Collections: Lists and Catalogues

A portion of Hans Sloane’s vegetable substances collection, Natural History Museum, London

In writing of Hans Sloane, the great collector of plant specimens and so much more, all forming the foundations of the British Museum, James Delbourgo (2017) argues that Sloane’s greatest legacy as a writer was not his two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, significant though it was, but rather the catalogues he produced for various parts of his collections and the labels he handwrote for so many of its items, including herbarium specimens.  Lists and labels may not seem exciting, but think of all the time, money, and volunteers’ hours that have been expended in the 21st century in digitally transcribing herbarium labels.  And what is a spreadsheet but a glorified list, though at times a very sophisticated one?

Labels and catalogues are what make collections valuable and useable.  A specimen without a label is usually of little if any worth, and unless there is some clue to how a room of specimens is ordered, chaos reigns.  The order may be alphabetical by family, according to the latest Angiosperm Phylogeny Group report (APG IV), or some other system.  In a sense, digital portals such as iDigBio’s or GBIF’s are catalogues on a massive scale and would probably stun Sloane as he thought about all the hours he’d spent inputting data into his catalogues, which were essentially ledger books.

There are no catalogues for Sloane’s herbarium of 265 volumes and 120,000 specimens.  He had an alternate reference system based on the botanist John Ray’s compendium of plants, Historia Plantarum, completed in 1704.  In it, Sloane and his curators noted next to a species entry the volume and page where the specimen of that plant could be found and added species that weren’t described in the text (Dandy, 1958).  Botanists still use this reference to locate specimens.  A copy of Sloane’s two volumes on Jamaica was similarly annotated.  The latter were considered so significant that the names were updated by later botanists, including Daniel Solander who added the names from Carl Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum to keep the reference relevant (Rose, 2018).  When Joseph Banks invited him to join Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world voyage, Solander was also doing something similar for other Sloane specimens, often attaching paper slips with updated names.

Sloane also had a  “Vegetable Substances” collection with 12,000 small, sealed boxes filled with seeds, fruits, and resins, some of medicinal value.  Such a collection is much rarer than the herbarium.  There are written references to botanist’s sharing seeds and other plant materials, but most have not survived.  Analyzing Sloane’s collection, Victoria Pickering (2016) found that about two-thirds of it is intact along with three catalogues, which for most items list who sent the material and what it was used for.  Without the catalogues, determining what was in the boxes would be guesswork at best and there would also be no way to track provenance.  The boxes are just marked with a number, usually corresponding to a catalogue entry.  For example, Pickering was able to attribute 215 items to Mark Catesby, and 160 to James Petiver, who would be receiving them from his numerous contacts.

Sloane’s boxes provide a picture of what was considered valuable, including medicinal substances and seeds.  For collectors like James Cunninghame and Engelbert Kaempfer, the material in the boxes was sent in addition to their specimens.  The seeds may have been viable when they arrived, with some likely given to gardeners of Sloane’s acquaintance who eagerly attempted to grow new finds.  To keep track of things like seeds botanists shared lists of various kinds from the beginning of early modern botany.  Each year, Luca Ghini sent a seed list of what he had collected at the Botanical Garden of Pisa, and his correspondents could, in turn, send lists of those they would like to receive.  The Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank grew out of a similar, but much more elaborate seed saving program at Kew.  Lists or catalogues were also common among garden owners as a way to display their prowess in obtaining and cultivating rare and exotic species.  At times these were simply lists of plant names, but sometimes descriptions were included.  Some were publications with illustrations.  That is essentially what Linnaeus’s book on George Clifford’s garden at Hartekamp is.  The illustrations were done by none other than the great botanical artist Georg Ehret.

Another elaborate catalogue, Hortus Elthamensis, was created by Johann Dillenius for James Sherard to describe his garden at Eltham.  The book was 437 pages long and published in two large-format volumes.  Dillenius drew the illustrations of 417 plants on 324 plates, all of which he also engraved.  This was definitely an impressive way to present a rich man’s garden.  James Sherard was the brother of botanist William Sherard of Oxford University.  When William died, he left money for a professorship in botany and arranged for the position to go to Dillenius, who had already come to Oxford from Germany.  Dillenius ends the preface by mentioning his “friend and patron” William Sherard, and this catalogue is definitely a tribute to both brothers.  It also indicates how broad the definition of “catalogue” can be to encompass both a simple list or pamphlet and a two-volume opus.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pickering, V. R. M. (2016). Putting Nature into a Box: Hans Sloane’s “Vegetable Substances” Collection. London: University of London.

Rose, E. D. (2018). Natural history collections and the book: Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to Jamaica (1707–1725) and his Jamaican plants. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 15–33.

Specimens, Specimens: Art

Sketch  of Aechmaea by Carl Lindman, Natural History Museum, Stockholm

It’s no secret to those who read this blog that I’m interested in the relationship between botany and art, so it won’t be surprising that I’m particularly pleased to find cases where specimens and drawings end up together on the same sheet or at least in the same folder.  This is less true today than in the past, but even in the early history of herbaria, most collections were mainly if not exclusively made up of dried plants.  After all, the point was to save plant material for reference and future study, especially for when living representatives weren’t available.  But dried plants lose some of their form and a lot of their color, so a number of early modern botanists either drew themselves or collected drawings and prints.  There were two ways to organize these different kinds of evidence; most botanists saved two separate collections:  one of images, the other of specimens.  The great Italian botanist and collector Ulisse Aldrovandi had them bound into different volumes (Findlen, 1994).

