Collection Furnishings

Cabinets designed by Mark Dion for the Schildbach wood collection, Kassel Natural History Museum

In the last post on Mark Dion’s artistic commentaries about natural history collections, I failed to mention the many pieces of furniture used in his installations.  In some cases, these pieces were specially designed for displaying collections, such as a cabinet with drawers filled with specimens Dion assembled as part of his Travels of William Bartram—Reconsidered (2008) exhibit, which also included a repurposed old wood-and-glass library cabinet housing a display of alligator-related souvenirs and postcards.  Dion also built cabinets to permanently display the impressive xylotheque or wood library created in the 1780s by Carl Schildbach and now in the Natural History Museum in Kassel, Germany (see image above).  Like paper, which I discussed in an earlier series of posts (1,2,3,4), cabinets are so much a part of herbarium life they are taken for granted unless one of two things happen:  there’s no more room in these, or there are resources available to buy new equipment and/or enlarge a herbarium.

The first is definitely more likely to occur than the second, and the problem usually creeps up slowly.  Sometimes it’s possible to rearrange cabinets and fit in yet another one.  I am thinking specifically of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, my herbarium home.  It is composed of a rabbit warren of rooms, all but one with cabinets.  They are all metal, but that’s were resemblances end.  The 19th-century Henry Ravenel Collection, previously at Converse College, is housed in cabinets purchased with a NSF Collections Improvement Grant which funded the majority of the herbarium’s cabinets.  But also interspersed throughout the facility are cabinets of varying vintages and provenances.  Along with the standard-height ones there are several of counter height.  Curator emeritus John Nelson traveled to Washington DC to pick them up when the National Arboretum was disposing of them.  They were well worth the trip.  Bordering on the antique, they are beyond sturdy and double as great work tables.

To me one of the hallmarks of an active herbarium is unmatched cabinets, unless of course an herbarium has been funded, often in part with a NSF grant to buy new furnishings and perhaps move into a larger space, and often equipped with compactors—heaven, but only for a time.  The plants keep coming.  The herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has been enlarged several times.  However, there is evidence of efforts to make do between additions.  In the oldest building, still with wooden cabinets, there were extra cabinets built on top of the original ones to provide more storage.  The same thing happened at Trinity College Herbarium in Dublin.  A rolling ladder is a necessity with such a setup.  In many herbaria where this hasn’t been attempted, the room on top of the cabinets is where cardboard boxes of unmounted and uncatalogued specimens reside.

Standard herbarium cabinets are hardly suitable for many kinds of collections.  Envelopes of lichens or mosses are often better kept in cabinets with drawers.  Something similar accommodates boxes of slides and vials, the majority of items in the Diatom Herbarium at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia.  In the herbarium at the National Botanic Garden in Ireland, there are neatly arranged boxes with pine cones and other large tree-related materials collected by Augustine Henry, co-author with Henry John Elwes of The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (1906).  His wife hit on the idea of shop boxes used in the clothing stores of the time.  They were sturdy and had cord pulls to make them easy to access.  Many herbaria also have collections of fruits and flowers in jars of solution.  They require a totally different type of care, including a heavier floor to withstand the weight and a door frame with a lip at the bottom, so if there is spillage inside the room, it won’t leak out.

While they are not common in the United States, boxes are used in many herbaria to store herbarium sheets.  Kew uses them in some areas and the National Herbarium of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia does too—they are all red.  Just as there are endless arguments about how kitchen cabinets should or should not be designed, the same is true of herbarium furnishings.  While most herbaria have closed cabinets, often with special seals to keep out pests and moisture, some institutions have open shelves.  The herbaria at the National Museum Natural History in Paris and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, both have open shelves in their newer compactor storage facilities.  These are among the largest herbaria in the world, and omitting doors meant less space wasted and greater ease of access.  Since these facilities are temperature controlled and surveilled for pests, this solution seemed the best.

Walking into such spaces sparks a feeling of awe:  a herbarium cathedral.  However, walking into the A. C. Moore Herbarium, gives a different, and perhaps even more wonderful response:  a sense of comfort like entering a home with mismatched, well-used, and well-loved furniture.  In this environment, it is also easier to sense the history that resides there:  the decades upon decades represented and the many places in South Carolina where collections have been made repeatedly, providing data on what has changed over time.  A.C. Moore definitely needs more room, and it would be great to have “a state of the art” facility for the state’s largest collection of South Carolina plants, but I hope one of those old National Arboretum cabinets could also make the move.

Notes: I want to thank Herrick Brown and John Nelson for all their help and their graciousness in allowing me to be part of the A.C. Moore Herbarium family.


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