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 Muirhead Memorial Herbarium houses collections of vascular plants, bryophytes, fungi, algae and spirit stored specimens. The geographical range is mainly limited to parts of
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
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
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 Kilmarnock Academy 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
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
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
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 .
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. Portland
Seale Hayne Collection
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
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
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. University
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
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. Plymouth University
Promoting use within the University and locality
The Habitat 1987 collection mainly focuses on the flora of
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
Promoting use to outside bodies
As the older collection is primarily made up of material from
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
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 University of Plymouth
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 Carlisle Museum
has shown interest in housing the Habitat 1987 collection with their local
herbarium if the Muirhead was ever at risk. Plymouth
*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 research. A 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