picking what should belong in a collection; it involves the care, study, and organization of the items.  Naturally, I’m thinking primarily about herbaria and other natural history material, but this meaning holds for all kinds of collections from art to anthropological, from libraries to historical materials.  Without curation, collections deteriorate and lose value because their attendant knowledge is not used and nurtured.

In my last two posts (1, 2), I’ve referred to Steven Lubar’s (2017) book, Inside the Lost Museum, in which he discusses why the Jenks Museum of Natural History at Brown University has not survived, why its collections have been lost.  This is hardly a unique situation.  Many herbarium specimens have been tossed into dumpsters to free up space for what are considered more pressing needs in museums, botanical gardens, and universities.  In many cases, however, they have been saved by being incorporated into other collections that continue to be curated.  Still, there is a problem:  while the specimens may get moved and properly filed, it is unlikely that curatorial staff moved with them.  Those working at the host institution must just take on the added burden of more materials to curate.

But what is all that curation about?  Answers come not only from books on managing herbarium collections (Bridson & Forman, 1998; Metsger & Byers, 1999), but also from curators of other types of collections, such as Lubar, Hans Ulrich Obrist (2014), and Nicholas Thomas (2016), who makes the point that “an object may be stored, but an object cannot be said to be cared for if curators don’t know they have it, if it can’t be located or is miscatalogued” (p. 65).  This comment would strike home for most herbarium curators because they have inherited specimens that don’t have accession numbers, are filed under outdated names, or are still in the cardboard boxes in which they arrived, perhaps decades ago.  While an art museum may have to deal with thousands of works, most herbaria must cope with tens of thousands of specimens, some of which were not treasured as art works often are.  By that I mean that they need to be remounted on acid-free paper, studied by a taxonomist to update nomenclature, georeferenced, entered into a database, and be imaged.  This is the work that curators have to manage, and it requires a great deal of time and expertise, both of which are expensive.  So curation is a nice term to bandy about, but it’s something that must be taken seriously if collections are to be useful and bear fruit in the future.

While I have been emphasizing difficult issues facing curators, there are also wonderful things about the job as well.  Both Thomas and Obrist emphasize the importance of curiosity to curators.  Obrist quotes Paul Chan’s observation that “curiosity is the pleasure principle of thought” (p. 42).  Thomas writes that a curator’s activities are often driven by curiosity to encounter something new about an item and discover novel ways to juxtapose the pieces in a collection.  He admits that some part of a collection may be better cared for more than others because that’s the curator’s area of interest, an admission that any one person’s breadth is limited.

A number of writers on the history of museums discuss the importance of catalogues as curatorial means not only of documenting and organizing a collection but also communicating that information to those who can’t examine the items firsthand.  Hans Sloane (see earlier post) not only labeled his own specimens, but created catalogues as well.  Unfortunately, though his herbarium survives, its catalogues.  Philipp Blom (2002) sees a catalogue as necessary because “it is not an appendage to a large collection, it is its apogee” (p. 215).  It is not only a sign of curatorial attention, but of the knowledge residing in it.  I am thinking specifically of the digital portals that are now providing access to herbarium materials.  These are indeed the apogee of biodiversity information, the plant world writ large .  They are the result of renewed curatorial interest in these collections, and an awareness that even if amalgamation of collections often makes physical examination of specimens more difficult, at least electronic access provides some if not all of what a specimen can reveal.

Everything I’ve read about curation includes the topic of selection.  This is often a difficult process in the art world, where funds are limited, trustees and donors must be satisfied, and the institution’s mission kept in mind.  Not every offered item is a gem, so curators have to be diplomats while also strategizing how to acquire the best pieces.  This might seem less of a problem in a herbarium, but space is limited, inferior specimens add nothing to the collection’s value, and every offered item is not a gem.  Wise curators also know how to use duplicates to obtain specimens that will enrich a particular area of the collection, and diplomacy is often needed to negotiate the acquisition of collections being “orphaned” by other institutions.  Reading about such curation issues in a broad sense has given me a greater appreciation for what herbarium managers and curators do and why their work is so vital to the health of these natural history treasure troves.


Blom, P. (2002). To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

Bridson, D., & Forman, L. (1998). The Herbarium Handbook (3rd ed.). Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Metsger, D. A., & Byers, S. C. (Eds.). (1999). Managing the Modern Herbarium: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Vancouver, Canada: Elton-Wolf.

Obrist, H. U. (2014). Ways of Curating. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Thomas, N. (2016). The Return of Curiosity: What Museums Are Good for in the 21st Century. London, UK: Reaktion.


Collecting and Collectors

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Website for the Hans Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

In the last post, I wrote about two individuals, Hans Sloane and John Jenks, who collected natural history specimens and founded museums, the British Museum and Brown University’s Jenks Museum of Natural History.  You have probably heard of the former, but the latter didn’t last half a century.  In part the difference has to do with the quality of the collections and their management.  However, there are also similarities between them.  In both cases, the collections weren’t amassed single-handedly.  Besides hunting down his own specimens, John Jencks bought, traded, and was given collections (Lubar, 2017), and Hans Sloane was a master “collector of collectors” (Delbourgo, 2017, p. 202).  He did begin by doing his own plant collecting as a student both in Britain and in France, where he studied before completing his medical degree in the Netherlands.  His most extensive collection work was in Jamaica, where he served as physician to the island’s governor, the Duke of Albemarle.  However, this work wasn’t done singlehandedly.  Like most collectors in foreign lands, Sloane relied on those living in Jamaica to lead him to interesting material.  Some of these individuals were plantation owners, some were slaves who had the most first-hand knowledge of the land.  While the latter are hardly mentioned in Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica, there is evidence from his notes and letters that they were involved.  This lack of attribution to the “real” collectors was common in botanical exploration.

