Opening Up Herbaria: Outreach

1 RBHE Frankenstein

“Frankenstein” specimen created at Halloween 2019 event at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh

One reason I stay fascinated by herbaria is that they are changing so rapidly; there is always something new to discover, especially with the continuing digitization of collections, but there are a number of other intriguing trends as well.  Herbaria are becoming more present on social media, making it easier to find out what’s going on.  I have never gotten hooked on Facebook, but I am a devoted Twitter user, more a reader than a tweeter.  I can’t say that I follow a huge number of herbaria, but I’ve come to enjoy several run by dynamic curators; Mason Heberling (@jmheberling) at the Carnegie Natural History Museum, Jordan Metzgar (@MasseyHerbarium) at Virginia Tech, and Jessica Budke (@UTKHerbarium) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville are among these.  Heberling and his coauthors have written a seminal paper tracking the changing uses of herbarium data in journal articles.  He also frequently tweets about a specimen collected “on this date” from the Carnegie Museum Herbarium’s rich collection.  Metzgar is energetic in luring students and the general public into the Massey Herbarium through a variety of activities, including making plant-related Lego models.  Budke lets her students do most of the tweeting, and they write about collecting trips and events like Tea and Scones in the herbarium as ways to lure their fellow students to a place that has become important to them.

Anyone interested in herbaria knows that most people are not, and that’s a problem.  Herbaria are by definition full of plants, so herbarium blindness is just one more aspect of plant blindness.  And herbarium blindness can lead to herbarium closures.  The curators I’ve just mentioned are aware of this, and they are using a number of tools, including Twitter and other social media platforms, to make not only the existence but the value of their collections known.  Many herbaria now have short videos telling about what a herbarium is and why theirs is particularly interesting.  They range in tone from informative to fun, and target various audiences, including children.

The idea of children running around a herbarium might make some systematists cringe, but if young visitors are engaged in activities, such experiences can be memorable and bode well for the future of botany.  In some cases, the events aren’t in the herbaria, but in other venues on site.  A number of botanical gardens and herbaria have staged Harry Potter related events, with presentations on the plants mentioned in the books.  Other activities include making herbarium specimens, from simple pasting specimens on paper for children, to adult classes on how to mount, label, and georeference specimens that could be added to a scientific collection.  Different lures attract different groups.  Sometimes, adult participants become captivated enough to volunteer as specimen mounters or digitizers.  Children might have had so much fun that they can’t wait to go back to the garden or museum.  In every case, participants know more about herbaria than they did before the event.

Craft activities are also used to spread the word about herbaria.  For Halloween, the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh advertised:  “Come along this weekend & create a “Frankenstein” specimen with the RBGE herbarium team part. This event is fun crafts, then digitize your creation (+ a touch of info about our specimens & herbaria). Suitable for all ages.”  The image above is a sample of what they had in mind.  I think the “specimen” digitization is a nice feature.  Georgia Southern University’s herbarium tweeted recently that they use leftover plant material that doesn’t get mounted in paper craft projects, reminiscent of the tradition of making arrangements of pressed flowers simply for their beauty rather than as scientific specimens.  This is an old craft that can be directly related to plant knowledge.  As a useless piece of information, Grace Kelly, the actress and Princess of Monaco, made pressed flower arrangements and wrote of how much she learned about plants in pursuing this hobby (Robyns, 1980).

Traditionally, curators have given limited tours of herbaria, though these are of necessity restricted to small groups because of space constraints.  However, tours and open houses are becoming more common, and there are other forms of publicity as well.  At the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia where I volunteer, the curator Herrick Brown and the curator emeritus John Nelson lead monthly botanical tours of the “Horseshoe” the historical center of campus that boasts an array of beautiful trees and shrubs.  They also speak to conservation groups and garden clubs whose members may then follow-up by visiting the herbarium.  I have even seen John Nelson strike up a conversation with two parents visiting USC who asked for directions.  He got them geographically oriented, and then invited them to see the herbarium, after he told them what it was.  With time on their hands, they agreed, and thus John served as an ambassador for the university and for botany.  Now that’s outreach.  John Nelson is also the originator of the bumper sticker “it’s not HIS barium. . .”  Perhaps the best indication of his interest in getting out the word is that the URL for the USC herbarium is, which he was foresighted enough to acquire very early in the internet’s history.

Outreach is also related to the other topics I’m covering in this series of posts—citizen science, k-12 education, and higher education—as herbaria are involved in all of these endeavors.  The next post will be on citizen science, an exciting topic in itself, and even more so when the science deals with specimens.

Note:  I want to thank John Nelson and Herrick Brown for welcoming me into the A.C. Moore Herbarium and patiently answering my many questions.


Heberling, M., Prather, L. A., & Tonsor, S. (2019). The changing uses of herbarium data in an era of global change. BioScience, 69(10), 812–822.

Robyns, G., & Grace, P. of M. (1980). My Book of Flowers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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