Guest post from James Dowling, PhD Student (Biochemistry)
There I was, sorting through the endless piles of old papers and journals that made up the stockroom of the Herbarium.
I was tasked with searching for ‘interesting’ things, which is a very enigmatic term; it suggested, first of all, that there was something interesting to be found, which after hours of unloading boxes I was starting to think was a bit of a pipedream. But more so, it hinted that there was a very real possibility of finding treasure. A glimmering light in the proverbial rubble.
Treasure, from the pirate stories of olde, has always been gold and silver. Never has it been blue. This made it all the more surprising when, beneath the dusty pages of so-and-so journal from 1905 number 27, I spotted something rather peculiar…….
The jacket was remarkably decorated, and clearly designed with great tact and care, bearing the date 1880 prominently near the bottom. I opened the little book up, and inside was something truly remarkable….
Bleached into the blue pages were a series of ghostly white silhouettes. When you gaze upon them, they appear to gaze right back at you – eternal imprints in time of what Dante might have believed to be a close-up of an angel’s wing.
Returning to the front cover, I could see that, sadly, they weren’t evidence of the divine lurking in Herbarium, but instead they were images of ferns from New Zealand.
I brought the little oddity to Rachel, the curator of Botany at the Museum, and she was just as taken by it as I was. Whereas I would have left it on the side as something ‘cool’ to look at every once in a while, she was much more astute in getting to the bottom of this mystery – what exactly is this thing?
That’s when we came across this paper, which described this book in great detail, along with matching photographs.
As it turns out, in 1880, a botanist called Herbert Dobbie produced something known as ‘The Blue Books’. In this category are also included books from a couple of years later by another botanist, Eric Craig.
Apparently, in very vague fashion, Dobbie said 40 years after publication that he made them using “the blue-print system which has just reached New Zealand”. In brief, this involves exposing sensitised mounting paper to sunlight an then washing with potassium bichromate, leaving the characteristic white-on-blue visual effect.
The question still remained, however – why make these little books? Well, that part isn’t so romantic – he stated that he literally wanted to make some money. Out of all the ways to make some cash, this is one of the most creative I’ve come across. To produce pretty books of hauntingly beautiful plants.
The amount of labour that went into making one ‘Blue Book’ was enormous, and combined with no evidence to the contrary, there probably weren’t many of these things made. In fact, only 14 copies are known to have survived, 11 of which are in New Zealand libraries.
Maybe that means there are 15 known to exist now?
Currently, the fate of the little blue treasure has yet to be decided. It will either continue to reside in the Herbarium, though from now on much more appreciated than before, or it will be passed onto another collection.
It was such a treat to unearth this thing, some 140 years after it’s creation, in near-perfect condition. It begs the question as to what else lies lurking in the back of the Herbarium. We’ll see soon enough, but for now, it’s time to close the book on this one.
by Daniel Quall King
This is Bracken, a Patterdale Terrier bitch,
(photographed at her hairdresser’s) who
lives with her dog, Buddy, at Abbey Farm in deepest
Norfolk. They are part of the menagerie
belonging to Richard Bales and Isabel King.
But that’s not what this is all about.
Bracken provided the word-association-football*
kickoff for this memoir, that’s all.
* A Monty Python expression
I lived in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, from 2004 to 2010. Having been retired for some years and being fancy-free and in a place where I could pursue an old interest, geology, at university level, I proceeded to take all the geology courses then available to older folk, and even managed an OU credit.
After a couple of years of improving my knowledge of geology but having run out of adult courses, I thought I’d see if the Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester needed any volunteers in that department. They didn’t; but “Do you know anything about botany? They could do with some help.” “Well, no, but I could learn.” In this way I was set to spend some fascinating years with the people who were then the staff and volunteers in the Manchester Museum Herbarium.
I was fortunate to live on a good bus route, so once or twice a week I headed off to the university and gradually got to know my way around the herbarium.
The museum, having grown like Topsy, is a bit of a warren; the herbarium is located in the tower and attic of Manchester Museum near the entrance to the original quadrangle.
Cast of Characters (Then)
Leander Wolstenholme, Curator of Botany here giving a tour of the herbarium. A member of probably the last generation of research-centred curators, Leander was one of those people with an extraordinary memory for all things botanical. For some years he was an editor of the Journal of the Botanical Society of the British Isles. A person of great kindness and humour.
Lindsey Loughtman, the ever-helpful Curatorial Assistant (part-time).
Suzanne Grieve, Curatorial Assistant (part-time).
Matt Lowe, Curatorial Assistant (later at the Zoological Museum, University of Cambridge).
Priscilla Tolfree, retired university librarian and lifelong plant enthusiast.
Audrey Locksley, Patricia’s botany pal and another very knowledgeable amateur.
