Where the Herbaria Are: Museums


Stairway from the great hall of the Natural History Museum, London.

Think of natural history museums and almost invariably an image of a dinosaur will pop into your mind, though it’s unlikely that a tree fern of the same era will.  Even when plant collections are part of these museums, their specimens usually don’t get the kind of exposure in the public galleries that animals or even minerals do.  In the past, some institutions did have economic botany exhibits, but these have shrunk or disappeared completely, not being able to compete with a Tyrannosaurus or a glitzy interactive display on biodiversity that usually focuses primarily on animals.  Still, there are huge plant collections attached to many of these museums.  In Paris, the Musée National d’Histoire Naturalle has the largest herbarium in the world; the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has over five million plant specimens and the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) houses about six million.  While the public may not be very aware of these resources, researchers are, and these institutions are crucial to work in plant systematics and to investigation of biodiversity.  In the past, many of them mounted major expeditions around the world to collect specimens and ideas for exhibits.  The days of such large-scale endeavors are over, but herbarium curators still collect.

When I visited the NHM recently, Mark Carine and Fred Rumsey had just returned from Madeira where they attended a conference to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s visit to the island at the beginning of his first circumnavigation of the globe.  While there, Joseph Banks and David Solander, who were on the expedition, collected plants in the vicinity of Funchal.  After the conference Carine and Rumsey attempted to retrace their steps, guided by colleagues at the University of Madeira, just as the earlier botanists were aided by the resident physician, Thomas Heberden.  The dates of both visits correspond almost exactly, so it should be possible to make some comparisons, especially since the Cook expedition specimens are at NHM.  Rumsey and Carine collected 120 species and hope to compare them to what the earlier botanists had seen.  Rumsey was already busy examining some of the Banks material under a microscope so he could send information to his Madeira colleagues.  Both he and Carine see this as a great link between present-day biodiversity research and historical collections, which are becoming used more and more in such contexts.

Since outreach to the public is an essential part of a natural history museum’s mission, it’s not surprising that museum herbaria are frequently called upon to contribute to exhibitions.  Deborah Metsger, assistant curator at the Green Plant Herbarium that’s housed at the Royal Ontario Museum told me museum curators asked her to collaborate, such as on the Flower Power exhibit of floral motifs and textiles.  Being at the museum also means she has access to conservation experts who have helped her to conserve old herbarium scrapbooks.  Also,  However, I should note that the herbarium, though housed at the museum, is part of the nearby University of Toronto.  So this herbarium is sort of a hybrid.  I’m sure this makes for some interesting administrative issues, but also allows the specimens to be used in a variety of ways.

Seed Collection

H.B. Sifton Seed Collection in the Green Plant Herbarium at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

The herbaria at the World Museum, Liverpool and the Manchester Museum have been particularly active in this regard, contributing to exhibitions by providing specimens in the form of medicinal plant sheets to slices through tree trunks to 19th-century plant models that used to be stored atop cabinets but are now treated with greater curatorial care.  The Manchester Museum is also part of the University of Manchester, so here again, there are multiple ties, and art students in particular have taken advantage of the herbarium as a source of inspiration for their projects.  It was also on a visit to this herbarium several years ago where I first heard of using Harry Potter as an herbarium lure.  The curator of botany, Rachel Webster, explained that plants mixed into various potions were the focus of displays and activities organized by the herbarium staff for an open house, complete with witches’ brooms and hats hanging from the ceiling.  Backing from museum public relations and educational programmers makes it easier for curators to mount such elaborate projects.

Natural history museums, like most cultural institutions, have faced hard financial times recently, and their herbaria are not immune.  While a botanic garden only has plant collections, living and dead, to worry about these museums have to balance the needs and wants of curators in a number of departments.  So while there are some benefits to these institutional ties, there are problems as well.  Many herbarium curators complain of what amounts to plant blindness among administrators.  The only place I’ve heard the opposite complaint is in Sweden where zoologists blame admiration for Linnaeus for what they see as botanical favoritism.  In other words, there is no perfect place for a herbarium.  Each type of institutional affiliation has its pluses and minuses.  In the last post in this series, I will discuss a number of collections that have a variety of different administrative set ups, not tied to schools, museums or botanical gardens.

Note:  I would like to thank all the people at the institutions I’ve visited for sharing their expertise with me.

Botanical Britain: Herbaria

2a Hookeria flavenscens

Specimen of Hookeria flavescens with watercolor drawings by Robert Kaye Greville, Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

To me travel provides the opportunity to visit herbaria.  I walked past Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace at the opposite ends of what’s called Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, and it was great to see their very different architectures, as well as the wonderful architecture in between, including the modern Scottish Parliament Building and many structures dating to the 17th and 18th centuries.  But it was the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) where I saw truly amazing sights.  I will go into this in more detail in subsequent posts, here I’m just going to hit the high points of what I saw at RBGE and several other herbaria I visited on my recent trip to Britain (see last post).  A few years ago, RBGE published a book called Botanical Treasures (Atkins et al., 2014) with photographs and descriptions of objects from its herbarium and library, so I had a guide to some of the collections.  Sally Rae, assistant herbarium curator, took out specimens prepared by Robert Kaye Greville, an expert in mosses, who sometimes painted watercolors of specimens on the sheets (see photo above).  In the library, Graham Hardy showed me a copy of Greville’s Flora Edinensis Cryptogamia with blank pages interleafed where Greville added notes and watercolors on new species.  This is just one example of the riches of these collections and how library and herbarium interrelate.  Others were shown me by Henry Noltie, a noted researcher in Indian botany and the history of its botanical illustrations (2002, 2016, 2017).

