Following on from my work on Ash trees, my next documentation project in the Herbarium has been some further work on the Leo Grindon collection of cultivated plants. As mentioned before (see post of 13 June 2013), this is the third largest collection in the Herbarium with approximately 10,000 herbarium sheets. Currently the information on the database is largely restricted to a record of the number of Herbarium sheets that are physically stored within each genus folder, where they are located in the Herbarium and accession information about the donation of the material.
Manchester Museum, along with many others, uses KE EMu, a collections management system for ‘natural history museums, cultural history museums, art museums, herbaria, botanic gardens, archives and special collections’, to quote KE software who developed it. EMu stands for Electronic Museum. (Other collections management systems are available.) At Manchester Museum, all objects are recorded on this database, whichever collection they belong to.
The ultimate goal is to have an EMu record for each herbarium sheet documenting as much information about it as possible including its taxonomic name, where the plant came from geographically, what are its attributes (leaf, stem etc), accession information and most importantly, an individual record number. Further information can be added about the validity of the identification, previous names used, what conservation had been undertaken, any multimedia records, loans, what events/exhibitions it has been used in and so on.
To immediately try to enter all this information for each herbarium sheet would mean that most of the collection would be uncatalogued (and therefore inaccessible) for a long time, given the manpower available to complete it, so the process of attaining this goal is broken down into more achievable stages. Much of this work is carried out by a team of dogged volunteers.
1. The first stage, which has been completed for the Leo Grindon collection, is to ensure each genus is recorded on the database as a bulk record – giving the number of sheets of plants and their location in the Herbarium as well as accession information about the donation of the material.
The unsorted folder for the genus Delphinium, containing 74 herbarium sheets of mixed species.
2. The next stage is to go through each genus folder in turn and list on paper record sheets the separate species contained within along with limited specific information about their physical location within the Herbarium, geographical locations the plants came from where known and accession information.
3. This information is then entered from the record sheets onto the database.
In the Leo Grindon collection, I am working on these last two stages simultaneously to gain a greater familiarity with the process and the foibles of the database. First I’m physically separating the sheets of a genus into species, putting these in separate card folders and ordering them alphabetically.
Sorting a genus into species folders can require a very long bench!
Then, working directly from the herbarium sheets (rather than the paper record the volunteers use) I create on the database a bulk record for each species which specifies the number of sheets of that species, and other information from the sheets.
This is where what is a fairly tedious job becomes interesting. The plants themselves are interesting, often beautiful or curiously weird, some retaining glorious colours; and the information on the sheets is often handwritten by the collector and can give fascinating insights into their personality, occasionally including letters between the collector and the Herbarium.
This sheet is signed Leo H Grindon bottom right in August 1836.
Handwritten note from the sheet above.
‘Delphinium consolida Branching Larkspur …
…Deriv. of name: from δελφιν a dolphin, because either the unexpanded flower buds or the nectaries are thought to resemble that fish….
…The expressed [?] juice of the petals, with the addition of a little alum, makes a good blue ink…
…The seeds are acrid and poisonous’
I hope he didn’t find out the seeds were acrid by doing a taste test!
The information on the sheets is also very variable – sometimes just the genus is given, others are extremely well-documented with the name of the garden a plant came from, the owner of the garden, the date, the type of soil and so on. Many have the most meticulously executed paintings and illustrations attached as well as article cuttings and texts. The illustrations bring to life the faded colours of the dried plants. Nowadays photographs can be provided, but the drawings show detail a camera can’t always capture in the field.
Some of the Delphinium species particularly have kept their colour. Two of these sheets have paintings attached. There is quite a variation in the information provided.
When this process has been completed, the species folders can then be revisited to review the taxonomy and further refine the information provided.
The collection is filed according to a classification by Messrs Bentham and Hooker and so does not start at A, but instead box 1.1 is Clematis in the Ranunculaceae family, which is where I started. As someone had already worked through parts of that cupboard in a patchy way progess was fairly quick at first, but it soon slowed dramatically when I reached virgin territory. Constant vigilance for pest damage meant the odd break to put sheets in the freezer. This project really is a good way of learning the ins and outs of the database, the nitty gritty of adding a new taxon, location or locality; and the process has sparked useful discussion with Curator Rachel Webster about effective use of resources and available manpower; taxonomy, and the effect of updating a taxon has on its searchability.
My aim was to complete the Delphinium folder by the end of last week but I hit a purple patch (appropriately) and completed it on Wednesday, however there is still plenty to go at…
- 74 sheets into 32 folders will go – Delphinium folders labelled with species and EMu number.