Barbara Porter, who collected rare ferns and had a garden full of them which she bequeathed to the University. We transplanted them to the university’s Botanical Experimental Ground in Fallowfield.
Dave Bishop (Retired industrial chemist, Mersey Valley botany expert).
David Earl, County Recorder for both the Lancashire vice counties (S, 59 & W, 60); another botanist with a remarkable memory. Fondly referred to by Patricia as ‘the fount of all knowledge’.
Daniel King, rank amateur, but very curious.
The story of the founding of the MMHerb is interesting enough, and a potted version of it is included at the end of this memoir. Once Matt Lowe trained me up to take photos and put them online at http://harbour.man.ac.uk/mmcustom/BotQuery.php , most of the material I was put to work on was in the Grindon Herbarium, a unique collection of specimens, illustrations and printed material.
However, that’s just to get the ball rolling. Or the seed germinating (sorry).
One morning I de-bussed as usual at Oxford Road and made my way to the quad and up to the herbarium for a morning of photography and putting-on-line. But when it came time for cuppas, up on the raised bit of platform that accommodated a couple of office desks and enough seats for a tea-break, sitting in a group approximating the demeanour of a court martial were Suzanne, Leander and Lindsey. I negotiated the steps and made for the kettle, but before I could do anything with it, an ominous “Dannn … ” with interesting inflections emerged from Lindsey. No-one cracked a smile. So I smiled and said “Hi!”, thinking, ‘This is serious’. And I hadn’t even dropped the camera. “We’ve got a proposal for you. You know the illustrations in the Grindon Herbarium? We thought you might be interested in identifying the publications they were taken from.” Nonplussed, I was, thinking the trio had misidentified me as the Yoda of the graphic world. The Grindon Herbarium isn’t small, and over the many years Leopold Hartley Grindon had assembled the material, there must have accumulated many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of loose illustrations and articles taken from damaged or incomplete botanical books. What a job that’d be! All I could do was look at Leander and ask, “How long do you think it would take?” He looked away thoughtfully for a few seconds, and then, back in eye contact, he said “Maybe three or four years”.
To make a long story somewhat shorter, the main result of a couple of years of research was two articles, with checklists, about the Grindon Herbarium and the sources of the illustrative and other material it contains. There are materials from 24 of the popular botanical periodicals of the day; and from books and serial publications, 78 (published 2007) in Archives of Natural History and another 17 (2009) for a total of 95. Of course, never having submitted an article for publication in a scholarly periodical, I relied a great deal on advice from Leander about the commentary in the articles.
We were all very pleased when the articles were accepted. They are in ANH Vol. 34 (1): 129-139, April 2007, and Vol. 36 (2): October 2009. The latter is in the Short Notes section, p.354 ff. Archives of Natural History is published by The Society for the History of Natural History (yes, really), which has offices in the Natural History Museum in London. This may be one of the least-known scholarly publications in the world, but has fascinating articles about such things as the great voyages of discovery and so forth. For the enthusiast, the Manchester Museum Collections Database contains within a larger number, the original 700 or so images from the Grindon. If you type botanical prints and drawings into the Botany search window, it brings up most of them.
So what happened to the bracken? When Bracken the pup got her name, it eventually reminded me of an item in Grindon – a pair of exquisite pen-and-ink drawings on tracing paper, as well as a set of printer’s proofs, of Pteridium aquilinum, or bracken to you and me. According to my information, the spores of ordinary bracken are so light that they’ve spread to all corners of the botanical globe, including the often very isolated islands of the South Atlantic. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pteridium_aquilinum .
Although the original photo files of the illustrations are large and adequate to do justice to the extremely fine work in them, the software that uploads them into the KE Emu database condenses the information to such an extent that the delicacy and detail in the original are lost.
Here’s what the online photo of the original looks like:
But what a good excuse to visit the herbarium and see the originals! The illustrations were made for the translation of Julien Marie Crozet’s 1771-1772 account of his voyage of discovery to the South Atlantic, published in 1891. Here’s the relevant section:
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1306431h.html yields: H. Ling Roth, transl., Crozet’s Voyage to Tasmania, New Zealand the Ladrone Islands, and the Philippines in the Years 1771-1772. London: Truslove & Shirley, 143, Oxford Street, W.; 1891. p35ff:
The Food of the Inhabitants of the North of New Zealand.
We were extremely well received by the savages. They came in mobs on to the vessels and appeared there every day, and we went similarly to their villages and into their houses with the greatest security. This naturally gave us every facility for seeing how these people fed themselves, what were their occupations, their works, their industry, and even their amusements.
We have already noticed that the basis of the food of these people is the root of a fern absolutely similar to ours, with the sole difference that in some places the New Zealand fern has a much bigger and longer root and its fronds grow to greater length.
[1 The New Zealand fern is Pteris aquiline, var. esculenta, and the European species is Pteris aquiline. The difference is thus very slight. See Figs. 17 and 18.]