After Sloane returned to England and became a noted physician, he had little time to do his own collecting.  He began acquiring materials from others, and this is where his large social network played a role.  He knew many wealthy collectors because at the time this was an important way of displaying not only wealth but learning and sophistication.  Sloane decided that he couldn’t excel at collecting everything, so he focused on books and on natural history, particularly plants.  He was in contact and traded specimens and information with all the major British collectors of the day.  In his herbarium, which is preserved at the Natural History Museum, London, there are specimens from over 280 individuals.  Some of the most impressive collections came from Leonard Plukenet, James Petiver, and William Courten after their deaths.  These individuals had all acquired collections from others, most notably Petiver had a large network of collectors throughout the world.  Petiver and Sloane were members of the Temple Coffee House Botanic Club who supported collectors such as Mark Catesby in the Carolinas and John Banister in Virginia.  Such early specimens from North America are obviously very important in documenting what was growing where in a relatively unspoiled environment.  Also, some Sloane specimens were referenced by Carl Linnaeus (1753) in Species Plantarum, making them species types (Jarvis, 2017).  In addition, Sloane acquired an interesting collection of horticultural plants from the Duchess of Beaufort, a talented botanist who documented the plants growing in her gardens (Laird, 2015).  These specimens included beautiful arrays of flower petals for varieties that disappeared long ago.

By the time Jenks was collecting in a manner similar to Sloane, these methods were outmoded.  There was a more systematic and large-scale method in vogue, particularly in the United States from 1880-1920, namely, survey collecting.  In All Creatures, Robert E. Kohler (2006) describes this approach to natural history, including the work of the US Geological Service which organized surveys nationwide.  However, I’ll focus on botanical surveys, and most of these were done on the state or local level.  What distinguished them from previous collecting efforts was that they were more intense and organized.  The great expeditions of earlier in the 19th century, such as those of John Frémont, Charles Wilkes, and John Wesley Powell, were wide-ranging and resulted in collections that were rather haphazard in the sense that plants might or might be in flower or in seed.  Surveys, on the other hand, were both intensive and extensive; they often went to the same locations repeatedly, to insure that all the plants in an area were represented by useful specimens.  These enterprises were less about discovering new species and more about inventorying what was growing in a particular place at a particular time.  Kohler argues that this was the beginning of a scientific approach to collecting that eventually led to today’s biodiversity research.

Survey collection was the result of several trends in US historical and cultural development.  The creation of an extensive railroad system after the Civil War made large portions of the country accessible enough for teams of collectors to travel economically.  Roads were also being extended and improved.  At the same time, land grant colleges were enlarging their offerings, with botany being an important component of agricultural programs.  The Nebraska survey was spearheaded by Charles Bessey who taught botany at the University of Nebraska.  It began as a student project and was a way to highlight the importance of the educational system to the advancement of science.  The scientific aspect of surveys was emphasized by the use of forms and field notebooks to record information uniformly.  It led to more informative specimen labels, a boon for those attempting to use these plants for biodiversity research today.

Kohler argues that by the 1930s, surveys became less common in part because the public as a whole wasn’t as interested in natural history as they had been in the 19th century.  Lack of interest meant less funding, which resulted in collecting from that time on being more focused:  on smaller areas and on particular plant groups.  However, the legacy of these surveys resides in the rich collections they produced which continue to fuel botanical research today.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jarvis, C. E. (2015). Carl Linnaeus and the influence of Mark Catesby’s botanical work. In E. C. Nelson & D. J. Elliott (Eds.), The Curious Mister Catesby (pp. 189–204). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Kohler, R. (2006). All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850-1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Collections: Herbaria in a Larger Context

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The Lost Museum at Brown University

I recently read two books that have gotten me thinking about collectors and collections.  Needless to say, plants are foremost in my mind as “collectables,” but sometimes taking a broader view can lead to new insights.  This seems to have happened to me after reading James Delbourgo’s (2017) Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane and Steven Lubar’s (2017) Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.  Issues about the value of collections, material culture, curation, and the meanings of collected objects circled around in my mind, and it’s these themes I want to explore in this set of posts.

The two collections at the center of these books are very different from each other, to say the least.  Hans Sloane (1660-1753) created one of the most impressive personal collections of all time.  His herbarium in 265 volumes is still extant, but he also amassed a large library as well as ethnological, geological, and zoological items, to say nothing of coins and other “curiosities.”  Sloane was born as the era of cabinets of curiosity was waning and more systematic collection came to the fore.  Delbourgo argues that though Sloane wrote an impressive two-volume Natural History of Jamaica (1707,1725), his most significant legacy as a writer was in the labels and catalogues he produced in an effort to manage his collection.  Objects disconnected from textual information lose a great deal of their value, and this is true of anything from a plant collected by Mark Catesby in the Carolinas (there are many of these in Sloane’s herbarium) to an asbestos purse that Benjamin Franklin sold Sloane when the latter was a 19-year-old visitor to London.

While many items in Sloane’s collection deteriorated or were lost over the years, a great deal of it ended up as the founding collection of the British Museum in London, which eventually morphed into three institutions as the books took up residence in a separate building, the British Library, and the natural history specimens in the Natural History Museum, London.  The collection described in Steven Lubar’s book—the Jenks Museum at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island—had a very different fate.  Founded in 1871, it closed in 1915.  The difference between the two institutions is what makes this juxtaposition so interesting.  It highlights how important not only objects, but management, attendant information, and community are to a collection’s development and survival.

John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-1894) had graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and went on to become headmaster at a boy’s school in Massachusetts.  When he retired in 1871, he moved to Providence, bringing with him a collection of taxidermied birds and mammals.  He convinced the university’s president that the school needed a natural history museum not only as a study collection for students but also as a symbol of its prestige.  After all, Yale and Harvard had such institutions by this time.  Also, Jenks was deeply religious and saw the natural world as an important manifestation of God’s power, thus learning about nature would lead students closer to God, suggesting that collections can be valued for very different reasons.

