Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Muirhead Herbarium

Recently I was contacted by Plymouth University about the work I did on their Muirhead Herbarium back in 2007. Seemed a little odd at the time as I had just nipped into London from Spain and so my mind was not only having trouble in time travelling backwards to a previous life I had in London, but it then had the further onslaught of going back even further to another time in Devon, which was actually when I first started writing this blog. 

As I sat in Tate Modern talking on the phone to this lovely lady about where particular specimens were and which parts of the herbarium need to be imaged and which not (if one had to give priority), I realised that it would be a jolly good thing to publish some of the material I wrote and found at the time online, so it is available to all who need it as a resource. So here goes:

The Muirhead Memorial Herbarium* is located in 220A on the second floor of the Davy building located in the main Plymouth University Campus.  It is in a very small room which is situated to the side of the main lecture theatre which hmens access is limited to when the lecture theatre is not being used, so no one really ever goes in there. When I first went inside it felt like I was digging up a time capsule. The room was littered with old cigarette butts and packets, old newspapers and chocolate bar wrappers with redundant price tags on. It was like being in Gene Hunt's office in 'Life on Mars'.

The University of Plymouth originally had assorted collections of biological specimens to assist with teaching, but the herbarium was augmented in 1984, when Miss Clara Muirhead bequeathed her herbarium to the University (Fothergill and Hallett, 2000). Later, the specimens from the 1987 Habitat Project were amalgamated in to the Muirhead collection and the herbarium grew further in size.

The Muirhead Memorial Herbarium houses collections of vascular plants, bryophytes, fungi, algae and spirit stored specimens. The geographical range is mainly limited to parts of Scotland, Ireland, Cumberland and Devon and specimens date from the 1940’s to the present, although there are a few older, tropical specimens. Most of these specimens are new donations and have not yet been properly mounted or taxonomically sorted, where others are attached to the Muirhead collection. A recent donation from Seale Hayne has also provided the herbarium with a new agricultural collection of mainly old wheat (Triticum) varieties.  These specimens are also not suitably mounted or taxonomically arranged and are in a very poor state. 

The current standard of care for all of these specimens has been inadequate in recent years due to a lack of funding. The use of non-archival materials and the use of specimens in teaching are continuing to endanger the longevity of the collection and associated data (Fothergill and Hallett, 2000). Further to this, the size of the room is not sufficient for the volume of material present. Many of the un-mounted specimens are not catalogued and are not being stored correctly. With a lack of cupboards, specimens are being stored in boxes where access to them is extremely limited. With there being no dedicated budget for the herbarium, the room has become dated. It is recommended that in the future the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium is housed in a larger, more modern and accessible room. 

At this point it is important to note that digitising and creating a database is only a small facet of a working herbarium. Databases with digital images are used to reduce the handling of fragile specimens, and also to make the herbarium more accessible to outside institutions.  Alone, databases are not sufficient to ensure the prolonged existence of a herbarium.  Herbaria need to be cared for by trained personnel.  The Muirhead Memorial Herbarium, for example, is in desperate need of physical attention.  Many specimens need to be mounted and catalogued, the room needs to be made airtight and the specimens need to be frozen regularly in order to reduce the chances of insect attack. On inspection some of the specimens in the room have already been damaged by insects.  Further to this a digital image, although useful for teaching, is inadequate for the taxonomist.  For scientific study the mounted specimen, along with its collection data is needed.  Therefore it is important to note that although the rest of this report will be exploring the methods used for digitising and databasing herbaria, that this alone is a fragment of a larger project.  It is also important to note that full digitisation of the entire herbarium cannot go ahead until the rest of the specimens have been mounted.  Mounting needs to be done by trained staff using archival material. 

Noteworthy collections present in the herbarium:

Miss Clara Winsome Muirhead (1915-1985) Collection

Figure 1: Miss Clara Winsome Muirhead

Miss Clara Winsome Muirhead (CWM) was a notable botanist of the time (figure 1).  She worked at both Carlisle Museum and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.  She joined the BSBI in 1952 and became active on the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) committee for the study of Scottish flora.  Her interests within botany were wide but her main curiosities included mosses, succulents and cacti – notably Sempervivum, roses and Cassiope. This is clearly evident in the Memorial Herbarium, with their being noteworthy collections of these particular groups of plants. In fact, her enthusiasm for Sempervivum also resulted in an increase in the living collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and Win revised this genus for the Flora of Turkey.  Amongst her other works she also wrote a monograph on Cassiope lycopodioides. To mark her liking for Cassiope, the well known plantsman R. B. Cooke (who wrote to Win frequently) named his cultivar C. ‘Muirhead’ (C. wardii x lycopodioides) after her.

