Curating Collections

3 Glasnevin

Herbarium of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, Glasnevin

The word “curate” seems to have become very popular.  It once referred almost exclusively to what the people did who worked with collections in museums, but now everything is being curated, from websites to wardrobes.  It seems to have become a synonym for the verb “select:”  to put some thought into what is chosen.  However, in its original meaning it connotes more than just picking what should belong in a collection; it involves the care, study, and organization of the items.  Naturally, I’m thinking primarily about herbaria and other natural history material, but this meaning holds for all kinds of collections from art to anthropological, from libraries to historical materials.  Without curation, collections deteriorate and lose value because their attendant knowledge is not used and nurtured.

In my last two posts (1, 2), I’ve referred to Steven Lubar’s (2017) book, Inside the Lost Museum, in which he discusses why the Jenks Museum of Natural History at Brown University has not survived, why its collections have been lost.  This is hardly a unique situation.  Many herbarium specimens have been tossed into dumpsters to free up space for what are considered more pressing needs in museums, botanical gardens, and universities.  In many cases, however, they have been saved by being incorporated into other collections that continue to be curated.  Still, there is a problem:  while the specimens may get moved and properly filed, it is unlikely that curatorial staff moved with them.  Those working at the host institution must just take on the added burden of more materials to curate.

But what is all that curation about?  Answers come not only from books on managing herbarium collections (Bridson & Forman, 1998; Metsger & Byers, 1999), but also from curators of other types of collections, such as Lubar, Hans Ulrich Obrist (2014), and Nicholas Thomas (2016), who makes the point that “an object may be stored, but an object cannot be said to be cared for if curators don’t know they have it, if it can’t be located or is miscatalogued” (p. 65).  This comment would strike home for most herbarium curators because they have inherited specimens that don’t have accession numbers, are filed under outdated names, or are still in the cardboard boxes in which they arrived, perhaps decades ago.  While an art museum may have to deal with thousands of works, most herbaria must cope with tens of thousands of specimens, some of which were not treasured as art works often are.  By that I mean that they need to be remounted on acid-free paper, studied by a taxonomist to update nomenclature, georeferenced, entered into a database, and be imaged.  This is the work that curators have to manage, and it requires a great deal of time and expertise, both of which are expensive.  So curation is a nice term to bandy about, but it’s something that must be taken seriously if collections are to be useful and bear fruit in the future.

While I have been emphasizing difficult issues facing curators, there are also wonderful things about the job as well.  Both Thomas and Obrist emphasize the importance of curiosity to curators.  Obrist quotes Paul Chan’s observation that “curiosity is the pleasure principle of thought” (p. 42).  Thomas writes that a curator’s activities are often driven by curiosity to encounter something new about an item and discover novel ways to juxtapose the pieces in a collection.  He admits that some part of a collection may be better cared for more than others because that’s the curator’s area of interest, an admission that any one person’s breadth is limited.

A number of writers on the history of museums discuss the importance of catalogues as curatorial means not only of documenting and organizing a collection but also communicating that information to those who can’t examine the items firsthand.  Hans Sloane (see earlier post) not only labeled his own specimens, but created catalogues as well.  Unfortunately, though his herbarium survives, its catalogues.  Philipp Blom (2002) sees a catalogue as necessary because “it is not an appendage to a large collection, it is its apogee” (p. 215).  It is not only a sign of curatorial attention, but of the knowledge residing in it.  I am thinking specifically of the digital portals that are now providing access to herbarium materials.  These are indeed the apogee of biodiversity information, the plant world writ large .  They are the result of renewed curatorial interest in these collections, and an awareness that even if amalgamation of collections often makes physical examination of specimens more difficult, at least electronic access provides some if not all of what a specimen can reveal.

Everything I’ve read about curation includes the topic of selection.  This is often a difficult process in the art world, where funds are limited, trustees and donors must be satisfied, and the institution’s mission kept in mind.  Not every offered item is a gem, so curators have to be diplomats while also strategizing how to acquire the best pieces.  This might seem less of a problem in a herbarium, but space is limited, inferior specimens add nothing to the collection’s value, and every offered item is not a gem.  Wise curators also know how to use duplicates to obtain specimens that will enrich a particular area of the collection, and diplomacy is often needed to negotiate the acquisition of collections being “orphaned” by other institutions.  Reading about such curation issues in a broad sense has given me a greater appreciation for what herbarium managers and curators do and why their work is so vital to the health of these natural history treasure troves.