The problem with Jenks’s collection was that he was not selective.  He collected whatever came his way and whatever collections were donated to Brown.  But as Lubar writes:  “Museum collecting is disciplined collecting, for a larger purpose” (p. 15).  Also, as was not uncommon at the time, Jenks attempted to display everything in the collection, so the exhibit rooms became crowded with, for example, stuffed sharks laid on top of exhibit cases because there was no place else to fit them in.  in addition, he kept few records, the labels often provided limited information, and many of the specimens deteriorated.  Another problem was that Jenks did not work well with others to ensure the continuation of his museum and did little to integrate the collections into the curriculum.  It was not long into the 20th century when the exhibits were put into storage, and in 1945 most of what was left ended up in a dump.

However, Jenks was not completely forgotten.  In the 21st century, a Jenks Society for Lost Museums was founded among students and faculty at Brown and the nearby Rhode Island School of Design.  Lubar, who is a professor at Brown and director of its anthropology museum was involved as was Mark Dion, an artist known for his interpretations of natural history collections.  This group created an installation called The Lost Museum in Brown’s Rhode Island Hall, which had housed the Jenks Museum.  Dion recreated Jenks’s taxidermy workshop, and there was a “Museum Storeroom” with 80 objects, all in white, which represented animals, tools, weapons, and other “curiosities” that had been in the museum, but no longer exist.  The final room exhibited 100 items from the museum that had survived; they were organized by degree of decay, including labels in Jenks’s hand for items that had disappeared.

Both books described here were published in 2017 by Harvard University Press.  They weren’t meant to be coupled, but I think they make a nice set since they both deal with various aspects of collection, curation, preservation, and value, themes explored in the following posts in this series.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Plants in Toronto: Adam White


Watercolor of G.S. Malcolm’s grave in an Adam White scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Adam White (1817-1878) was a Scottish entomologist who never traveled outside his country, so why is he considered important to the Green Plant Herbarium (TRT) of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)?  The answer was revealed during my recent visit to the herbarium (see 1, 2).  From the age of 18, White was employed in the zoology department of the British Museum.  There he dealt with materials collected during British expeditions to all parts of the world.  For example, he identified and published on the spiders that Charles Darwin collected on The Beagle.  At times, he was given duplicate specimens from various expeditions.  He kept some of these materials, including plant specimens, in notebooks, and two of these ended up at the TRT, donated by relatives of White who lived in Toronto.  This is one of countless herbarium stories about how specimens can travel long distances over a long time before finding a permanent home.

Because these scrapbooks are so rich, it makes sense to treat them separately.  One was described by Nicholas Polunin (1936) shortly after it was donated to the TRT.  Its contents, available online, open with a series of 36 plants collected by Peter Sutherland during an 1850-1851 expedition to Baffin Bay in search of evidence for what happened to the last Franklin Arctic Expedition, which was last seen in Baffin Bay in July 1845.   Sir John Franklin’s wife pushed for searches to discover the fate of the party of over 100 men.   Sutherland sent a collection of 54 plants to William Jackson Hooker for identification, and the White specimens appear to be duplicates of some of these.  They have botanical importance because few collections have ever been made in this area.  Next are about a dozen plants from Sir John Richardson who led the expedition.  While Richardson named them, he didn’t give collection dates or locations as Sutherland did.  These are followed by 20 plants collected in southern Norway by L. Esbark.  The last 25 specimens date from the late 1840s and were gathered by Joseph Dalton Hooker and Thomas Thomson in India and the Himalayas.  These are significant because most were published by the pair.

Since this is a scrapbook, it’s not surprising that along with plants there are other items pasted on its pages including an autographed engraving of the Arctic explorer W.E. Parry and an original watercolor depicting the grave of G.S. Malcolm who was in the Franklin search party and died of frostbite (see photo above).  There is a handwritten note relating that “The plant which covered Malcolm’s grave was the Saxifraga oppositifolia,” so it’s appropriate that it should end up in a herbarium.  There are other such miscellanea, but it is the plants that make this scrapbook interesting and valuable, and explain its residence in TRT.

The second Adam White scrapbook has some empty pages so it’s described as unfinished, but it’s still a treasure trove.  It too has its own website, with information on White and on those who contributed the specimens, as well as maps of the locations where these were collected.  There are several distinct and unrelated areas represented: Europe, Palestine, and the sites visited by Joseph Dalton Hooker on the Ross Expedition to Antarctica (1839-1843).  The European material comes from British botanists: Joseph Woods, W.C. Hewitson, and Robert Brown.  The Palestine material was collected by the Scottish botanist Horatius Bonar.  Images and information on all the specimens, organized by collector and location, are available on the website.

Among the Hooker specimens is a new species, Lyallia kergulensis, (see photo below) that he collected on the subantarctic Kergulen Islands and named for his friend David Lyall who was surgeon on the HMS Terror during the Ross Expedition.  In later years, Lyall also served on ships exploring the Arctic and made valuable collections of plants at both poles.  It’s also interesting to note, as Deb Metsger pointed out, that the two ships on the Ross Expedition to Antarctica (1839-1843) were the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror.   These ships were later refitted and carried the Franklin party into the Arctic, where they disappeared.  Remarkably, both ships have been found recently.  The Erebus in 2014 and the Terror 31 miles away in 2016.  The latter’s location was 57 miles from where it was reported abandoned in 1845.  So White’s notebook united these two ships in a remarkable way, through plant specimens collected at both ends of the world.


