Monday, 15 August 2016

A Tale of Two Collections

Following on from my last post I thought it would be interesting to share my observations on object collection from two national institutions that I have had the opportunity of working with as an artist in residence. Although these two institutions have collected the same type of objects - botanical collections - their reasons for doing so are completely different and in this post I attempt to explain why this is so.

In 2004 I was an ANAT Synapse artist in residence at the Australian National Botanic Gardens, working closely with Dr Christine Cargill, Curator of the Cryptogam Herbarium. Christine's area of expertise lies within the group of plants known as bryophytes - mosses, liverworts and hornworts. My residency there culminated in an exhibition, 'artandthebryophyte', which looked at the history of botanical collection, from Aristotle right through to Cargill (!), and the ways in which these collections have been portrayed. The photo of the installation below shows the 'Cargill' part of botanical collecting showing enlarged images of SEMs of spores of four species of the hornwort, Phaeoceros.

'artandthebryophyte' exhibition, ANBG 2005-6

During this residency I had unlimited access to the Herbarium collection, and I was fascinated with the very old books containing specimens of preserved plants, known as exsiccate.

A few of the old exsiccate in the Cryptogam Herbarium, ANBG
Photo: J Ryder (ANBG Cryptogam Collection)

Exsiccate consisted of either whole, or parts of, real plant specimens that were dried and mounted onto a sheet, or placed into paper packets, and then mounted into a bound book.

A page within one of the exsiccate showing individual packets
containing dried specimens
Photo: J Ryder (ANBG Cryptogam Collection)

Inside one of the specimen packets..this is a Bryam (moss)
and you can see that the plant has been collected when the
moss has sporophytes, the long stem-like structures which
produce the spores for reproduction.
Photo: J Ryder (ANBG Cryptogam Collection)

These exsiccate were often compiled and exchanged between herbaria around the world so that botanists had access to, and could learn from, plants endemic to other countries. They were also sold to other collectors or gentry who compiled private herbaria and cabinets of curiosity to reflect their social standing and knowledge of the world. The plants that were collected were fully identified, including name of the collector, name of the plant, the location of collection etc.

This is the title page of one of the exsiccate held at the ANBG.
This collection is of Swedish Mosses from 1838.
Photo: J Ryder (ANBG Cryptogam Collection)

This paper was folded inside the above exsiccate and was intended to be the
cover for the collection.  You can see that there is the back page, spine and
front page for the collection.
Photo: J Ryder (ANBG Cryptogam Collection)

Exsiccate were not only important resources for botanists and taxonomists, but also were a "critical source of data used by systematic botanists, ecologists, geographers, entomologists, conservation biologists, students and the general public.  DNA preserved in dried specimens is useful in phylogenics. Herbaria are also essential for the study of ex-situ conservation, geographic distributions and the stabilizing of nomenclature (or name resolution) and often act as repositiories of viable seed"

Dr Christine  Cargill, Curator of the Cryptogam Herbarium,
ANBG. Today specimens are housed in packets, within boxes,
within even larger boxes to protect them in storage. This is  a
view of the Algae collection at the ANBG.
Photo: J Ryder

Thus, provenance was of extreme importance in the compilation of exsiccate, and interestingly they were also considered true publications, equal to literary publications that we are more familiar with.

Here is an example of an algae collection, Porphyra laciniata, collected in 1889 by
Frank Collins in the USA.  Interestingly there is also another label attached to
the right of this sample in German and another one above it explaining that it is the
wrong label! Provenance is everything in botanical collections and this is included
because it  originally accompanied the sample, even though it is the wrong one.
Photo: J Ryder (ANBG Cryptogam Collection)

Algae are extremely interesting specimens to mount, because they must be floated and 'wet-mounted' to enable them to open up to show their form.  If the specimens were dried first, then adhered onto paper, you would not see the diaphanous and convoluted structures you see under the water. Algae have the marvellous property of containing natural mucillage, or adhesive, so that no commercial adhesive is needed to mount them to the paper. This property has been well-exploited in cullinary and textiles for hundreds of years - think 'agar-agar' as a setting agent and sodium alginate (Manutex) used as a carrier for dyes in the textile printing industry.