At the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Mark Nesbitt, curator of the Economic Botany Collection, gave me a tour of its storage facility for over 100,000 specimens.  In 1847 Kew was the first to open an economic botany museum and while its museum building has now been converted into a restaurant (see photo below), with a few of the displays retained (see photo below), the collection is intact.  Nesbitt is working with colleagues at Kew and Royal Holloway to track the many items that Kew distributed to other institutions over the years in a project called the Mobile Museum. He and Carine Cornish (2016) have documented how, as interest in economic botany declined in the 1950s, specimens from such collections were disbursed to herbaria and botanical collections, while the artifacts made from plant material—everything from palm mats to barkcloth jackets—found their way into world culture or ethnographic collections.  As interest in both types of assemblages is now growing, Nesbitt has worked with a group of colleagues to create a guide on Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (Salick, Konchar & Nesbitt, 2014).

2b Kew Cafe

Display case with wax orchid models at The Botanical restaurant at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

I went to Oxford University Herbarium to see portions of the William Sherard (1659-1728) collection.  In my exploration of pre-Linnaean botany, his name kept coming up in a number of contexts:  he studied with Joseph Pitton de Tournefort in Paris and Paul Hermann in Leiden, helped finance Mark Catesby’s trip to the Carolinas, collaborated with John Ray and other leading botanists of his day, served as advisor to the noted horticulturalist Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort, and did extensive research on a revision of Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax Theatri Botanici.  Oxford has one of the great historical herbarium collections as well as an extensive modern collection.  The Druce Curator of the herbarium, Stephen Harris, has written extensively on what it contains (2007, 2015, 2018) and showed me some of the large of boxes of notes for the Pinax revision that Sherard and his later collaborators, Johann Jacob Dillenius and Humphry Sipthorp kept, though it was never published.  Also, Sherard had obtained a portion of Paul Hermann’s plant collection and manuscripts, and these included the class lists from Hermann’s courses at Leiden (see photo below).  Leiden was such an important center of medical education at the time, in large part because it was one of the few institutions open to religious dissenters who flocked there from the British Isles, France, and Germany (Stearn, 1962).  These lists bear this out.

2c Sherard

Pages from one of William Sherard’s notebooks for his unfinished revision of Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax Theatri Botanici, University of Oxford Herbarium.

I switched gears and saw a much more recent collection in the Royal Horticultural Society RHS herbarium at Wisley that has a different character than that of most herbaria.  There is an obvious emphasis on cultivated plants; even the way the sheets are prepared is somewhat different.  As the Keeper of the Herbarium Yvette Harvey explained, the collection was begun in the early 20th century with student collections.  Each horticultural student was expected to prepare 200 specimens during their course of study.  This practice remained until the 1980s, when the number was down to 10 per student.  Now the collection is continually enlarged as specimens are prepared from plants growing in RHS gardens often as a result of research projects.  For many years it was the practice to paint watercolors of prize-winning plants on the specimen sheets in order to provide a color record.  Now instead, labels record colors matched with the RHS numbered color cards to provide a consistent system for indicating color.  Also the sheets display dissected flower parts as well as intact blooms.

2d Beaufort p8

Page from Volume 131 of the Sloane Herbarium with specimens from Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort at the Natural History Museum, London.

The last herbarium I visited was in a sense the daddy of them all, that of Hans Sloane at the Natural History Museum, London.  There are 265 volumes housed in a purpose-built facility.  All I can manage here is a brief introduction to what I saw and learned there.  I was guided by Fred Rumsey, senior curator in charge of the historical plant collections.  Sloane himself gathered many of the plants in the first seven volumes, which include those from his stay in Jamaica.  However, he acquired many more botanical specimens through purchase and trade, just as he acquired coins, books, works of art, ethnographic materials, etc., etc.  Among these were specimens prepared for Mary Somerset.  In one of her volumes, it says on the first page that these specimens were prepared “by order of Mary, Duchess of Beaufort.”  It seems that she demanded care in the process (see photo above).  The pages are large and each specimen is folded in its own piece of paper which is then attached, along with a number of others, to a page.  Unfortunately, there was so much to see, I didn’t get past the first volume of her plants, but it was enough to make me want another trip to London ASAP.  I also learned a great deal from my conversation with Rumsey and with Mark Carine, principle curator for plants.


Atkins, H., & et al. (2014). Botanical Treasures: Objects from the Herbarium and Library of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Harris, S. A. (2015). William Sherard: His herbarium and his Pinax. Oxford Plant Systematics, 21, 13–15.

Harris, S. A. (2018). Seventeenth-century plant lists and herbarium collections: A case study from the Oxford Physic Garden. Journal of the History of Collections, 30(1), 1–14.

Nesbitt, M., & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum Ethnography, 29, 53–70.

Noltie, H. J (2002). The Dapuri Drawings: Alexander Gibson and the Bombay Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club.

Noltie, H. J. (2016). Indian Forester, Scottish Laird: The Botanical Lives of Hugh Cleghorn of Stravithie. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Noltie, H. J. (2017). Botanical Art from India: the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Collection. Edinburgh, UK: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Salick, J., Konchar, K., & Nesbitt, M. (2014). Curating Biocultural Collections. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Stearn, W. T. (1962). The influence of Leyden on Botany in the 17th and 18th centuries. The British Journal for the History of Science, 1(2), 137–158.

Note: I would like to thank Henry Noltie, Sally Rae, and Graham Hardy at the RBGE, Mark Nesbitt at Kew, Stephen Harris at Oxford, Yvette Harvey at Wisley, and Fred Rumsey and Mark Carine at NHM for their warm welcome and generous help.