Specimen of Lyallia kergulensis from an Adam White scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum

I should note in closing that there was a third Adam White scrapbook donated by his family.   It contained moss specimens and was taken apart so the specimens could be filed taxonomically in the general collection.   When the bryophyte collection was reorganized a few years ago, Deb Metsger undid this work and reunited the White mosses.  Because many of its pages were cut up to separate specimens, it would be difficult to reconstitute the scrapbook, but Metsger hopes to find a way to fittingly preserve the treasure.  This is the attitude of a truly dedicated curator, and Deb is definitely that.  She cares very thoughtfully for the collection and is generous to those like myself who want to learn more about it.

Note: Thanks to Deb Metsger for taking the time to show me these wonderful treasures of the TRT.  She made my visit memorable.


Polunin, N. (1936). A botanical scrapbook. Rhodora, 38, 409–413.

Plants in Toronto: In the Backwoods

Album Cover

Album cover from a Catharine Parr Traill scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Though I am not well-versed on United States history, I am even less up on Canadian history or natural history.  However, on the few occasions when I’ve ventured north, I’ve tried to learn a little more.  On a trip to Vancouver I visited an exhibit of the artist Emily Carr’s paintings and that opened up to me not only her visual art but her writings about the Canadian Northwest (Shadbolt, 1997).  This time, thanks to my visit to the Green Plant Herbarium (TRT) at the Royal Ontario Museum (see last post), I was led to the work of Catharine Parr Traill.  I had heard of her in the sense that I knew that she was a 19th-century Canadian pioneer who had also collected plants and sent them to Eastern botanists.  But while at TRT, the assistant curator Deborah Metsger gave me more information on Traill and introduced me to this woman’s writings as well as to her collections.  At TRT there are two Traill scrapbooks of pressed plants, both conserved but with different methods because of their different levels of fragility.  In one case, the pages were almost crumbling, so the book was taken apart and the beautiful cover (see photo above) stored separately.  Each page was placed on acid-free mounting board and kept in place with plastic strips that are pasted to the board but not to the page itself.  The boards are matted to lessen the pressure on the specimens when they are stacked in an acid-free box.  It’s a beautiful conservation job and insures the collection’s survival.  The pages in the other scrapbook were in better shape and remain in their original binding.  Traill made it for her granddaughter and was over 90 at the time.  It opens with a beautiful wreath of leaves (see photo below).


Wreath from Catharine Parr Traill scrapbook in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Now that I’ve discussed the physical evidence related to Traill at ROM, I’ll give some background on her life and botanical work.  She was born in England in 1802, one of eight children.  When she was 16, their father Thomas Strickland died shortly after suffering a financial disaster.  Her brother Samuel Strickland emigrated to Canada in 1826.  After Catharine married Thomas Traill, a lieutenant in the British Army, they left for Canada, arriving in the fall of 1832 around the same time as her sister Susanna Moodie and her husband, also an army man.  Canada was attractive at the time for those whose British prospects weren’t bright, because military officers were being given land that they could clear and farm.  All three Strickland siblings ended up in the area around Peterborough, Ontario in what was then wilderness.  Just four years after arriving in Canada, Traill (1836) published a book on her experiences settling into a life with none of the amenities of middle-class England.  I got a copy on the recommendation of Deb Metsger and found it wonderful.

The Backwoods of Canada is based on letters Traill wrote home to her family and friends.  She never mentions her brother and sister though she does say that she knows people in the area which is why they chose to settle there.  Her husband doesn’t receive much attention either, rather she focuses on what they did to make life bearable in this very foreign environment.  First she describes the voyage, and in more detail, the trip down the St. Lawrence River.  I am accustomed to US pioneer stories which start with landing at an East Coast port and then coach travel West.  For the Traills, their first stop was on Green Island off the coast of Newfoundland.  This was three weeks after leaving England, but they had another 4 weeks to reach Peterborough, traveling by boat and stage coach.

Also at variance with other accounts I’ve read, Traill focuses a great deal on class.  From the very first letter, she makes it clear that she and her husband are educated, middle-class people who did not leave England out of desperation as did many lower-class immigrants.  She frames their decision in terms of trying a new kind of life, but she also admits that it is not the life presented in the advertisements used to attract settlers to the Canadian wilderness.  Yet, by the end of the book, she feels that they have triumphed.  She has a son, she trades with Indian women, they have a log home and have cleared land.  Also, she exults in the nature around her and devotes an entire letter to birds and another, one of the longest, to plants.  However, Charlotte Gray’s (1999) biography of the two sisters paints a different picture, more in sync with the experiences of American pioneer women.  Their lives were physically difficult, and in addition, their husbands were not good at making life in the wilderness financially successful.

In the following years Traill continued to write as a source of income, including a guide to Canadian Wild Flowers, with illustrations by her niece Agnes Fitzgibbon (1869).  She also corresponded with botanists who could answer her questions about plants and were eager to have an extra pair of educated botanical eyes on the lookout for new species.  Her sister, too, wrote a book on life in the Canadian backwoods (Moodie, 1852), as did her brother, though he didn’t summarize his experiences until he had been in Canada for over 25 years (Strickland, 1853).  Two sisters who remained in England wrote biographies of the royals, so they were definitely a literary family and one that used their talents to keep themselves financially afloat.

Note: Thanks to Deb Metsger for taking the time to show me these wonderful treasures of the TRT.


Gray, C. (1999). Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill. Toronto, Canada: Penguin Canada.

Moodie, S. (1852). Roughing It in the Bush, or Life in Canada. New York, NY: Putnam.

Shadbolt, D. (1997). The Complete Writings of Emily Carr. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Strickland, S. (1853). Twenty-Seven Years in Canada West; or, The Experience of an Early Settler. London, UK: Bentley.

Traill, C. P. (1836). The Backwoods of Canada. London, UK: Knight.

Traill, C. P. (1869). Canadian Wild Flowers. Montreal, Canada: Lovell.