On the other hand, the Swiss physician and botanist Felix Platter had specimens on the right hand page, with a drawing or print—or both—often pasted opposite.  Though no one knows how, he managed to acquire original drawings by Hans Weiditz that were the bases of the woodcuts in Otto Brunfels 1530 herbal Herbarum vivae eicones, the first of the early modern books with good botanical illustrations.  Weiditz had done watercolors on both sides of each page.  Platter obviously felt that the information in the drawings was more important than the art as a whole, so he cut around each plant, trying to preserve as much as he could of each.  These scraps are among the images pasted opposite the plant specimens.  Platter’s notebooks provide a fascinating look into what counted as important evidence for botanists of the time and the lengths they would go to in preserving it (Benkert, 2016).

Hans Sloane’s curator, James Empson, was another proponent of juxtapositioning illustrations and specimens, especially for the material Sloane collected in Jamaica.  This was in part to insure that the two collections remained together after Sloane’s death (Rose, 2018).  The plants were drawn by Everard Kick for the plates in Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica and the originals are bound with the specimens, again with plants on the right hand page and art on the left.  There are Chinese botanical drawings pasted into other volumes of Sloane’s collection, and they are now being removed for conservation.  The interplay between images and specimens in the study of plants could be considered so important that until well into the 20th century, they were preserved together in herbaria.  This meant the art was organized taxonomically as the corresponding specimens were and often filed in the same folders.  This was good for taxonomists using the collection but not necessarily for the images.  Chemicals in the plants often seeped into the paper and damaged them as well as the paints.

It’s not surprising that this practice is no longer followed in most herbaria, with the art usually removed to the botanical library.  At some institutions such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew this is a massive and continuing process.  In a large herbarium, it might be impractical to hunt through every folder, though this is what Henry Noltie did at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh where he was a herbarium curator at the time.  But extraction was only the first part of his project.  He then did background research to attempt to reunite drawings that were done by the same artist or were collected by a particular botanist, especially for Indian collections.  This took years because the RBGE’s plant collection is rich in specimens from around the world that were sent back to Edinburgh, often by physicians trained in the city by illustrious botanists like John Hope and John Hutton Balfour.  Noltie has written on his findings in several books (2002, 2007, 2016, 2017).

The same removal process has gone on at many other institutions, with important finds along the way.  Discovering many of Carl Lindman’s specimens from Brazil in the Swedish Museum of Natural History herbarium led curator Mia Ehn to do a study of his  art work, and collections manager Christine Niezgoda has been unearthing beautiful Japanese prints from folders in the Field Museum Herbarium.  This is great for the art, but I am not sure it’s good for taxonomy.  Yes, in this day and age, some of the art is available digitally, but it usually requires a certain amount of hunting to find it since it’s not linked with related specimens:  it isn’t right there with the specimen for side-by-side comparison.  There are more projects to digitize specimens than illustrations, and rightly so, but I would argue that reuniting these items digitally should be a priority, not only for their taxonomic value, but for their cultural value as well.  A great deal of this art was done by indigenous artists who had been trained in botanical illustration, resulting in fascinating styles that blend the two worlds.  The great attention being paid to their work now is part of an effort to bring light to hidden issues in colonization.

There is a tantalizing solution to the linkage issue on the horizon, something I’ve written about here before but it bears repeating as it develops.  The IIIF, a framework that arose out of the library and art worlds, is now gaining interest among botanists.  Roger Hyam who works, appropriately enough at the RBGE, is involved in a project to allow researchers to look at herbarium specimens from different institutions side by side, if they are presented via IIIF.  What if botanical illustrations could also be accessed, and might as throw in photos as well.  I’ll just leave my dream there.


Benkert, D. (2016). The ‘Hortus Siccus’ as a focal point: Knowledge, environment, and image in Felix Platter’s and Caspar Bauhin’s herbaria. In S. Burghartz, L. Burkart, & C. Göttler (Eds.), Sites of Mediation (pp. 211–239). Leiden, NLD: Brill.
Findlen, P. (1994). Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Noltie, Henry J. (2016). The Cleghorn Collection: South Indian Botanical Drawings 1845 to 1860. Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Noltie, Henry J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Noltie, Henry J, & Scotland). (2002). The Dapuri drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh: Antique Collectors’ Club.
Noltie, H.J. (2007). Robert Wight and the Botanical Drawings of Rungiah and Govindoo. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
Rose, E. D. (2018). Natural history collections and the book: Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to Jamaica (1707–1725) and his Jamaican plants. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 15–33.

Botanists in South Carolina: Mark Catesby

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Plate 67 from the second volume of Catesby’s Natural History: Annona glabra

After a lifetime in New York, I moved to Aiken, South Carolina nearly three years ago, lured by family and a chance to retire into a different environment.  I’ve discovered a great deal in my time here, including the enchantments of shrimp and grits.  I’ve also tried to learn something of the botany of the state, thanks to my friends at the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina (USC), Columbia, Herrick Brown, the curator, and John Nelson, the curator emeritus.  I’ve absorbed some botanical history and been lucky enough to have a small role in the new Mark Catesby Centre, part of the USC University Libraries.  This is a great time for the Centre to launch since 2022 marks the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s arrival in South Carolina on his second trip to North America, the one on which he did much of his observation, drawing, and specimen collecting for his two-volume The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, a tour-de-force of science and art.