Blom, P. (2002). To Have and to Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.

Bridson, D., & Forman, L. (1998). The Herbarium Handbook (3rd ed.). Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens.

Lubar, S. (2017). Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Metsger, D. A., & Byers, S. C. (Eds.). (1999). Managing the Modern Herbarium: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Vancouver, Canada: Elton-Wolf.

Obrist, H. U. (2014). Ways of Curating. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Thomas, N. (2016). The Return of Curiosity: What Museums Are Good for in the 21st Century. London, UK: Reaktion.


I just finished Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Ways of Curating (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) where he discusses how he got into the field and how he approaches it. He is definitely post-modern and deals primarily with conceptual art.  His method is very much about art beyond formal settings and about working with artists in creating work.  He asks them: what would you like to do that you haven’t been able to do?  He often has exhibits outside of museums and frequently in small spaces, even a single shelf or wall.

Obrist’s book doesn’t seem to have much to do with curating herbarium collections, but it has gotten me thinking about what it means to curate a plant collection. Obrist sees a curator as having four functions: preservation; displaying and arranging the art; selection of new work; contributing to art history.  Plant curation means taking care of the collection, which can be a big job:  protecting specimens from damage, keeping them organized, and keeping of loans and acquistions.  There is also the work of communicating what is in the collection.  At the present time, this often involves presenting the specimens digitally, or at least preparing for this, and dealing with questions of how to provide access to a broader audience.

Curating entails deciding on what is added to the collection.  No institution has unlimited resources, so decisions have to be made based on the quality of objects.  For plant specimens, this can mean a number of things including how they relate to what is already in the collection.  When Donovan Correll arrived at the Fairchild Gardens Herbarium he deacquistioned material that was not from the Florida area or from the Neotropics.  He planned to write a flora of the Bahamas and didn’t want to have the herbarium cluttered with material that wasn’t in any way relevant to his project.  While making sure they were dispersed to institutions that could use them, he cleared out European and Asian specimens; these donations were often in trade for material he wanted, so the Fairchild Herbarium ultimately expanded, but in a focused way.  This example highlights the need not only for order in a collection but also for space.  The latter constraint is what makes many curators very selective about specimens added to their collections.  Many herbaria are already crammed, and that’s not good for the specimens: compression can lead to damage, with fragile material more likely to crumble under pressure.  A herbarium with compact shelving and plenty of workspace is a beautiful thing, but it is a luxury not available in many institutions.

To do the job well, the curator must know the collection well.  This means many things including what specimens are there and what information is on the sheets including historically important information, handwriting, and collector preferences.  Recently, I visited Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC and met Dane Kuppinger, the curator of the herbarium there.  The collection was begun in the 18th century by the Moravians who founded the college.  The oldest dated specimen they have is from 1819.  Kuppinger has been there 5 years and has a sense of the collection. By this I mean, he knows where the interesting specimens are.  He knows what’s in good shape and what isn’t.  He has a sense of who wrote what on the specimen, and he can tell when things are out of place. It is a relatively small collection, but Kerry Berringer could do the same with the 750 thousands specimens in the now-closed herbarium of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and Marina Potapova with the thousands of diatom slides, bottles, and packages in the Academy of Natural Sciences Diatom Herbarium in Philadelphia.

All these people would like to spend more time just going through the collection, spending time with it, inhaling it. But there are so many other things to do: grants, paperwork, meetings–all are part of the job of curating.  Some curators focus on one aspect more than on others, and this focus can change with time.  In any case, there is a passion to the work.  What Orbst relates in his discussion of projects with which he has been involved is a total commitment to the work.  For him, curating is about working with people and ideas to create as well as present forms of conceptual art.  For a herbarium curator, the passion is also there, passion for the wonder of plants and the linkages that every specimen has to places and periods, to people and stories.  Someone told me at the beginning of my interest in herbaria, that there are two kinds of herbarium curators, those who are interested in the history of their collections of botany in general, and those who are not.  Curators in scientific institutions, like those in the art world, have individual tastes, and these rub off on the collections they serve.  This collaboration is just one aspect of what makes herbaria so fascinating.