Frank Kingdon-Ward (1885-1958)
Figure 2: Frank Kingdon-Ward

Frank Kingdon-Ward (figure 2) was born on 6th November 1885 at Withington, Lancashire.  Inspired by his father, a botanist, Frank acquired a love for nature and this; with his dreams of travel lead him to become a plant hunter.  Frank travelled to Burma, Tibet and Assam in order to find new plants and is one of the last of the famous plant hunters (Musgrave, Gardner and Musgrave, 2000).  Most of the Kingdon-Ward collection is held in the Royal Botanic Garden Kew, although some specimens are in other large institutions such as Edinburgh.  It is common knowledge that there are a few missing specimens from his entire collection (missing collection numbers), and much has been done to track them down.  It was therefore a delight when a few specimens that were collected by Frank Kingdon-Ward (FKW) were found within the Muirhead collection (cabernet four). 

The specimens were Cassiope species and they have been mounted and labelled by Clara Muirhead in her own hand.  Each specimen has its own FKW collection number.  These specimens are extremely valuable historically and should not be housed in cabernet four with the un-mounted and unsorted specimens, which is where they currently lay.  It is recommended that these specimens are moved to a more organised cabernet. One other aspect which is also of importance is the possibility of tracking down the letters that were sent between FKW and CWM as these are part of the FKW collection.  The letters have been seen by various members of staff in the past, but during this study it was not possible to locate them. If the letters have gone astray, this further reinforces the need for more stringent rules for access into the herbarium.

George Forrest (1873-1932)
Figure 3: George Forrest
George Forrest (figure 3) was born on 13th March 1873 in Falkirk, and after his education at the Kilmarnock Academy he was employed by a pharmaceutical chemist.  It was there where he learnt about the medicinal properties of many plants and how to dry, label and mount herbarium specimens (Musgrave, Gardner and Musgrave, 2000).  After some time, Forrest then started to work for the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh as an assistant in their herbarium.  In 1904 he got the opportunity to travel to China to collect new plants suited to British gardens.  From then on he became a plant hunter, bringing back more than 30,000 plants, many of which ended up being cultivated in British gardens (Musgrave, Gardner and Musgrave, 2000).  Most of his collection books and specimens are now housed at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.  However, cabinet four in the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium appears to also house several Cassiope specimens that had been collected by George Forrest.  Again all the specimens have been mounted and labelled by Clara Muirhead in her own hand and all of them have Forrest’s individual collection numbers.  This tiny collection of specimens is also very unique for a small herbarium and historically important.

Habitat 1987 Collection

In 1987, forty unemployed people joined a project to survey the Plymouth Flora.  Four of the team were involved in remounting the Muirhead herbarium. Nick Bragg was involved in mounting the material collected from this survey and Dr. Andy Stevens (figure 1.4) and Monica Rowland sorted these mounted specimens, along with the rest of the herbarium, amalgamating the new specimens with the Muirhead collection. The Habitat 1987 collection is extremely important, and the only record of the flora in Plymouth at that particular time.

James Burkill Collection
Figure 4: James Burkhill Collection which is in desperate need of cataloguing and filing
A recent donation to Plymouth University has allowed the institution to obtain several books, papers and herbarium specimens that belonged to Mr. James Burkill, a botanist who worked for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Currently, there is very little information on the internet about this botanist, but from his specimen collection it is clear that he was particularly interested in seaweeds and tropical flora. There are several specimens that had been collected from south eastern Asia and Africa, all of which have written labels on the newspaper files which they lay between. A collection of his note books and published material was also donated, and this half of the collection is kept in room B406 in the Portland Square Building. The Burkhill collection is unmounted and unsorted and is currently being stored in cardboards boxes (figure 1.5). This type of storage is unsuitable and the specimens are in urgent need of mounting, especially as newspaper is known to degrade very quickly, and this could lead to the loss of this valuable collection.

Seale Hayne Collection

Figure 5
Figure 6

The Seale Hayne Collection (figures 5 and 6) is the latest addition to the Muirhead. The specimens were brought over from the Seale Hayne campus during this project and are currently being housed in room 201 in the Davy Building. Some of the loose specimens have been placed on the work bench in the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium for safe-keeping until further cataloguing can be done.  The specimens that were added to the herbarium have been wrapped in polythene bags to prevent insect attack.

Please note that the collections mentioned in this report are not the only collections in the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium, and have only been reviewed here because they were either a new addition to the herbarium, or they were considered important. Please refer to Fothergill and Hallett (2001) for the full inventory of the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium. 

Chapter 5: The Future of the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium
The Muirhead Memorial Herbarium, as it is to date, is not dynamic.  It is not being used for research, teaching or promotion and therefore it is a dead-space.  It would therefore be beneficial to the University of Plymouth to amend how the herbarium is used and how it functions in order to maximise the use of space on the campus.  Such changes do not have to involve the purchasing of expensive pieces of equipment, but does require the construction of an online catalogue/database for the specimens, and a short term contract so that someone can complete the mounting of the specimens in the boxes and in cabinets one - four.  Below are listed some of the ways in which the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium could be used by the University in the future and the benefits associated with databasing the specimens.