Having pulled up the root they dry it for several days in the air and sun. When they wish to eat it they hold it before the fire, roast it lightly, pound it between two stones, and when in this state they chew it in order to obtain the juices, which to me appeared farinaceous; when they have nothing else to eat, they eat even the woody fibre; but when they have fish or shellfish or some other dish, they only chew the root and reject the fibre.
These people live also principally on fish and on shellfish; they eat quail, ducks and other aquatic birds which abound in their country, also various species of birds, dogs, rats, and finally they eat their enemies.
The New Zealanders have no vessel in which to cook their meat; the general custom in all the villages we visited was to cook the meat and fish in a sort of subterranean oven. In every kitchen there is a hole one and a half feet deep and two feet in diameter; on the bottom of the hole they place stones, on the stones they place wood which they light, on this wood they place a layer of flat stones which they make red hot, and on these latter stones they place the meat or fish which they desire to cook.
They also live on potatoes and gourds, which they cook in the same way as their meat. Their habits in eating are dirty.
I have also seen them eat a sort of green gum which they like immensely, but I was not able to find out the tree from which they obtained it. Some of us ate of this by letting it drop in our mouths. We all found it very heating.
We also remarked that the savages eat regularly twice a day, once in the morning, the other time at sunset. As they are all strong, hardy, big, well-formed, and with good constitution, one concludes that their food is very healthy, and I think it well to repeat here that fern root forms the basis of their food.
Generally speaking they appeared to me to be great eaters; when they came on board our vessel, we could not satisfy them sufficiently with the biscuit which they liked immensely. When the sailors were eating they would approach them in order to get a portion of their soup and of their salt meat. The sailors used to give them the remains on their platters, which the savages took care to clean out thoroughly; they were very fond of fat and even of tallow. I have even seen them take the tallow from the sounding lead or tallow otherwise used in the ship and eat it as a tasty morsel. They were very partial to sugar; they drank tea and coffee with us, and liked our drinks according as they were more or less sweetened. They showed great repugnance for wine, and especially for strong liquors; they do not like salt and do not eat it. They drink a great deal of water, and when I saw them very thirsty, I used to think that this desire to be continually drinking was caused by their dry food, the fern root.
The Manchester Museum Herbarium
The MANCH [coded for reference] herbarium is held within The Manchester Museum, part of The University of Manchester. It contains approximately 1 million specimens covering a world-wide distribution. It was founded in 1860 by the coalition of several major individual or corporate collections. In particular, the two nineteenth-century Manchester businessmen and amateur naturalists, Charles Bailey and Cosmo Melvill, inspired by the original and substantial collections of the Manchester Natural History Society, collaborated to collect and buy plant material from around the world, and arranged for their final deposition at the Museum. Bailey and Melvill alone provided a wide range of plant collections unequalled by any but a few major national museums. Also, at that time the museum acquired the very special collection of plants, many cultivated, together with illustrations and text, that were assembled by Leo Grindon in connection with his pioneering work in Adult Education.
In addition to this foundation material, the Museum’s Herbarium incorporates collections from thousands of other people, ranging from small personal herbariums donated or bequeathed, to material collected today by expeditions to tropical rain forests and other endangered habitats. There are also many items of historical importance and interest, such as specimens collected by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle, specimens collected by Admiral Franklin’s expeditions in search of the N.W. Passage, and collections of the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus. In particular, the 16,500 Richard Spruce items (mostly Amazon and Andes hepatics) have a value far in excess of their number.
DQK Note: At the time when I worked there, the herbarium collection was reckoned to be the fourth largest in the British Isles. Some of the others are at London (Kew and the Natural History Museum), Glasnevin, Edinburgh and Cambridge. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_herbaria_in_Europe#British_Isles .
By Eirini Antonaki
The herbarium of Manchester itself is a collection of some 750,000 specimens of preserved plants. Most are in the form of pressed specimens on flat sheets. Some are in small packets such as the mosses and lichens and some are even 3D e.g. our collection of fruits and seeds. Apart from them it has also books, plant illustrations , slides projector, microscopic slides, plant models and many more to explore.
Finally something that you can’t miss is our brand new modern greenhouse. You should definitely check out!
The Greenhouse is a hidden gem, located on the third floor of Manchester Museum. It accommodates plants from all over the world in an artistic installation that has been realised with the collaboration of Nonsense_indoor_plants , Jeanette Ramirez founder of The Clorofilas (@Theclorofilas) and our Curator of Botany Rachel Webster.
It is next to Sylvia’s study room, which is a multi purpose room near the new third floor cafe. What a wonderful idea to study or have a meeting with a view of ferns, cacti and tropical plants in the middle of the winter in Manchester!
Want to see more about the Greenhouse?
Then you can follow our instagram profile @mcrmuseumgreenhouse and you can upload your own photos with the #mcrmuseumgreenhouse.