The Centre’s director, David Elliott, has had a long attachment to Catesby, having created the Catesby Trust, which has now morphed into the Centre.  Elliott led a week-long tour/conference on Catesby in 2012 and with Charles Nelson coedited The Curious Mister Catesby (2015), a book based on many of the presentations given that week.  I was on that trip and will never forget:  seeing the Smithsonian’s Catesby volumes in Washington, DC, listening to experts in Richmond discuss the background to Catesby’s work, attending a candle-light reception in Charleston, and seeing a host of waterfowl on a boat tour off Kiawah Island.  When I think of this amazing week, the images that come to mind are of Catesby’s etchings, the flora and fauna of the South Carolina coast, historical architecture, and amazing presentations.  The Curious Mister Catesby captures all these and helps to keep them fresh in my mind.  Catesby, of course, saw a very different South Carolina, though even then Charleston was a hub of commerce.  Plantations were already well established, sending rice, indigo, cotton, and tobacco to England and receiving manufactured goods and African slaves.  All this has permanently marked South Carolina and thanks to books like South Carolina: A History (Edgar, 1998), Down by the Riverside (Joyner, 1984), and In the Shadow of Slavery (Carney & Rosomoff, 2009), I am developing a better sense of the complexities of the South.

On his first to North America, Catesby sailed to Virginia in 1712, accompanying his sister who was married to a physician in Williamsburg.  He stayed for 7 years, meeting William Byrd II, who discussed natural history with him and allowed Catesby to use his library.  Catesby did some collecting and drawing, but not in a very organized way.  However, when he returned to England, he developed the idea of publishing a work on the natural history of this fascinating new world.  He seems to have known enough and displayed enough evidence that he convinced the avid natural history collectors of London of his plan’s viability.  Coming from a well-educated but not very affluent British family, he definitely moved in impressive circles.  He knew the great collector Hans Sloane (see earlier post) who amassed the most impressive herbarium of his time (Delbourgo, 2017), as well as James Petiver, perhaps the most zealous collector in the sense of having a worldwide network of ships captains, colonists, merchants, and clergymen gathering specimens (Stearns, 1952).  In terms of assisting Catesby financially and botanically, there was William Sherard at Oxford, who identified many plants for Catesby.

On his second trip to America, Catesby landed in Charleston and traveled through what is known as the low country, along the coasts of North and South Carolina.  He journeyed up the Savannah River, which marks much of the border between South Carolina and Georgia, as far inland as what is now Augusta, which I might add in only a half hour from Aiken.  This was territory with a few colonial outposts and where Catesby and his companions would have encountered indigenous peoples, pine forests, and rolling hills.  This is now my country and I enjoy having some small tie with Catesby, and also with Pennsylvania nurserymen John Bartram and his son William who also visited this area forty years later, followed still later by the French botanist André Michaux.  Catesby eventually visited coastal areas of Florida and then spent almost a year in the Bahama Islands, explaining why there are so many tropical plants, fish, and birds in the Natural History.

In 1726, Catesby returned to England and worked for nearly 20 years producing his magnus opus.  He found it too costly to have his watercolors engraved, so he learned the process, producing what are considered by many to be masterpieces.  He even oversaw the coloring of the engravings in the first edition.  He worked as a nurseryman to provide needed income and as a way to observe some of the species he had first seen in the colonies.  He also received specimens and seeds from John Bartram, sending him and also Carl Linnaeus copies of his books.  This is how a number of his engravings have become lectotypes for 14 species named by Linnaeus (Jarvis, 2015).  There are Catesby specimens today in the Hans Sloane collection at the Natural History Museum, London, and at the Oxford University Herbarium, the home of Sherard’s specimens.  I am happy to note that the USC Libraries have the first and second editions of both Volumes I and II of the Natural History, as well as a copy of Hortus Europae Americanus, containing descriptions of 85 North American trees and shrubs, that Catesby had been working on when he died and was published posthumously.


Carney, J. A., & Rosomoff, R. N. (2009). In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. University of California Press.

Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Harvard University Press.

Edgar, W. (1998). South Carolina: A History. University of South Carolina Press.

Jarvis, C. E. (2015). Carl Linnaeus and the influence of Mark Catesby’s botanical work. In E. C. Nelson & D. J. Elliott (Eds.), The Curious Mister Catesby (pp. 189–204). University of Georgia Press.

Joyner, C. (1984). Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. University of Illinois Press.

Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. University of Georgia Press.

Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of natural science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.

Note: I am very grateful to David J. Elliott, director of the Mark Catesby Centre in the University Libraries of University of South Carolina, Columbia for inviting me to participate in the Centre’s work.

Herbarium Travels: Petiver, Plukenet, and Sloane

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Title page of Leonard Plukenet’s Phytographia. In the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The names of James Petiver, Leonard Plukenet, and Hans Sloane have come up a number of times in the last three posts on plant collectors in Asia (1,2,3).  This is despite the fact that none of them traveled East, and only Sloane ever left Europe, spending a couple of years in Jamaica.  However, these men are important to the story of early botanical discovery in Asia because they were the recipients of specimens collected there.  Without them, the finds might not have survived for well over 300 years.  All three had a passion for collecting and were members of the Temple Coffee House botanic club.  In the case of Petiver and Plukenet, they were also driven to write about botany.  Sloane did produce a two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, which has fascinating descriptions as well as illustrations of the island’s flora and fauna, but it took him decades after his visit to complete the project.  The other two were more consistently prolific, drawing on their collections for subjects.  I should also say that everything I write about the three is slanted in that I only deal with plants, while they all collected broadly, especially Sloane, whom I’ve discussed in an earlier post.  Plukenet and Petiver published on new animal as well as plant species, especially insects since they were the easiest to transport.