Plants in Toronto: The Royal Ontario Museum Herbarium

Seed Collection

H.B. Sifton Seed Collection in the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

While I was in Toronto for the History of Science Society meeting (see last post), I visited the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to see its herbarium, or rather, one of its herbaria.  These collections were originally in the University of Toronto which is adjacent to the museum.  One was for phanerogams (TRT) and one for cryptogams (TRTC).  Eventually, ferns, bryophytes, and lichens were moved into the phanerogam collection, which was renamed the Green Plant Herbarium.  This left fungi in a separate collection (TRTC) and housed in a different part of the museum.

On the day of my visit, there was also another herbarium aficionado there, Jasmine Lai, a student at the University of British Columbia who is doing an internship at the National Herbarium of Canada at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.  Deborah Metsger, assistant curator at TRT, gave us an extensive tour of what is a packed facility.  It has working space and compactors in a facility that Metsger helped to design and which is discussed in a volume she co-edited, Managing the Modern Herbarium (1999).  However, after years of acquisitions, most of the cabinets are nearly full, and Deb said that she is looking to add more cabinets above them.  As with most large collections, the exact number of specimens isn’t known, but it is probably over 1 million if the seed and pollen collections are included as well as economic botany material.  There are over 500,000 vascular plant specimens and 150,000 bryophyte specimens.

The herbarium was founded in the mid-19th century with the collections of H. H. Croft, the first Professor of Experimental Philosophy and Chemistry, and William Hincks, the first Professor of Natural History, appointed in 1853.  Thomas Henry Huxley applied for the job at the time he was seeking economic stability so he could marry.  Hincks, however, had local connections that gave him the edge.  Over the years, the collection grew with specimens from a number of noted Canadian botanists, including John Macoun.  I first encountered his name when I was databasing specimens at New York Botanical Garden; there are thousands of his specimens in that collection.  Then I read a biography of the Danish-Canadian arctic botanist Alf Erling Porsild who was one of a number of botanists who took up Macoun’s work in the next generation (Dathan, 2012).  Finally, this summer Macoun’s name came up again while I was reading a book on Irish natural history (see earlier post).  Macoun was born in Ireland and eventually served as a botanist for the Geological Survey of Canada after he immigrated to Ontario.  To me, this is a great example of how different parts of the botanical world are interwoven and delving into its history helps to reveal the connections.

While on the tour, another important contributor to the collection arrived.  Timothy Dickinson is a retired curator at the herbarium who continues to do research there on hawthorns.  Deb had explained to Jasmine and I that this is a particularly difficult group to work out taxonomically because they are apomictic plants, meaning that they are genetically identical from one generation to the next, so each lineage could be identified as a separate species.  This can lead to taxonomic chaos, and Dickinson along with others have tried to bring order to the group.  Another Canadian to do so is James Bird Phipps who donated 20,000 specimens, including many hawthorns, to TRT.  It’s a wonderful acquisition, but one that still needs to be integrated into the collection.

The extensive pollen collection was developed by John H. McAndrews who took core samples from bogs and studied the pollen and fossil pollen found in them.  These specimens are mounted on slides and are a resource for ecological and climate change research.  The Sifton Seed Collection was created by H.B. Sifton of the Seed Laboratory in Ottawa in the early 20th century.  It’s housed in beautiful wooden cases with drawers holding hand-labeled boxes containing the seeds (see photo above).  The entire collection has been cleaned and organized by volunteers and is a treasure for artistic as well as scientific reasons.  The topic of art came up several times during our tour.  Metsger has worked with ROM and the Bata Shoe Museum on an exhibit called Flower Power and was involved in developing ROM’s Schad Gallery of Biodiversity (Metsger, 2009).  She also showed us some botanical illustrations in the herbarium collection as well as the moss herbarium of Robert Muma who developed A Graphic Guide to the Mosses of Ontario.   He was a book binder by profession enclosed the envelopes of moss in folded sheets of thick paper with accompanying drawings of the specimens and notes in beautiful lettering.  These are kept in boxes he created for the purpose.  In addition, TRT has an extensive slide collection of plant photos, including those taken by Mary Ferguson and Richard Saunders (1995) for their Wildflowers through the Seasons.   A recent acquisition is a work called Strata by Dana Munro, an artistic interpretation of the meaning of herbaria.

As Deb showed us one herbarium jewel after another, it became clear that this is a collection that is well cared for by curators who are not afraid to accept items that extend far beyond herbarium sheets.  Among the economic botany pieces are necklaces made from a variety of different kinds of seeds and pods.  These are kept in display boxes and many of the specimens are poisonous.  When wearing such jewelry became popular, there were instances of children chewing on the colorful beads and becoming ill.  So the herbarium staff developed a display that could be used in informational presentations at the museum.

The herbarium’s location does, I think, influence its collection strategies in that there might be a greater willingness to collect the unconventional because others in the museum have expertise that can be used to preserve these items.   Also, the museum has a broad visitor base that would find many of these materials intriguing.   One that came from Deb’s family’s garage intrigued me (see photo below).  Deb said she had used it many times as a brush without paying attention to it, but after seeing a sample of lace bark in the herbarium, she realized that the brush had been made from the same material, the net-like inner bark of the lacebark tree, Lagetta legetto.  She decided to treat it with more respect and put it in the collection.   In the next two posts, I will discuss two special collections at TRT that are particularly valuable and beautiful, with wonderful stories attached to them.  In the meantime, you might enjoy Jasmine Lai’s herbarium video that includes images from TRT.

Lace Bark

“Brush” made from the lacebark tree Lagetta lagetto in the collection of the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Note: Thanks especially to Deb Metsger, and also to Tim Dickinson and Jasmine Lai, for a wonderful afternoon at TRT.


Dathan, W. (2012). The Reindeer Botanist: Alf Erling Porsild, 1901-1977. Calgary: University of Alberta Press.

Ferguson, M., & Saunders, R. M. (1995). Canadian Wildflowers through the Seasons. Toronto: Discovery Books.

