My Week at the Natural History Museum – Day Three: Botany

Wednesday at the Natural History Museum was spent in the botany department.  This is the one department I had never visited during my time at the NHM and I was intrigued to see behind the scenes.

First we were shown around the old (and now empty) botany collection area (soon to be reclaimed gallery space).  It was beautiful, as they often are: dark brown wooden cabinets five metres high, stretching as far as you can see.  Most of the flowering plants are now kept in Darwin Centre 2 (DC2).  We headed there after a few moments in the botany library (one of the loveliest libraries at the NHM).  Each department is lucky enough to have specific libraries within them (some have quite a few collection area-specific ‘mini-libraries’).

Once we got to DC2 we were introduced to Jacek, a curatorial assistant in botany.  We got stuck in straight away.  Jacek explained how the herbarium sheets were stored and filed, and talked us through a few examples of labelling the sheets before we had a go.  The sheets are stored taxonomically and then by geographical location.  There is a numbering system: a number for every family, genus and location.  This gives each sheet a code which helps in putting them away.  It was quite tricky to get our heads around at first but once we did it all made sense and became quite intuitive.

After lunch we met Christopher who showed us how to create a loan on the museum’s database.  The example he used involved two specimens that had not been accessioned yet so we were able to see that process too.  Gina volunteered to use the computer and follow Christopher’s instructions.  It was lengthy and almost confusing but luckily Christopher was able to take us through it logically.  I then had a go when it was time to do the second specimen and because it was the very similar to the first I only needed to copy and paste the details Gina had already entered.  At Hereford and Ludlow I use two different database systems again but it’s useful to get as much background in as many as possible: we don’t know where we’ll end up working and what system they will have. I was also ableto help Christopher with an Excel problem he had.  By showing him a trick I’d learned when I worked in the NHM bookshop, I may have helped him save time in the future.

We joined Jacek at the end of the day to get introduced to another project he was working on.  The botany department are making a list of how many of each species they have represented in the collection.  This is a massive job and we watched/helped him list a few.  Some of the specimens were in the wrong folder (due to synonym confusion, for example) and we were able to help create new folders for those.

Here are the photos. Remember, you can view them all in high-quality on my Flickr page (click here).

Botany (to many people) is not as much of a ‘wow, what a cool collection’ as some of the others (such as zoology or entomology) but it is amazing how it is organised.  The nature of the herbarium collection lends itself to rigorous filing methods.  What was fantastic was the chance to not just view the collections but also spend most of the day immersed in the curation of it and actually make a small dent in their workload.  The staff were lovely and very helpful as well.  Next up: Entomology!

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