Leonard Plukenet (1642-17106) trained in medicine and had an affluent medical practice that supported his family of seven children and his collecting habit as well.  In 1690, he was made supervisor of the king’s gardens at Hampton Court Palace, so he moved in high social circles, but he also had a botanical network.  Like Petiver and Sloane he was a member of the Temple Coffee House botanic club and in addition was connected with such outstanding botanists as John Ray, who thought highly of his plant knowledge.  Plukenet collaborated with Ray on the second volume of the latter’s Historia Plantarum.  He also published his own work, beginning with the three-volume Phytographia (1691-1692) that had 250 plates and was produced at his own expense.  Another volume came out in 1696, followed by three other works.  All were published together in 1720.  James Dandy (1958), who cataloged Sloane’s herbarium, where Petiver’s and Plukenet’s collections eventually ended up, wrote that Phytographia was an important publication because it described so many new species and included illustrations of them.  It was used extensively by Carl Linnaeus, who in many cases relied exclusively on Plukenet’s text and images to name species.  There are some wonderful gems in Plukenet’s collection including specimens from John Banister who collected in Virginia, the pirate William Dampier material from India, and the James Cuninghame specimens I mentioned in the last post.

James Petiver (1658-1718) was an even more avid collector than Plukenet.  He did not have Plukenet’s economic resources, so he had to finance his publications by subscription.  Most of these works were each composed of descriptions of 100 species, primarily plants.  And as with Plukenet’s writings, his were cited by Linnaeus.  Petiver was scrupulous about giving credit to the collectors who sent him specimens, because this was a way of rewarding them and also encouraging them to send more material.  He worked hard at cultivating travelers of all kinds as collectors.  In a biographical sketch, Raymond Stearns (1952) writes:  “Anyone who went abroad, especially if they were educated were asked: friends, friends of friends, customers, fellow apothecaries, physicians, surgeons, captains, merchants, planters, and missionaries” (p. 261).  However, he wasn’t just interested in exotic plants; those from Britain and the continent were also well received, and he participated in the Temple Coffee House botanic club’s Sunday field trips as well.

Petiver even wrote an instruction sheet on collecting.  This included a N. B.:  “As amongst Foreign Plants, the most common Grass, Rush, Moss, Fern, Thistle, Thorn, or vilest Weed you can find, will meet with Acceptance, as well as a Scarcer Plants” (p. 365).  He also wrote that plants in fruit or flower were more desirable, and that fleshy fruits should be sent in spirits or brine.  He was happy to provide jars, papers, and other needed supplies, and was willing to pay for specimens.  In some cases, he supplied medicines for the collectors’ physical complaints.  He also scolded them if they didn’t come through, and one collector was so angered he sent nothing more.  Of course, materials often were lost in transit, and it was particularly frustrating to Petiver when letters got through but the specimens didn’t; the letters promised wonders that he then didn’t receive.  The picture painted by Dandy and Stearns is of a man obsessed, and Petiver’s passion was obviously fueled by discussion at the coffee house, where the group connived schemes to send collectors to areas of interest.  This even involved encouraging one of the members, Bishop Henry Compton, to assign a botanically trained Anglican priest to North America.

There is something about this group that intrigues me:  a band of plant zealots meeting over coffee for many years.  Petiver joined when the group began in 1689 and was still a member at his death in 1718.  When I was in London a few years ago, I went to the Temple Bar area and found the lane where the coffee house once stood.  This is a part of the city that has retained many of its old buildings and narrow streets, so it was relatively easy to visualize these men hurrying to reach their meeting place on a dark winter’s night, have a nice hot coffee, and look at plant specimens.  What could be better than that?


Stearns, R. P. (1952). James Petiver: Promoter of Natural Science, c. 1663-1718. Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 62, 243–365.

Collecting and Collectors

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Website for the Hans Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

In the last post, I wrote about two individuals, Hans Sloane and John Jenks, who collected natural history specimens and founded museums, the British Museum and Brown University’s Jenks Museum of Natural History.  You have probably heard of the former, but the latter didn’t last half a century.  In part the difference has to do with the quality of the collections and their management.  However, there are also similarities between them.  In both cases, the collections weren’t amassed single-handedly.  Besides hunting down his own specimens, John Jencks bought, traded, and was given collections (Lubar, 2017), and Hans Sloane was a master “collector of collectors” (Delbourgo, 2017, p. 202).  He did begin by doing his own plant collecting as a student both in Britain and in France, where he studied before completing his medical degree in the Netherlands.  His most extensive collection work was in Jamaica, where he served as physician to the island’s governor, the Duke of Albemarle.  However, this work wasn’t done singlehandedly.  Like most collectors in foreign lands, Sloane relied on those living in Jamaica to lead him to interesting material.  Some of these individuals were plantation owners, some were slaves who had the most first-hand knowledge of the land.  While the latter are hardly mentioned in Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica, there is evidence from his notes and letters that they were involved.  This lack of attribution to the “real” collectors was common in botanical exploration.