Metsger, D. (2009). “Planting” life in crisis: The Schad Gallery of Biodiversity–A community effort. Canadian Botanical Association, 43(3), 60–63.

Metsger, D. A., & Byers, S. C. (Eds.). (1999). Managing the Modern Herbarium: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Vancouver, Canada: Elton-Wolf.

Plants in Toronto: History of Science

The History of Science Society (HSS) met in Toronto in November, and there were enough plant-related papers on the program to keep me happy.  The trip also gave me the opportunity to visit  the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum and investigate its history.  This series of blogs will report on my experiences, beginning with a summary of some the sessions I attended.

For me, the conference was a success because there was a paper about Agnes Arber (1879-1960), a noted plant morphologist who also delved into the history and philosophy of science.  I’ve studied her work for years (Flannery, 2005), but learned something new from Andre Hahn’s paper on her approach to analogy in science.  He is a graduate student at Oregon State University, investigating the influence of Goethe’s botanical work on 20th-century botanists.  Arber (1946) not only produced a translation of Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants, but also used his work as the basis for her morphological argument in The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form (1950).  Hahn focused on Arber’s views on analogy as central to biological inquiry that are outlined not only in this book, but in the later The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint (1954).

In the same session, Darryl Brock of the City University of New York described the long-term research Nathaniel Lord Britton, the first director of the New York Botanical Garden, oversaw in Puerto Rico in the early part of the 20th century.  The next day, Elaine Ayers, a grad student at Princeton University, spoke on Rafflesia arnoldii, one of the plants referred to as a corpse flower because of the fetid odor it releases.  It’s also notable for the size of its flower and parasitic habit, but Ayers focused instead on how the plant came to be known in Europe despite the fact that live specimens were impossible to transport from its native Sumatra.  On Saturday there was a session on Pharmacology and Plant Medicine in Global Context that included two papers on Indian medicinal plants.  Both highlighted issues of language, for example, translating not only information but plant names from Persian and Sanskrit into European languages and associating scientific names with names used locally.  One problem was that often the same name was used for different plants in different parts of the India, not surprising because of the country’s size and breadth of ethnic diversity.

Besides these sessions on specific historical topics there was also a wonderful program on 19th–century history of science resources on the web.  Several months ago, I wrote a post in which I described my dreams of digital botanical resources in the future.  At the HSS meeting I was introduced to at least part of that dream coming true.  At the moment, it doesn’t include any herbarium specimens, obviously a major oversight at far as I‘m concerned, but it does link a number of resources that were either not accessible on the web at all, or not available from one portal.

I should say at the outset that this project, called Epsilon, does not yet have an open website, but the developers expect to make it public in September 2018.  It’s definitely something to look forward to.  Epsilon stands for “Epistles of Science in the Long Nineteenth Century,” and this Greek letter is used as a variable in many branches of science and has meanings including “set membership” and “elasticity.”  These last were attractive to Epsilon’s developers because they see this “collaborative digital framework for c19 letters of science” as being flexible in that it can expand and include many nineteenth-century scientists, so membership in the set will increase over time.  This enterprise grew out of the Darwin Correspondence Project, which began in the 1970s with the aim of publishing all letters that could be found to or from Charles Darwin.  The publication of the last of 30 volumes will be completed by Cambridge University Press in a few years.  Open online access follows four years after the publication of each volume.  The letters have not only been transcribed but also heavily footnoted with background information and references.

At the moment, Epsilon plans to include the Darwin correspondence as well as that of John Stevens Henslow, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Michael Faraday, and John Tyndall.  Leaders of the Epsilon project presented at the HSS meeting because they wanted to make it better known among historians of science who would of course be major users of its resources.  As Epsilon is expanding beyond Darwin and beyond biology, it also hopes to expand beyond British science.  Obviously, John Torrey and Asa Gray came to my mind immediately.  Their correspondence, held by New York Botanical Garden and Harvard University respectively, has already been transcribed and is digitally available through these institution’s library websites and also through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  If this is the case, what would be the advantage of adding them to Epsilon as well?  The most obvious answer is that they would be searchable at once along with all the other correspondence, including that of Darwin and Hooker with whom Torrey and Gray exchanged many letters.  Also, the interface for Epsilon will introduce new search features making it easier to delve deeply into these collections.  It is definitely something to look forward to in 2018.  Until then, botanists can find the Hooker correspondence at the website of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew and the Henslow papers through the Darwin Correspondence Project site.


Arber, A. R. (1946). Goethe’s botany. Chronica Botanica, 10, 63–126.

Arber, A. R. (1950). The Natural Philosophy of Plant Form. Cambridge: University Press.

Arber, A. R. (1954). The Mind and the Eye: A Study of the Biologist’s Standpoint. Cambridge: University Press.

Plants in Sweden: Herbaria 3.0

4 Herbaria 3

Herbaria 3.0 website

In the last three posts (1, 2, 3), I’ve discussed various aspects of my trip to Sweden, and now I finally want to get to why I traveled there.  I had been invited to join a group of researchers headed by Tina Gianquitto, an associate professor of literature at the Colorado School of Mines, and her co-principal investigator, Dawn Sanders of Gothenburg University in Sweden, where our group met.  Also involved are Lauren LaFauci of Sweden’s Linköping University and Terry Hodge of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  The project is called Herbaria 3.0 and is funded by Swedish environmental agencies through the Seed Box: A Mistra-Formas Environmental Humanities Collaboratory hosted at Linköping University.  In this program, fifteen projects were awarded “seed money” to explore ways that diverse disciplines can work together on environmental issues.

