Herbarium Housekeeping

Cambridge University Herbarium

Cambridge University Herbarium

Managing the Modern Herbarium: An Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by Deborah A. Metsger and Sheila C. Byers, is a collection of papers that was originally published in 1999, so it hardly contains the latest in herbarium management, and obviously doesn’t have much on digitizing collections.  However, it is still a useful resource, especially for those taking over collections that haven’t been actively curated for some time.  Even if some of the suggestions are rather dated, the articles alert curators to the topics that need to be addressed, everything from selecting proper adhesives to taking note of the direction in which a cabinet door opens.

The major theme here is that plant material is fragile and easily degradable.  Nothing will totally prevent its degradation, but there are definitely ways to slow it down–or speed it up.  Conservation is an imperfect art based on trial and error, and some of the errors pinpointed here were the standard practices of the past.  For example, fish glue routinely used to mount specimens in the 19th century contracts with time, often pulling on the attached plant material, causing it to crack.  In the same era, mercuric chloride was used to prevent pest damage, but did damage of its own to the mounting paper as well as to the plant material–to say nothing of its toxic effects on people handling the specimens.

Today, there is still no perfect glue, and insects remain a looming danger, though vigilance and obsessive use of freezing specimens before they are placed in cabinets has largely brought this problem under control.  However, I have been in a number of smaller herbaria where moth balls are still the first line of defense.

What this book highlights is the level of thought and experimentation that is going into the care of herbarium specimens–and the importance of communication in getting the word out about new and better conservation techniques.  Managing the Modern Herbarium is well worth reading both as a historical document about the state of the field at the end of the last millennium, and as a reminder that it’s always a good idea to check up on the latest in herbarium technique before instituting any change in collection procedures.