Herbaria and Display

2 Glasnevin

Antique display case for herbarium snpecimens at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevi, Dublin (Picture: Lafayette Photography)

One of the reasons given for the general public’s lack of knowledge about herbaria, is that herbaria are private places out of necessity.  Specimens can easily be damaged if moved too many times; more people in herbaria means a greater chance that insects will tag along and get into the collection; room is such a scarce resource in most herbaria that there just isn’t space for many visitors.  And then there is the idea that herbarium specimens are not exciting to look at:  they are brown, flat, plant “mummies.”  If most people are plant blind to leafy trees and brightly colored flowers, specimens are definitely not going to catch their eye.  However, more and more botanic gardens are countering this perception with intriguing exhibits that highlight specimens.  There was one at New York Botanical Garden in 2017 called “What in the World Is a Herbarium.”  It featured some extraordinarily beautiful sheets but also explained how plants are collected, pressed, dried, identified, and mounted.  The exhibit included a video on these aspects of creating a herbarium, tours of NYBG’s Steere Herbarium with over 8 million specimens, and even a course on how to create herbarium sheets.

Right now, the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland at Glasnevin has an exhibit, “Herbarium in Focus.”  Along with specimens, there are items from the economic botany collection including a cabinet with vertical pull-out frames with herbarium specimens (see image above).  I saw this on a visit to the garden several years ago and think there should be one available at every botanic garden, in the entrance building so visitors are reminded that many gardens have these hidden gardens as well.  The Manchester Museum and the World Museum in Liverpool are two British institutions that have drawn on their herbarium collections for a number of exhibits, both permanent and temporary.  I don’t have space here to mention many other endeavors to present herbaria without necessarily having large numbers of people trooping through them.  However, tours have definitely become more common and are often very popular—once people know that such treasures exist.

There are also more subtle links between herbaria and exhibits based on the dual aims of most natural history museums and botanic gardens:  research and display.  Many of these institutions in the US were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the diorama was becoming a popular display type.  In their most sophisticated form, dioramas are scenes of specific habitats with life-like ­­­taxidermied animals and equally realistic plants usually made of paper, wire, wax, and other materials.  While dioramas might seem the antithesis of herbaria—real versus artificial, 2-D versus 3-D—there is a relationship between research and display, and in the best cases, the two were coordinated.

A great deal of work went into planning and creating the dioramas, often including expeditions to areas of interest that included botanists and zoologists who collected specimens for their research as well as reference material for displays.  An artist was usually included as well, though in the case of E. B. Dahlgren, a Field Museum botanist, he played both roles.  He not only collected specimens but also created watercolors.  These were filed in the herbarium along with specimens, after the drawings were used in creating life-like plants for the Field’s Botany Hall.  It did not have dioramas, but rather elaborate displays about the biology and uses of plants.  The cases held plant models, information boards, wood specimens in the case of trees, and examples of products made from the plant in question.

Now renamed Plants of the World, the hall still exists, though it has been altered over time, and the wood specimens I mentioned in the last post came from material no longer on display.  Many of the displays have been updated, but the plants created for them remain beautiful and relevant.  Above the display cases are large panels painted in the 1930s presenting the plants in their native habits, often picturing indigenous peoples making use of them.  Other plants were created for the many full dioramas in other halls at the Field, where admittedly the animals draw the eye, but the plants and painted backgrounds are what create the scenes.  I recently also visited the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and they too have a beautiful botany exhibit with exquisitely made plant models, some in dioramas, some in explanatory vignettes.  Bonnie Isaac and  Mason Heberling of the museum’s botany department and herbarium are involved in keeping the exhibit fresh, and they have plans for doing just that in the near future.  But as with much redecorating, they are working with “good bones.”  The basics don’t need to be altered, just enlivened to draw viewers into this magic area of the museum.  The addition of a few herbarium specimens might be a nice touch.

Note: I would like to thank Christina Niezgoda at the Field Museum as well as Bonnie Isaac and Mason Heberling at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for sharing so much information with me on my visits to their institutions.

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