The title Herbaria 3.0 is explained this way on the project’s newly-launched website, which is becoming a platform for sharing stories about plants and people:  “The original herbaria constitute the ‘1.0’ of our project; the collection of these specimens in real and digital herbaria constitute the ‘2.0.’  In ‘Herbaria 3.0,’ we offer a place for the telling and retelling of plant stories, revealing hidden histories, and provoking new narratives.  Here we aim to create a bright spot of hope, just as plants have shown resilience in the face of change.”  As to the why of the project, we wrote:  “We believe that these stories can draw our attention to the intertwined nature of human-plant relationships.  Turning to these relationships helps us to remember plants and reconnect with them, acknowledging the pivotal role plants play in our lives.”

When I say that “we wrote” this, I mean it quite literally.  Two of us (Tina and Lauren) are professors of literature, so they guided us into using words carefully.  That’s fitting, since this project is as much about words as it is about plants.  It involves people’s memories and ideas about plants put into words to share with others.  We tested out our ideas about the website by sharing some of our own stories about plants.  Terry said that he first became really aware of plants as a high school student working in a nursery.  His job was to water the trees, and he learned that he had to attend to each one of them because they had different needs; he thus began to see the trees.  Tina shared a story about a Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii that has been in her family for years.  When she told this story to Italian friends, they said that in Italy it’s not known as a Christmas cactus but as mother-in-law’s tongue.  In the US, the snake plant Sansevieria trifasciata is saddled with that name; both have sharp leaves.  For Terry and Tina, there are emotional ties in these memories, and that’s part of what we are trying to emphasize in our project:  humans have feelings about plants, and this aspect of our relationship with nature needs to be foregrounded.

In the earlier Beyond Plant Blindness project that Dawn Sanders headed (see earlier posts), researchers asked student teachers simply:  “What is your favorite plant and why?”  Irma Brkovic, a psychologist at Gothenburg University, coded the answers and found that they usually involved emotions:  words like “love” and “feel” were used often.  In many cases, as with Terry and Tina, the answers entailed memories, stories, and family.  There was real connection with the plants.  Our aim in Herbaria 3.0 is to foreground these connections in the digital world, and broaden people’s relationships with each other as well as with plants.  Here “herbaria” is being used as a metaphor for a collection of plants, plants that are linked to people.  In botanical herbaria, real plants are collected and preserved; in ours, stories about plants are collected and linked to digital herbarium records.  So a story about the Christmas cactus Schlumbergera bridgesii will link to a specimen for this species, as well as to other information about the plant and its metaphorical relationships.  There will also be other images because most of us fall in love with plants by looking at them.   Photographs, paintings, and sculptures will be used because plants are so visually appealing, they deserve to be presented in visually exciting ways.  And since the project involves a metaphor, there’ll be links to poetry and fiction.  In other words, we plan to make Herbaria 3.0 a hub for the digital humanities and sciences, a place where connections among people and disciplines can be formed through plants.  In the process, we also hope that there will be a deepening concern for the environment, for plants as fundamentals components of our lives and our ecosystems.

This seems to be a lot to ask of one website, and especially one that is being created by a small group of people with a small grant.  However, remember, this is a Seed Box grant.  Consider what an acorn eventually becomes, or a tiny orchid seed.  What better metaphor could there be for our efforts?  No wonder we are optimistic about what we can achieve.  If you want to see how we are doing, please visit the Herbaria 3.0 website and follow us Instagram (Herbaria3.0).  Also, share your plant stories and encourage others to do so.  If we are going to grow into an oak, we are going to need a great deal of fertilizer that only you can provide.

Plants in Sweden: Seeing Plants

3 Dahlias

Dahlias at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

As is evident in my last two posts (1,2), my recent trip to Gothenburg, Sweden was all about plants, and in particular about engaging people with plants so that they can come to value them more.   It’s almost impossible to bring up this topic without using the term “plant blindness.”   Sometimes I think the phrase is becoming so common that it’s losing some of its punch, in part because it has been so successful in calling attention to the green world.  Plants are coming into their own, and people are beginning to appreciate how important they are to climate stability, air quality, and even human temperament.  But I don’t think this disease has been by any means eradicated, and it has taken a long time for the term to seep into the collective consciousness.  After all, it has been around since the 1990s when it was coined by James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler (1998).  Interest in it remained low-keyed for years, somewhat like a dormant seed, but one that finally germinates.  A recent manifestation of its coming into its own is a good op-ed piece in The New York Times earlier this year on curing plant blindness by learning tree names.   Gabriel Popkin argues that just looking isn’t enough, the experience of trees is deepened when they can be identified and named.  My own personal plant blindness was cured by herbaria.  When I became interested in them several years ago, the world of plants opened up for me.  I wanted to learn about them and to really see them, to observe them more closely, to not just walk by a tree and name it as an oak, but carefully look at it:  acorns, leaves, buds, and bark.

Traveling gives me the opportunity to look at different plants.  I wouldn’t say that plants are all I look for.  I love to visit museums, eat nice meals, window shop, and simply walk through unfamiliar areas.  However, I do look at plants and seek them out, much more than I did before I developed my passion for plants (see photo above).  I am not much of a botanist, so I can’t identify many species, but I’m improving.  I can remember what Susan Pell, who is now deputy director as well as science and programs manager of the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC, said when I took a plant systematics course with her several years ago at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).  She argued that learning some systematics would make it possible to begin to identify at least plant families and to make sense of taxonomy.  I didn’t think it was possible for me, but I have to admit that frequent and repeated exposure to plants and plant labels in herbaria and in botanical gardens has helped me to at least guess that what I’m looking at belongs to the Ranunculaceae, Asteraceace, Fabaceace, or one of the other large families.  And I am getting it right more and more often.  I know that isn’t much, but it’s something and something that gives me a thrill when I test myself and then look at labels in a botanic garden and find out that my guess was correct.  I’ve come to a greater appreciation for these labels recently for another reason:  a blog post from NYBG on the staff who create the labels.  It isn’t an easy task to keep up with a shifting collection,  and labels that are exposed to all kinds of weather.