After Sloane returned to England and became a noted physician, he had little time to do his own collecting.  He began acquiring materials from others, and this is where his large social network played a role.  He knew many wealthy collectors because at the time this was an important way of displaying not only wealth but learning and sophistication.  Sloane decided that he couldn’t excel at collecting everything, so he focused on books and on natural history, particularly plants.  He was in contact and traded specimens and information with all the major British collectors of the day.  In his herbarium, which is preserved at the Natural History Museum, London, there are specimens from over 280 individuals.  Some of the most impressive collections came from Leonard Plukenet, James Petiver, and William Courten after their deaths.  These individuals had all acquired collections from others, most notably Petiver had a large network of collectors throughout the world.  Petiver and Sloane were members of the Temple Coffee House Botanic Club who supported collectors such as Mark Catesby in the Carolinas and John Banister in Virginia.  Such early specimens from North America are obviously very important in documenting what was growing where in a relatively unspoiled environment.  Also, some Sloane specimens were referenced by Carl Linnaeus (1753) in Species Plantarum, making them species types (Jarvis, 2017).  In addition, Sloane acquired an interesting collection of horticultural plants from the Duchess of Beaufort, a talented botanist who documented the plants growing in her gardens (Laird, 2015).  These specimens included beautiful arrays of flower petals for varieties that disappeared long ago.

By the time Jenks was collecting in a manner similar to Sloane, these methods were outmoded.  There was a more systematic and large-scale method in vogue, particularly in the United States from 1880-1920, namely, survey collecting.  In All Creatures, Robert E. Kohler (2006) describes this approach to natural history, including the work of the US Geological Service which organized surveys nationwide.  However, I’ll focus on botanical surveys, and most of these were done on the state or local level.  What distinguished them from previous collecting efforts was that they were more intense and organized.  The great expeditions of earlier in the 19th century, such as those of John Frémont, Charles Wilkes, and John Wesley Powell, were wide-ranging and resulted in collections that were rather haphazard in the sense that plants might or might be in flower or in seed.  Surveys, on the other hand, were both intensive and extensive; they often went to the same locations repeatedly, to insure that all the plants in an area were represented by useful specimens.  These enterprises were less about discovering new species and more about inventorying what was growing in a particular place at a particular time.  Kohler argues that this was the beginning of a scientific approach to collecting that eventually led to today’s biodiversity research.

Survey collection was the result of several trends in US historical and cultural development.  The creation of an extensive railroad system after the Civil War made large portions of the country accessible enough for teams of collectors to travel economically.  Roads were also being extended and improved.  At the same time, land grant colleges were enlarging their offerings, with botany being an important component of agricultural programs.  The Nebraska survey was spearheaded by Charles Bessey who taught botany at the University of Nebraska.  It began as a student project and was a way to highlight the importance of the educational system to the advancement of science.  The scientific aspect of surveys was emphasized by the use of forms and field notebooks to record information uniformly.  It led to more informative specimen labels, a boon for those attempting to use these plants for biodiversity research today.

Kohler argues that by the 1930s, surveys became less common in part because the public as a whole wasn’t as interested in natural history as they had been in the 19th century.  Lack of interest meant less funding, which resulted in collecting from that time on being more focused:  on smaller areas and on particular plant groups.  However, the legacy of these surveys resides in the rich collections they produced which continue to fuel botanical research today.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jarvis, C. E. (2015). Carl Linnaeus and the influence of Mark Catesby’s botanical work. In E. C. Nelson & D. J. Elliott (Eds.), The Curious Mister Catesby (pp. 189–204). Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Kohler, R. (2006). All Creatures: Naturalists, Collectors, and Biodiversity, 1850-1950. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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

Collections: Herbaria in a Larger Context

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The Lost Museum at Brown University

I recently read two books that have gotten me thinking about collectors and collections.  Needless to say, plants are foremost in my mind as “collectables,” but sometimes taking a broader view can lead to new insights.  This seems to have happened to me after reading James Delbourgo’s (2017) Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane and Steven Lubar’s (2017) Inside the Lost Museum: Curating, Past and Present.  Issues about the value of collections, material culture, curation, and the meanings of collected objects circled around in my mind, and it’s these themes I want to explore in this set of posts.

The two collections at the center of these books are very different from each other, to say the least.  Hans Sloane (1660-1753) created one of the most impressive personal collections of all time.  His herbarium in 265 volumes is still extant, but he also amassed a large library as well as ethnological, geological, and zoological items, to say nothing of coins and other “curiosities.”  Sloane was born as the era of cabinets of curiosity was waning and more systematic collection came to the fore.  Delbourgo argues that though Sloane wrote an impressive two-volume Natural History of Jamaica (1707,1725), his most significant legacy as a writer was in the labels and catalogues he produced in an effort to manage his collection.  Objects disconnected from textual information lose a great deal of their value, and this is true of anything from a plant collected by Mark Catesby in the Carolinas (there are many of these in Sloane’s herbarium) to an asbestos purse that Benjamin Franklin sold Sloane when the latter was a 19-year-old visitor to London.

While many items in Sloane’s collection deteriorated or were lost over the years, a great deal of it ended up as the founding collection of the British Museum in London, which eventually morphed into three institutions as the books took up residence in a separate building, the British Library, and the natural history specimens in the Natural History Museum, London.  The collection described in Steven Lubar’s book—the Jenks Museum at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island—had a very different fate.  Founded in 1871, it closed in 1915.  The difference between the two institutions is what makes this juxtaposition so interesting.  It highlights how important not only objects, but management, attendant information, and community are to a collection’s development and survival.

