I spent a wonderful week at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) on a placement. The aim of the scheme is to exchange knowledge, aid professional development and enable lasting change.
I learnt and experienced so much – here are some highlights.
My host was Ranee Prakesh, Curator of Flowering Plants. After my induction, she gave me a tour of the herbarium and Darwin Centre gallery, both housed in a purpose built cocoon:
In the afternoon I learnt about NHM’s Digital Collections project, and then got to work. I scanned herbarium sheets on a Herbscan machine – an upside down scanner. Some of the sheets had writing on the back so both sides had to be scanned. The images would be added to the museum’s database later.
On the second day, I was shown how NHM staff use Emu, the museum’s database, and learnt about the current rapid digitisation project. Herbarium specimens are shipped to The Netherlands for imaging on a conveyor belt / camera system called Digistreet, then the data from the images will be transcribed in Suriname. The NHM staff were waiting to find out the quality of the data.
I shared ideas with the plant mounting team, demonstrating ‘Manchester style’ (strapping) and having a go at the NHM way (glueing and pressing). They were surprised I cut my own straps from archival quality paper: sometimes the best way is not always the most expensive way. That’s one of the many things I love about curatorial work.
I was shown how loans were documented and packed in the afternoon, and how the NHM staff process a loan on Ke Emu.
Day 3 was spent in the herbarium store. Ranee explained how the herbarium sheets are arranged taxonomically according to APG, and filed geographically within this system. I spent some time sorting specimens to family and genus level in preparation for laying-in. The open plan workspace was visible through a window in the gallery so I had the public watching me at work!
Later that day I had a tour of the Specimen Preparation Area to see the V-Factor volunteers at work. They were sorting through sediment from a quarry, looking for tiny fossils, and a different project is run each weekday in this area visible from the museum gallery.
The fourth day was spent in The Cryptogamic Herbarium. I had a short tour of the bryophyte collection then got to work repackaging mosses into individual capsules:
I was showed round the historical collections and the fern herbarium in the afternoon. We discussed Integrated Pest Management and preventative conservation in relation to historic botany collections.
I also worked alongside Ranee laying out specimens ready for the plant mounters. This involved placing the pressed specimen and label on a sheet of mounting paper and enclosing any loose material in a capsule. There was a large amount of newly donated material to be mounted and filed in the herbarium sent in from researchers and staff on expeditions.
On the fifth day I had a tour of the Linnean Society. Carl Linnaeus’s personal herbarium in particular was amazing to see.
Next, I learnt about citizen science at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. This is where the public gather or analyse data for research or curatorial purposes, such as transcribing data from a bird register, which is an NHM project called ‘Notes from Nature’ currently running on Zooniverse.
To wrap it all up there was a tea party at the end of my last day. It was lovely to see the staff I had met during the week and thank them all for giving up their time and making me feel so welcome. I am intending that some lasting change will happen at Manchester Museum as a result of my week at the NHM, particularly better storage for our type specimens and some changes to volunteering.
Many thanks to all the curators and collections managers at the NHM who allowed me this fantastic opportunity.
I was surprised and delighted to find that Richard Spruce has a statue in Banos, Ecuador. I found out through twitter. Spruce was the first European to explore and collect plants in the Amazon basin and Andes and the herbarium at the Manchester Museum has thousands of his liverwort specimens. Many of them are types. I tweeted this last week:
and was delighted to receive a reply from Annaliese (@GoLiveJourney) who said: “Wow! Richard Spruce was an ancestor of mine; I recently went to the Amazon in search of statue of him. Hooked on botany now!”
We contacted her and she sent us these pictures:
The statue is in Rio Verde, Banos, Ecuador. I found another article on it – it was installed in 2006. In this article, there is mention of the unveiling ceremony of the bust. The participants spent the afternoon on leisure walks to some of the localities visited by Spruce, and “a highlight was finding the rare liverwort Myriocolea irrorata Spruce, known only from the River Topo and long considered extinct. Spruce was particularly attracted to this species, which he considered “perhaps the most interesting bryophyte that I have every found … and the only agreeable souvenir I have preserved of this river” (Spruce 1908, Notes of a botanist on the Amazon and the Andes, vol. 2, p. 167).”
We are very proud to have four specimens of Myriocolea irrorata collected by Spruce from Ecuador. (Photos to follow after the building work in the herbarium is over)
Anneliese has a lovely blog, and we all think twitter is a great way of sharing knowledge!
