Where the Herbaria Are: Museums


Stairway from the great hall of the Natural History Museum, London.

Think of natural history museums and almost invariably an image of a dinosaur will pop into your mind, though it’s unlikely that a tree fern of the same era will.  Even when plant collections are part of these museums, their specimens usually don’t get the kind of exposure in the public galleries that animals or even minerals do.  In the past, some institutions did have economic botany exhibits, but these have shrunk or disappeared completely, not being able to compete with a Tyrannosaurus or a glitzy interactive display on biodiversity that usually focuses primarily on animals.  Still, there are huge plant collections attached to many of these museums.  In Paris, the Musée National d’Histoire Naturalle has the largest herbarium in the world; the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has over five million plant specimens and the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) houses about six million.  While the public may not be very aware of these resources, researchers are, and these institutions are crucial to work in plant systematics and to investigation of biodiversity.  In the past, many of them mounted major expeditions around the world to collect specimens and ideas for exhibits.  The days of such large-scale endeavors are over, but herbarium curators still collect.

When I visited the NHM recently, Mark Carine and Fred Rumsey had just returned from Madeira where they attended a conference to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s visit to the island at the beginning of his first circumnavigation of the globe.  While there, Joseph Banks and David Solander, who were on the expedition, collected plants in the vicinity of Funchal.  After the conference Carine and Rumsey attempted to retrace their steps, guided by colleagues at the University of Madeira, just as the earlier botanists were aided by the resident physician, Thomas Heberden.  The dates of both visits correspond almost exactly, so it should be possible to make some comparisons, especially since the Cook expedition specimens are at NHM.  Rumsey and Carine collected 120 species and hope to compare them to what the earlier botanists had seen.  Rumsey was already busy examining some of the Banks material under a microscope so he could send information to his Madeira colleagues.  Both he and Carine see this as a great link between present-day biodiversity research and historical collections, which are becoming used more and more in such contexts.

Since outreach to the public is an essential part of a natural history museum’s mission, it’s not surprising that museum herbaria are frequently called upon to contribute to exhibitions.  Deborah Metsger, assistant curator at the Green Plant Herbarium that’s housed at the Royal Ontario Museum told me museum curators asked her to collaborate, such as on the Flower Power exhibit of floral motifs and textiles.  Being at the museum also means she has access to conservation experts who have helped her to conserve old herbarium scrapbooks.  Also,  However, I should note that the herbarium, though housed at the museum, is part of the nearby University of Toronto.  So this herbarium is sort of a hybrid.  I’m sure this makes for some interesting administrative issues, but also allows the specimens to be used in a variety of ways.

Seed Collection

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

The herbaria at the World Museum, Liverpool and the Manchester Museum have been particularly active in this regard, contributing to exhibitions by providing specimens in the form of medicinal plant sheets to slices through tree trunks to 19th-century plant models that used to be stored atop cabinets but are now treated with greater curatorial care.  The Manchester Museum is also part of the University of Manchester, so here again, there are multiple ties, and art students in particular have taken advantage of the herbarium as a source of inspiration for their projects.  It was also on a visit to this herbarium several years ago where I first heard of using Harry Potter as an herbarium lure.  The curator of botany, Rachel Webster, explained that plants mixed into various potions were the focus of displays and activities organized by the herbarium staff for an open house, complete with witches’ brooms and hats hanging from the ceiling.  Backing from museum public relations and educational programmers makes it easier for curators to mount such elaborate projects.

Natural history museums, like most cultural institutions, have faced hard financial times recently, and their herbaria are not immune.  While a botanic garden only has plant collections, living and dead, to worry about these museums have to balance the needs and wants of curators in a number of departments.  So while there are some benefits to these institutional ties, there are problems as well.  Many herbarium curators complain of what amounts to plant blindness among administrators.  The only place I’ve heard the opposite complaint is in Sweden where zoologists blame admiration for Linnaeus for what they see as botanical favoritism.  In other words, there is no perfect place for a herbarium.  Each type of institutional affiliation has its pluses and minuses.  In the last post in this series, I will discuss a number of collections that have a variety of different administrative set ups, not tied to schools, museums or botanical gardens.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.

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