John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-1894) had graduated from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and went on to become headmaster at a boy’s school in Massachusetts.  When he retired in 1871, he moved to Providence, bringing with him a collection of taxidermied birds and mammals.  He convinced the university’s president that the school needed a natural history museum not only as a study collection for students but also as a symbol of its prestige.  After all, Yale and Harvard had such institutions by this time.  Also, Jenks was deeply religious and saw the natural world as an important manifestation of God’s power, thus learning about nature would lead students closer to God, suggesting that collections can be valued for very different reasons.

The problem with Jenks’s collection was that he was not selective.  He collected whatever came his way and whatever collections were donated to Brown.  But as Lubar writes:  “Museum collecting is disciplined collecting, for a larger purpose” (p. 15).  Also, as was not uncommon at the time, Jenks attempted to display everything in the collection, so the exhibit rooms became crowded with, for example, stuffed sharks laid on top of exhibit cases because there was no place else to fit them in.  in addition, he kept few records, the labels often provided limited information, and many of the specimens deteriorated.  Another problem was that Jenks did not work well with others to ensure the continuation of his museum and did little to integrate the collections into the curriculum.  It was not long into the 20th century when the exhibits were put into storage, and in 1945 most of what was left ended up in a dump.

However, Jenks was not completely forgotten.  In the 21st century, a Jenks Society for Lost Museums was founded among students and faculty at Brown and the nearby Rhode Island School of Design.  Lubar, who is a professor at Brown and director of its anthropology museum was involved as was Mark Dion, an artist known for his interpretations of natural history collections.  This group created an installation called The Lost Museum in Brown’s Rhode Island Hall, which had housed the Jenks Museum.  Dion recreated Jenks’s taxidermy workshop, and there was a “Museum Storeroom” with 80 objects, all in white, which represented animals, tools, weapons, and other “curiosities” that had been in the museum, but no longer exist.  The final room exhibited 100 items from the museum that had survived; they were organized by degree of decay, including labels in Jenks’s hand for items that had disappeared.

Both books described here were published in 2017 by Harvard University Press.  They weren’t meant to be coupled, but I think they make a nice set since they both deal with various aspects of collection, curation, preservation, and value, themes explored in the following posts in this series.


Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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

History and Herbaria: Other Digital Projects



Botanica Caroliniana Website

As promised in the previous post, here are several projects combining herbarium collections and history. The Bergerbibliothek in Bern, Switzerland has an impressive website for its collection of Felix Platter material. Platter (1536-1614) was a noted physician and botanist who had an extensive herbarium now available on this site. What is even more striking is the collection of illustrations he amassed, including some of the original watercolors done by Hans Weiditz for Otto Brunfels’s groundbreaking herbal of 1530. These drawings were painted on both sides of a page, and Platter wanted to file them according to species, which meant that he or one of his assistants cut out each drawing in an attempt to have good representations of both species that could be filed separately. These were then pasted to individual sheets of paper. Now all of this is available online, giving a good sense of Weiditz’s artistry, if in a somewhat odd format. This questionable treatment does indicate how important Platter considered illustrations in the study of plants at this time, and it’s this valuing that allowed these masterpieces to be preserved. In the many volumes of the Platter herbarium there are also woodcuts and other illustrations. Now all these are searchable, and the specimens and illustrations of a species can be seen at the same time. This was a massive effort and a beautiful result because the Bergerbibliothek’s Platter site also has information on the provenance of the collection and the restoration project to stabilize the volumes.

As you might suspect, I am partial to Renaissance collections and grateful to those European institutions such as the libraries in Erlangen and Bern that have made them freely available. At the Jagiellon Library in Krakow, the Libri Picturati, a collection of botanical illustrations related to Carolus Clusius, has also been published in book form (de Koning et al, 2008), but it’s not yet available electionically. As more of these treasures receive attention, it would be wonderful to have a portal that made them all searchable at the same time, so a user could see how a particular species is treated by a variety of different artists, along with related specimens (A portal like this exists for European cabinets of curiosities). In some cases, as with the Jamaican plants in the Hans Sloane Herbarium at the NHM, the illustrations made by Everhardus Kickius for Sloane’s volumes (1707, 1725) on Jamaica are very similar to the specimens. This is easy to see because the specimen and watercolor are set right next to each other on opposite pages of the bound volumes of his herbarium. The Sloane Herbarium site is searchable, if you know a genus or species you want to see. This type of portal is designed more for biologists than for historians and brings up the issue of how design can limit or discourage access to a site.

Another important project is Botanica Caroliniana, a collaboration between Furman and Clemson Universities. Several historical collections related to the Carolinas have been put online. The first was the Catesby collection of specimens in the Sloane Herbarium at the NHM in London. Each specimen is presented opposite the page in Catesby’s Natural History of the Carolinas that depicts the species, with the accompanying text also displayed. This is a great example of what digitization makes possible: the juxtaposition of images and text from a rare book with specimens from a priceless herbarium. History, botany, art and literature are all involved, and the project was done by institutions of the region of origin of many of the specimens, so it speaks to environmental conservation and respect for the nature of the area.