The Manchester Museum Herbarium has a collection of around three-quarters of a million specimens, from all over the world. Recently, hundreds of specimens from the Museum’s liverwort collection from the Amazon, Brazil have been returned from a research loan to Gottingen University. I have been updating the Museum database with name changes and adding these high quality images that the researchers took. It is also the first time that any of the Museum’s botanical specimens have been barcoded. We have plans to barcode and photograph some of the algae collection soon.
These liverwort specimens were mostly collected by Richard Spruce, a Yorkshire botanist who was one of the first to collect plant specimens from the Amazon and Andes. A lot of his specimens are type specimens (the particular specimen or group of specimens to which a scientific name is formally attached). Type specimens are often requested on loan by other institutions so the features of the type specimen can be compared with the researcher’s own plant material. The Museum has a large number of liverwort types, and because of this the liverworts frequently get sent out on loan.
Liverworts are a small moss-like plant. Below: a type specimen
We come across plenty of specimens placed in newspapers – this one is from 1912! – Not all of them, like this one, are secured with tape. But, when they do have tape, we have to cut through the tape with either a knife (pictured) or a scalpel.
Once the specimen has been cut free; we then transfer the specimen to a new sheet.
Along with the specimen, we transfer all identifiable information to the new sheet.
The finished product, the specimen on its new sheet, secured with tape, and with the same information from its previous (newspaper) sheet.
So, I’ve now been the HLF Trainee curator for Natural Sciences at the Manchester Museum for 2 weeks, and I can safely say I’ve loved it so far.
Everyone I’ve met has been friendly and helpful, which is a great thing in such a massive place, and i’d like to take the opportunity to thank the HLF, Paulette, Henry and David for giving me this excellent opportunity.
Anyway, onto some museum type stuff. One of the tasks I’ve been doing over the past couple of days up in the herbarium (where I’m based for the first couple of months) has been some restoration work on some of the boxed specimens in the collection. Even though it’s quite a simple job, I’ve found it very relaxing and enjoyable just sitting cleaning and repairing boxes and it’s great to see how much of an improvement a bit of damp tissue can do…
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The herbarium possesses a wealth of botanical specimens in a special collection called the Materia Medica. The Materia Medica collection houses a huge variety of plant derivatives that were used in Victorian times for their therapeutic benefits. Stored in a confusing order in awkward cupboards in a room seldom visited, the collection was in need of a re-organisation. Each sample is stored in a glass jar. On each glass jar is a number in sharpie pen, this number represents the family the plant is a member of, using the Bentham & Hooker system of ordering. Previously the collection was ordered by what the sample was. For example there would be a shelf for seed samples, rhizomes, cortex samples, leaves etc. This system didn’t make much sense for a person who wanted to view all of the parts of one plant, or one genus of plant. This led to us deciding it would be best to do a complete overhaul of the system of ordering and start anew.
The first task in the project was to clear the cupboards of all of the samples. One morning Jamie the apprentice, Bernard the volunteer and I emptied the cupboards. Using the numbers written on the jars, we placed samples from the same family together on some temporary shelving. 578 jars of samples later and we had finally cleared the cupboards.
The next task was to write down what exactly was in each jar. What the sample was, the common name of the plant, the plant’s Latin name etc. This data is to be entered into a spreadsheet so that when people want to look specific items in the collection they will know where it is located or if there are any other parts of the plant in the collection. We will the re-house the collection back into the cupboards in the new order.
Whilst the advent of modern medicine means the samples in the Materia Medica are no longer widely used, the samples are fascinating. The collection includes items such as: Poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum), Acacia Gum (Acacia sp.), Red Sandal Wood (Pterocarpus santalinus) , Grains of Paradise (Amomum melegueta) & Dragon’s Blood (Calamus draco).
Blog post by Josh, FLS placement student
We have had a lot of changes in the herbarium recently – here are some pictures.
Roller racking (compactor storage) installed in the room overlooking the quad, at the end of the corridor.
Before – old cupboards and bench removed:
During – roller racking being installed:
After: Roller racking installed and ready to be filled
After: fern boxes returned and a beautiful shiny reconditioned parquet floor:
Materia medica room. Before:
Another storage room. Before:
After, shelved and ready for boxes:
Another view of roller racking. Before;