A guest blog post from Hannah, Learning Manager, on our upcoming collaborative PhD that is part of the Courtyard Project at Manchester Museum:
The Courtyard Project is a great opportunity for us to reflect on, research and develop our work, and as part of this, we are keen to gain a better understanding of the impacts of cultural engagement on our audiences. In spite of our best efforts, we often to struggle to get to grips with the impact of our work and tend to rely on teacher feedback, questionnaires and anecdotal evidence. Take, for example, our work with young children; we know that young children benefit from visiting the Museum because teachers and practitioners tell us this, but precisely how young children benefit, how long such benefits actually last, and whether there are knock-on effects for caregivers or teachers are questions that have tended to be beyond our capacity…
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For the past few weeks I have been back at the herbarium returning the materia medica collection to their cupboards following work undertaken by estates.
This project is somewhat reminiscent of my placement year over two years ago at the herbarium when I photographed, databased and organised the collection into their current system.
The materia medica collection at the Manchester Museum contains over 800 specimens of plants, animals and minerals that were used for medicinal purposes. It dates from the latter half of the nineteenth century and was originally used as a teaching tool for medical and pharmacy students at Owens College.
Following the 1858 Medical Act, anyone wishing to be a practicing physician first had to be included on the medical register. This required them to pass at least one of the qualifications recognised by the General Medical Council – such as those by the Royal College of Physicians – and the majority of these involved some form of examination into materia medica. As such, materia medica was an essential subject for any medical student during the nineteenth century.
The role of the materia medica collection as a teaching resource, therefore, meant that it was a vital part of medical education at Owens College. This was particularly evident given that the collection at the time had its own dedicated museum at the medical school!
The building that housed this museum no longer exists so the collection no longer has its own museum, but instead resides in the tower of the Manchester Museum as part of the herbarium.
A few images from the herbarium recently
Archives and labels are a gold mine of information in Herbarium collections #botanicMonday @Nat_SCA
It’s #BotanicMonday and also #chocolateweek! Here’s a German teaching poster of the plant that produces the cocoa bean
Plant models aplenty #BotanicMonday
106 years old and still living up to its name – Showy pink oregano (Origanum sipyleum) #BotanicMonday
Joanne B Kaar @Joannebkaar Oct 15
More back rooms of @McrMuseum in herbarium @Aristolochia
photos from my recent research visit
Manchester 26-27th June. Kanaris lecture theatre, Manchester Museum
Science and natural history collections include objects, specimens, models and illustrations which are a goldmine of useful information and inspiration. They are immensely popular with the public, but are often cared for by non-specialists who can perceive them as difficult to work with. There is a danger that these collections can be forgotten, underused and undervalued.
Join us for this one and a half day conference looking at the innovative ways in which collections are being used. Speakers from historic collections across Europe will be joining us to discuss best practise in the use of scientific and natural history collections. We will be exploring ways to connect people to collections for greatest impact.
We have an interesting programme of talks from expert speakers in three sessions: ‘Connecting collections and breaking isolation’, ‘Reaching out to new audiences’ and ‘New meanings through art, history and research’.
Dr. Tim Boon, Science Museum Group. ‘Science Museum Group Research and the Interdisciplinary Culture of Collections’
Mark Carnall, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. ‘Not real, not worth it?’
Dr Caroline Cornish, Royal Holloway, University of London. ‘Useful or curious’? Reinventing Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany’
Jocelyn Dodd, University of Leicester. ‘Encountering the Unexpected: natural heritage collections & successful aging’
Prof. Dirk van Delft, Boerhaave Museum. ‘Real bones for teaching medicine’
Dr. Martha Flemming, V&A Museum. Title TBC
Dr Petra Tjitske Kalshoven, The University of Manchester. ‘The manikin in taxidermy: modelling conceptions of nature’.
Henry McGhie, Manchester Museum. ‘Beyond ‘natural history’: museums for the 21st century’
Dr. Laurens de Rooy, Museum Vrolik, Medical and natural history collections as historical objects: a change of perspective?
Dr. Marjan Scharloo, Teylers Museum. Title TBC
Dr. Cornelia Weber, Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections in Germany. ‘Back to the Roots: University Collections as Infrastructure for Research and Teaching’
Prof. Yves Winkin, Musée des arts et métiers. ‘An amateur director, professional curators, and a desire for a cabinet of curiosities’
The conference is part of the programming to support Object Lessons, our upcoming exhibition celebrating the scientific model and illustration collection of George Loudon. Each of these finely crafted objects was created for the purpose of understanding the natural world through education, demonstration and display. This exhibition combines Loudon’s collection with models from Manchester Museum and World Museum, Liverpool. The conference is generously supported by Wellcome. Book your place on mcrmuseum.eventbrite.com or call 0161 275 2648.