Another project from South Carolina called Plants and Planter deals with the work of the botanist Henry Ravenel (1814-1887). It presents Ravenel’s specimens and journals, along with journal transcripts. Several institutions— South Carolina University Library, A. C. Moore Herbarium, Clemson University, Converse College, and the University of North Carolina Wilson Library—contributed materials, bringing them together in a searchable format. Some of the specimens on this website were scanned as part of the Advancing Digitization of Biological Collections (ADBC) project. This is a massive NSF-funded effort to digitize biological specimens at non-federally sponsored institutions and suggests that these efforts have more than scientific value. Ravenel collected before, during, and after the Civil War, so historically his work is significant. He eventually focused on fungi, and particularly after the war he made large collections that he sold as a way to improve his economic condition. He is considered one of the most significant students of fungi in the 19th century (Haygood, 1987).

There are other collections that could benefit from this type of presentation. Asa Gray’s papers at Harvard have been digitized, and some of them transcribed. Many of the specimens he used in his work have also been digitized at Harvard. However, it would be a massive undertaking, involving very different databases, to create a portal where specimens could be called up with the corresponding text, even though the two collections are physically close together. It’s obvious from the examples of Sloane and Gray, that physical and electronic proximity are very different things. But that doesn’t mean that this is not an ideal to aim for. In the meantime, it’s a comfort to know that smaller projects, like those for Catesby and Ravenel exist.

Crase, D. (2004). Both: A Portrait in Two Parts. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Jarvis, C. (2007). Order Out of Chaos: Linnaean Plant Names and Their Types. London, UK: Linnaean Society.

History and Herbaria: Digital Humanities Projects


Reconstructing Sloane Website

In the previous post, I discussed the digitization of herbarium specimens. Now I want to jump to what may seem an unrelated topic: the digital humanities, a field that seems to defy precise definition. Most simply, it’s the use of computer technology in the humanities and may involve anything from digitizing texts and doing computerized textual analyses to linking various studies of a historical period across several disciplines such as philosophy, history, and art. One large-scale endeavor is Mapping the Republic of Letters, a Stanford University project presenting the correspondence of some of the great minds of that republic, including Condorcet, Franklin, Voltaire, Locke, and Galileo. These are separate projects, but each is available within the Republic of Letters portal. Not only is there correspondence, but also a variety of graphic displays of how these figures related to a host of others with whom they corresponded, including, for example, a map of where Franklin’s correspondents lived. In other words, there is visual support for the idea that these individuals did indeed inhabit a wide-ranging republic united through letters. A rich example of what digital humanities can achieve, the site also links to publications that have grown out of the various projects.

Since all fields are ultimately interrelated, it’s not surprising that some of these websites have scientific content. For example, there is Reconstructing Sloane coordinated by the botanist Charlie Jarvis of the Natural History Museum, London (NHM). It required collaboration among that institution, the British Museum (BM), and the British Library (BL), all of which grew out of Hans Sloane’s (1660-1753) massive collections, with the library and natural history museum eventually developing individual identities at separate locations. This is one reason why collaboration is so important. For a particular plant species, there may be specimens at NHM, manuscripts at the BL, and illustrations at the NHM, BM, or BL. In his massive study of the Sloane Herbarium, J. E. Dandy (1958) noted the difficulty of trying to identify handwriting on herbarium labels because the related letters and other manuscripts were in the BL and the specimens in NHM; both were too valuable to leave their home institutions. In the age before easy photocopying, this was hardly a trivial issue.

But for many projects, collections are much farther afield. Specimens alone may be spread over several herbaria. Add to this field notebooks, letters, and articles in long out-of-date publications, and the task becomes ever more daunting. However, as with science itself, it is often a good tactic to begin with a relatively simple system to work out technical difficulties; once a foundation has been laid larger and more complex projects can follow. The British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911) was a prolific author, letter writer, and collector so digitizing his letters and specimens was hardly a simple task. However, it was doable because most of the material was housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew where he had served as director. A similar project was undertaken at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where the German botanist George Engelmann (1809-1884) had been adviser to the garden’s founder Henry Shaw. This site links not only to correspondence and other papers, but to herbarium specimens and printed references as well. Another successful project involves the work of Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854) who was director of the Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta. This website includes his correspondence, specimens, and plant illustrations he commissioned from Indian artists. For a particular genus, material in all these categories can be found with one search. This site could serve as a useful model for other web portals linking various kinds of collections.

Exploring the back ends—the software and coding—involved in such projects, leads to an appreciation for how difficult they are to pull off. I am hardly in a position to discuss this topic, but I know enough to realize the massiveness of such endeavors and their expense. First, scanning or photographing materials is labor intensive, as is inputting the metadata that makes the images scientifically valuable and also searchable. A horde of volunteers seems an appealing solution, but someone has to organize them and control the quality of their work. Then there is the software platform for the data so there is enough metadata for each item that it can be linked to a variety of other items in multiple ways. To create something that works well for a particular project requires extensive coding for customization, even if the basic software is “out of the box.” Software and coding are two large-budget items, no matter how simple the project, and to do such an undertaking well is not “simple” at all. The disheartening thing is that any solution will probably look dated and unwieldy ten years from now.

