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.
The botany staff will be supporting the Panama wildlife evening showing a selection of plant species from Panama, as well as talk about the City Nature Challenge 2019 – coming to both Panama City and Greater Manchester soon!
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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At this time of year, there is always that one person who is impossible to buy a gift for. What do you get a botanist who has everything? Well, how about some microscope slides?
As we’ve been working our way through Manchester Museum’s 15,000 microscope slide collection, I can’t help but imagine some of these as presents. For starters, there’s all that beautiful paper; no gift is complete without the careful wrapping. Early microscope slides were wrapped in paper to keep the coverslip in place on top of the specimen. Other methods for attaching the coverslip were developed, but some slide preparators continued to use the papers for decoration.
Just imagine the fun your botanical friend could have looking at the finer details of the fruit and veg and sharing their findings over the Christmas dinner. While the word ‘fruit’ in English is used for many sweet-tasting plant parts, its use is much more specific in botany. There are a considerable number of ways by which any aspiring botanist can learn to describe their fruits and distinguish one kind from another. They might offer a slice of soft, juicy, pickled pepo (cucumber) with the cheese, warn fellow diners to take care with the hard stone in their delicious drupe (date), join in the struggle to break into a true nut (walnut) and, my personal favourite, uncover the zesty heperidium (tangerine) at the bottom of their Christmas stocking. Not forgetting, of course, there is always the chance to put people off their dessert by explaining the intricate way that the highly specialised fig flower structure is visited by wasps and develops into the culinary fruit (technically known as a synconium; I wonder if that would get a good score in Scrabble?) .
A set of slides could be an opportunity to escape another round of charades and escape to some quiet contemplation! Perhaps of the Christmas tree in extraordinary detail. Just imagine the pleasure getting lost for hours in the patterns created by slicing the timber in different directions, with or across the grain. Or maybe a close investigation of a local nativity scene – is that really hay in the manger? Or is it a much scratchier bed of straw?
The fortunate recipient of your microscopical gifts can follow in the footsteps of Mr George Wilks, who was clearly snipping bits off the decorations in 1903. Perhaps he needed to test out a new microscope from Santa.
Microscope slides http://www.victorianmicroscopeslides.com/history.htm
Manchester Museum director, Nick Merriman, taking the White Privilege test at the Museums Association Manchester Conference 2017. This very popular stall was one of the brilliant activities on offer as part of the Festival of Change; helping museum professionals grapple with serious issues through creative interventions.
I was wrapping up a particularly difficult male peacock with a helper a few weeks ago and we were discussing natural science collections. “Do you think one day they’ll just be made illegal?” she asked, straight-faced and sincere. I was miffed – this was someone saying to a natural science curator that really, it shouldn’t be allowed. I sighed and spent the rest of the wrapping session (porcupine was also tricky) explaining how wonderful – and legal – natural science collections are.
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