I’d been really looking forward to going back to the Natural History Museum (NHM) following my earlier visit in May. I had a bril time in all departments, but had decided that I would particularly like to gain further experience of Botanical curation. Following receipt of my training plan from Ranee (Prakash: Curator of seed plants) I knew I had made the right choice. It seemed as though it was going to be an action-packed week and so it proved to be!
I arrived keen and eager on Monday morning and soon became re-acquainted with my supervisor for the week Jovita (Yesilyurt: Collections manager- Cryptogamic Herbarium), as we discussed the NHM’s botanical collection and what I wanted to get out of the week over a nice hot cup of tea.
Following this soothing introduction, I was shown around the general flowering plants collection, now found in the Darwin Centre 2 (DC2), by Collections manager (flowering plants) Jonathan Gregson. The general plants are arranged geographically using the APG III classification system. Jonathan also showed me some specimens of historic significance like those collected by Sir Joseph Banks on his Endeavour voyage with Captain Cook.
Another historic collection is that collected by Sir Hans Sloane, who established the British Museum. His collection actually formed the basis of the museum’s plant material, and is now safely locked away on floor seven of DC 2. He collected plants from Jamaica and also from the Chelsea Physic garden, London’s oldest botanic garden, which I have decided I will have to visit at some point!
Next Jovita showed me how to handle herbarium sheets properly to make sure they don’t get damaged. There is more to this than meets the eye; and damage can easily be done, particularly to the historic specimens mentioned above. Turning the sheets over like a book, holding the sheets in the middle only, shuffling the sheets together, and carrying without a board (that can result in the plant becoming unmounted) are definite no-nos!
Jovita, Edgley (Cesar: Assistant Curator) and I discussed potential dangers to the collection from things like neglect, humidity, wind, fire, temperature and, arguably most importantly, insect pests. Integrated Pest Management or IPM (see blog post) is a big deal at the NHM, and the DC2 is officially a pest-free zone. But this doesn’t happen accidentally; there are many procedures in place to limit the activity of potential pests on the herbarium sheets. These methods include having to freeze specimens before moving them from the Cryptogamic herbarium (old building) to DC2 were the general (flowering) plants are housed! Other methods include new steel cupboards (that aren’t actually as good in a fire as some old wooden ones surprisingly), windows being kept shut, and notices on the doors to all rooms highlighting the risk from various pests (e.g. the stores are high on insects but low on rodents; whilst the labs next to the staff room are low on insect risk (due to chemicals) but high on rodents).
The afternoon I spent with Edgley updating determinations on KE-EMu; which is the same collection management software that we use at Manchester. Whilst some of this was familiar, they use more modules at the NHM so it took a bit of time to get my head around it. Determinations are updated when a plant has been reclassified, so we were inputting this new data into plant records that had already been incorporated onto KE-Emu (and had the barcode to prove it!)
I had great fun on my first day at the NHM and couldn’t wait to start my training in getting plants ready for mounting tomorrow!