In early digitization efforts, just scanning items seemed to be a great step forward, and many treasures became available online as a result. Two of my favorites are the Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) botanical notebooks, Historia Plantarum, in the library of the University of Erlangen-Nuremburg University in Germany. These are two PDFs of about 500 and 350 pages each, with each page a gem—a watercolor of one or more plants with notations by Gessner and a number of others. The PDF format means that while the images are available, they are not searchable. There is a massive reference work on the notebooks that has thumbnail-sized images of all the pages and enlargements of some (Zoller, Steinmann & Schmid, 1972). The explanatory text, in German, is rich, both giving the text that accompanies each image and also providing commentary on them. It would be an amazing resource if all this were available online in a searchable format. But there is not a great deal of interest in this from the botanical community because the work is pre-Linnaean by over 150 years, therefore the names are not relevant to accepted plant binomials. However, the information that is noted including uses of the plants, where they were collected, and by whom is a great historical resource.

Such a project could provide an excellent model for what the digital humanities could achieve. It’s value to art history alone would be immeasurable. Gessner’s work dates from the Northern European Renaissance and suggests the attention to naturalistic detail that was evident in the high art of the period. These images are also of value to historians of science because they tell a great deal about what a botanist of that time valued in terms of information about plants. Not only is the plant as a whole realistically pictured, but there are also enlargements of seeds, flowers, and fruits. While the emphasis on flower structure is not as great as it would become from Linnaeus’s time onward, it’s obvious that seeds were greatly valued as were the differences among those from various species. Just the use of magnification is interesting for its time. While Gessner is my dream endeavor, there are many project that have already been realized that deserve note. I’ll describe several in my next post.

Dandy, J. E. (1958). The Sloane Herbarium. London: British Museum.

Zoller, H., Steinmann, M., & Schmid, K. (1972). Conradi Gesneri Historia Plantarum. Dietikon-Zürich: Urs Graf-Verlag.

Specimen Labels: History


Specimen from the Ulisse Aldrovandi Herbarium at the University of Bologna

It’s often noted that herbarium specimens are prepared today much as they were in the 16th century when Luca Ghini (1490-1556) created the first well-documented herbarium. This lack of “progress” is because the original approach was both easy and effective: press a plant between two pieces of paper to absorb moisture and to flatten it. Plant material treated in this way can last indefinitely. Moisture encourages the growth of fungi and other agents of decay, and pressing means the plant doesn’t curl up into an irregular mass as it dries. Today, the sheets of paper may be interleafed with felt pads and cardboard sheets to hasten drying. After this the specimen is mounted on heavy white paper and labeled. It is in the labeling that significant changes have occurred over the years and continue to occur. To put it simply, the amount of information on a sheet has increased significantly, but even today, there is no “perfect” label, no standard for what be included and in what format. This may not seem like a very exciting topic to pursue, but I hope to show that following the label story tells a great deal about the history of plant collections and of plant science itself.

Ghini’s herbarium is not extant, but those of his students, Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600) and Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) are (Nepi& Gusmerol, 2008). They are beautifully mounted, and on the latter, the plant names are written in script. There is little other notation, and this is true of most early specimens. Since herbaria were created either by or for individuals, it can be assumed that these owners knew more about the plants, could fill in the blanks, at least for many of the specimens. They felt the name was all the information they needed; there were books with species descriptions that could be referenced. However as Brian Ogilve (2006) notes, at this time the written information on plants lagged behind the illustrations and plant specimens then available. This was one of the driving forces behind the creation of herbaria: to have good visual information available for study. Plants themselves were studied first for their uses in medicine, and then as fascinating in themselves, opening the way to plant taxonomy. Geography or date of collection wasn’t considered important, nor was the name of the collector.

As time went on, labeling and specimen preparation became more standardized, but still, collections were for the most part individual rather than institutional so personal idiosyncrasies were common. This was especially the case among the wealthy who saw a herbarium as an important element of a cabinet of curiosities and a significant symbol of status. A case in point is the herbarium of George Clifford (1685-1760), which was studied and augmented by Carl Linnaeus during his time in the Netherlands. Clifford was a wealthy banker with an interest in gardening and wanted to document the range of plants he grew. Each sheet had an ornately bordered label and the bottom of the stem was covered by an engraving of a vase from which the plant was seemingly growing. In other collections, the pages were framed with a border of inked lines. The Oxford botanist Johann Dillenius (1684-1747) pasted thin strips of wallpaper around the edges of his moss specimen sheets to strengthen them. On the other hand, Hans Sloane (1660-1753) who had one of the largest pre-Linnaean herbaria, didn’t use any such devices, unless the specimens he was given or that he purchased came with them, as in the case of the herbarium of Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (Laird, 2015). He simply had the sheets mounted in volumes, 265 of which still exist in the Natural History Museum, London.

Binding was another common herbarium practice of the past that has disappeared. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) kept his specimen sheets loose so that he could easily organize—and reorganize—them. He had a wooden cabinet constructed for his collection, and his strategy is still used today. One of his practices that hasn’t continued is writing on the back of the sheet. This is now frowned upon because accessing the information means turning over the specimen, which can lead to plant fragments falling off. Loss of fragments still occurs; this is why many sheets prepared today have a folded paper envelope attached in which any such debris can be saved. After his death, Linnaeus’s collection was sold to Edward Smith and formed the basis of the Linnean Society herbarium in London. However, other such collections were either discarded by uninterested heirs or found their way into university, botanical garden, or museum collections. Often they were just stored as they were, so the idiosyncrasies remained.

Laird, M. (2015). A Natural History of English Gardening 1650-1800. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Nepi, C., & Gusmerol, E. (2008). Gli erbari aretini da Andrea Cesalpino ai giorni nostri. Florence, Italy: Firenze University Press.
Ogilve, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.