When I visited the Gothenburg Botanical Garden, I was cheered to find that they too do a good job of labeling their plants, both outdoors and in their conservatory.  Also, I was grateful to Carl Linnaeus and his Latin binomial system so I didn’t have to worry about recognizing plant names in Swedish.  Going at the end of September might not seem like a great time to see flowers blooming, but there was a great perennial bed with many fall blooms (see photo above), and another of dahlias.   When I returned a few days later, the plants in this bed had been ripped out, but the flowers were given one less chance to shine:  they had been cut off and floated in a pond at the garden’s entrance (see photo below).

3b Dahlias

Dahlias floating in a pool at the Gothenburg Botanical Garden

This lovely touch is indicative of what seems to be a reverence for plants in Sweden that makes the job of countering plant blindness there somewhat easier than in other countries.  This was pointed out to me by Lauren LaFauci, who moved to Sweden two years ago and works at Linköping University.  The very fact that the Beyond Plant Blindness project at Gothenburg University received generous funding from the Swedish government is indicative of this.  In addition, two Swedish funding agencies, Mistra and Formas, are supporting our grant Herbaria 3.0 project through Seed Box, an environmental humanities collaboratory (see next post).  It aims at bringing disciplines together around environmental issues, and it’s nice to see a plant metaphor used for its name.  Obviously, Sweden has a long, dark winter, but it would be hard to tell that in late September when the days were still quite long and the weather, at least when I was there, was mild enough for outdoor dining.  The term “seed box” implies preparation for the winter and for the future, saving seed to grow next year’s plants, and in a way, our project is designed to nourish the seeds of interest in plants that I would argue hide within each of us.


Wandersee, J., & Schussler, E. (1998). Preventing Plant Blindness. American Biology Teacher, 61(2), 82-86.

Plants in Sweden: Specimens and Photos

2 Gothenburg BG

Gothenburg Botanical Garden, September 2017

As I wrote in my last post, I recently spent a week in Sweden at a planning meeting for a grant on increasing people’s awareness of plants.  Among those I met was Eva Nyberg, a senior lecturer in biology in the Department of Pedagogical, Curricular and Professional Studies at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg.  When she learned that I was interested in herbaria, she mentioned her surprise at discovering that when another professor took over a course that she had taught and had always included students’ collecting plants and making herbarium specimens, they were now taking photographs of plants rather than collecting specimens.  She thought there was something lost in this shift and I totally agree.  Here I want to discuss what’s lost, which I think is considerable.  However, in the interest of full disclosure, I also have to admit that during my Scandinavian visit, I took many photos of plants, especially to record what I saw in botanic gardens (see photo above), and I produced no herbarium specimens.  Of course, I didn’t have permission to collect nor to bring foreign plant material back into the US.  But leaving that out of the picture, it is also much less time consuming to take a picture, even though I was careful to label each, something I wasn’t so conscientious about than in the past.  I also made a few sketches, a much slower process, but one that requires more observation and therefore more learning and experiencing of plant form.

When it is possible to make specimens, it’s an experience that isn’t replicated by photography or drawing.  A student has a very different physical relationship with a plant in taking a photo of it versus making a specimen of it.  The latter is a far richer way of knowing the plant.  Photography is about distance, about not getting too close to the subject, and it really doesn’t make much difference what the subject is, almost anything can be photographed.  Not everything can be preserved by being pressed between sheets of newspaper.  Also, the physical contact with the plant provides much sensory engagement:  the smell of leaves and flowers, the sticky or velvety or prickly feel of stems, the snap sound of breaking off a dry branch.  What I am talking about is the materiality of the plant, and materiality of almost everything is something we tend to take for granted or neglect to appreciate, especially in our increasingly virtual world.   There is also the process of selection: what is to be collected, what constitutes a good specimen  Yes, selection decisions are also made in taking a photo—angle, proximity, inclusiveness—but these decisions are often done in a matter of seconds and usually don’t involve as much physical rummaging amid the plant material.

Then there is the crucial tactile process of arranging the material for pressing.   This requires a combination of knowledge of what needs to be displayed and of how this particular specimen responds to manipulation, as well as manual dexterity in setting all parts of the specimen in place.  Though an important skill, such manual work is less and less common today.  An art professor I know bemoans the fact that art students come to college much less adept at the physical manipulation of materials than they were in the past.  If art students are deficient, where does that leave students in less hands-on fields?  Then there is all the work involved in arranging the dried specimens on a sheet, labeling them properly, and gathering stray material in a small envelope attached to the sheet.  When I made my first specimen labels I felt a sense of responsibility that I don’t feel when I name a photograph.  The label seems a more public record, something that could last a long time and be seen by many eyes, something with my name attached.  The metadata is not just virtual as it is with a digital photo, it’s right there in black and white.

I would also argue that there is a greater sense of accomplishment in producing five or ten herbarium sheets compared to five or ten photographs of plants.  Again, there is the physicality which is more multifaceted than are photos, even if printed.  Also, in many cases, the specimens, if they are well done, are added to the permanent collection of the institution’s herbarium.  In digitizing specimens at the University of South Carolina’s A.C. Moore Herbarium, I often come across specimens that were created by students 10 or 20 or more years ago.  I assume they are students, because the collection numbers are in the single digits.  They many not have gone on to further work in botany, but they have left a permanent record at their alma mater.

There is one more issue I want to mention:  pressed doesn’t mean totally two-dimensional.  Flattened specimens still have depth and texture, they give a much better sense of the materiality of a plant than any photograph could (Flannery, 2012).  They almost invite inspection because of their physicality.  They have more of a presence than a photograph does.  This is something that a student might not be fully aware of, but nonetheless, it has a subliminal effect on their experience of the plant.   That was what was at the heart of my conversation with Eva Nyberg:  how to most effectively engage students with plants, and the more multisensory experience involved, the better.  In my next post I’ll continue with this theme.