Future Collecting and teaching

With a small amendment on the teaching syllabus for some courses, the Muirhead Herbarium could become a useful tool for teaching and future research.  Plant collecting and pressing could be incorporated as a feature of field courses, along with data entry.  Biology students could be assessed on their ability to collect, press, label and enter data onto the database like the students are in RBGE.  Such activities would be advantageous to the University, as it could generate voluntary students who may be willing to help with the upkeep of the Muirhead Herbarium in the future.

Collecting plants abroad could also strengthen the links that the University has with institutions over seas.  This could place Plymouth University on the map as a centre for biodiversity research and conservation, which links into sustainability. The University could not only practice conservation on its campus, but also abroad.  Many current projects that are currently run through IUCN now involve the use of herbaria.  Red lists are often generated by measuring collection rates of plants species in herbaria.  Similar assignments could generate interesting research projects for students, which could increase student interest and promote the reputation of the University.

Promoting use within the University and locality

The Habitat 1987 collection mainly focuses on the flora of Plymouth and the surrounding areas.  Therefore, it is of importance to local wildlife organisations and university staff and students as an environmental and botanical reference.  By generating a digital database, access to information about this collection would be improved and this could potentially increase the interest in the herbarium, further adding to the value to the space and improving the reputation of the University.  Improving and strengthening the ties between the City Museum and the University of Plymouth would further add value to the herbarium, especially if it was used for events such as Science Week or on open days, such as those held in Edinburgh. RBGE frequently invites the general public into their herbarium for talks and tours.

Promoting use to outside bodies

As the older collection is primarily made up of material from Cumberland and Scotland it would be appropriate to promote the use of the collection by other interested bodies.  Many institutions such as universities, museums and botanical gardens in these areas maybe interested in referring to the Muirhead collection. If images were taken of the specimens and placed on a database, institutions in these areas could refer to the collections with ease.  This would also reduce the need to loan out specimens as well, helping to reduce complications in the running of the herbarium.  It is also suggested that if a digitisation project goes ahead, then it should be advertised, not only in University magazines, but in more public magazines such as ‘The Garden’ (RHS).


As mentioned by Fothergill and Hallett (2001), the general condition of the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium is satisfactory, but some work does need to be done, the most crucial of which is the development of a database to reduce handling and to ensure that all the specimens are catalogued.  Maintenance and updating the windows in room 220A is also very important, as further deterioration of the seals could pose a threat to the collections in the future.  If the University of Plymouth cannot refurbish, conserve and utilize the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium then it is strongly suggested that the herbarium is moved to in an institution that can.  During the writing of their report, Fothergill and Hallett (2001) found that Carlisle Museum and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) were interested in having the collections made by Clara Winsome Muirhead back, especially if they were in danger of being lost.  During construction of this report, the current curator of RBGE was made aware of the agreement made by the previous curator, and he now recognises that the Muirhead Memorial Herbarium is an important collection which is historically attached to the herbarium at RBGE.  Further to this, Helen Fothergill at the Plymouth City Museum has shown interest in housing the Habitat 1987 collection with their local herbarium if the Muirhead was ever at risk.

*A herbarium is a collection of preserved plants stored, catalogued and arranged systematically for study by botanists, ecologists, historians, geographers and even artists. The specimens that that are stored in a herbarium are a working reference collection used in the identification of plants, the writing of Floras, monographs and red lists, the study of plant evolutionary relationships and other DNA researchA herbarium is like a library or vast catalogue and each plant specimen has its own unique information – where it was found, when it flowers and what it looks like.


Frank Kingdon Ward Collection Numbers

3311 – Cassiope sp.                                        8285 – C. wardii
5663a – C. fastigiata                                       6942 – C. pectinata
5663b - C. fastigiata                                        5663c - C. fastigiata

George Forrest Collection Numbers

19068 – C. macrantha                                    19069 – Cassiope sp.
30874 – C. macrantha                                    23560 – Cassiope. sp.
10443 – C. macrantha                                    19495 – C. macrantha
30874 – C. macrantha                                    28746 – C. pectinata
489 – C. pectinata                                           1675 – C. pectinata
30488 – C. pectinata


  1. Excellent Jess
    This summary is an important contribution to shrinking Botanical Science and a significant element of your previous important work. While you span the divide in new ways, Botany's loss is clearly Arts gain

    1. Glad you like the report Chris. I just hope that this herbarium can be saved... I can't tell you how happy I was to receive that phone call from a technician in Plymouth. I do worry about unsupervised students being in there though without proper training. We shall have to see... Sad news is that they think the Seale Hayne herbarium which I saved from a skip has in the end, in the last 5 years, ended up in another skip. Sad times.

  2. Hello Jess, I was fascinated to find your article as Winsome Muirhead was my aunt. When growing up we visited her often in Edinburgh and the botanical gardens. She was an amazing character. I wonder if you know what has happened with the herbarium? I have a contact at the Tullie House museum in Carlisle who may be interested.
    Would love to hear from you
    My email is suethomson2003@aol.com