This Ulva sp., collected in 1929 by Mary Fuller  has been
wet-mounted but has also used mounting tape to ensure
complete adhesion to the paper.
Photo: J Ryder (ANBG Cryptogam Collection)

However, sometimes other methods are also used when mounting algal specimens to ensure they are completely protected. Below is an image of  an Ulva sp. collected from the Cocos & Keeling Islands. The algae have been adhered to the paper by wet-mounting with muslin to keep the specimens in place.  Unfortunately, the muslin was not removed in the critical stage between drying completely and being damp and now it is impossible to remove the muslin for closer identification of the plants without breaking the fragile, dried specimens.

Ulva sp. from the Cocos& Keeling Islands.
ANBG Herbarium, Photo: J. Ryder

In contrast, as my last post described, I have been investigating two albums of seaweeds collected in the 19th century by two different collectors - one from Port Arthur in Tasmania, and the other from the Port Phillip Bay in Victoria.  Although these are both albums of dried botanical specimens, they both differ greatly from scientific exsiccate.

Front page of the Port Phillip Seaweed Collection.
NMA. Photo : George Serras

The first album, known as the Port Phillip Seaweed Collection, has many pages of dried algal specimens collected mostly from St Kilda and Queens Cliff (now Queenscliff) between the years of 1859 -1882. There are also  a few specimens collected in previous years from Ireland and from the Cape of Good Hope. The album itself is anonymous, so we have no idea of its provenance - who collected it, whether they were male or female, or why. It is likely that this book was purchased as a blank album to fill with a seaweed collection, as the front page is printed with a poem that reads:

"Call Us not Weeds - we are Flowers of the Sea
For Lovely, and bright, and gay tinted are we;
And quite independent of culture or showers -
Then call us not Weeds, we are Ocean's Gay Flowers"

 There have been other seaweed albums from around the world that also have this inscription in them. Many of the specimens are annotated with the place of collection and the year and/or month of collection. A proportion of the specimens are also named botanically, however whether these classifications are correct or not is still to be investigated. As you can see, mounting tape (white) but also sticky tape (yellowed and brittle) have been used to adhere the separate specimens to the exsiccate page. This clue seems to point to the fact that the specimens were made and kept, perhaps for some time, before collaging into the exsiccate.

Page of seaweed specimens, Port Phillip Seaweed Collection.
NMA. Photo : George Serras

 There are also several pages of cryptogams (plants which reproduce by spores, not seeds) towards the back of the album - ferns, mosses and lichens - which have also been classified. Was the collector knowledgeable on the taxonomy of cryptogams, or was he/she looking through botanical references produced overseas in order to name them? These are questions only a trained botanist may offer insight into.

Page of bryophyte specimens, Port Phillip Seaweed Collection.
NMA. Photo : George Serras

If this was the case many of the species may not be correct, and this is something I could further investigate with the help of Dr Cargill at the ANBG.  Another interesting observation is that the specimens are not collated in chronological order, so during my time here at the NMA I have systematically gone through the hi-res digital images of the album to collate this information to build up a picture of the geographical movements of the collector and the patterns of collection.Perhaps the owner of this album only collected specimens during seaside holidays, as sometimes there are almost decades between collections.

It is very clear to see the difference between this collection and that of the ANBG Herbarium exsiccate with relation to placement and mounting of specimens, and annotation of provenance. This album has been compiled with several different species all on one page, and often not from the same year or place.

Front cover of the Port Arthur Seaweed Collection.
NMA. Photo : George Serras

The second seaweed album, known as the Port Arthur Seaweed Collection, is equally fascinating because of it's lack of provenance, and the different mode of collection and collation.  This album is much smaller than the Port Phillip album, but has at least one point of reference to its collector and the date it was collected.  The front cover has a label affixed stating " Seaweeds and Mosses collected at Port Arthur, Van Dieman's Land 1836". The inside cover has a signature "C. Frere". The specimens themselves are arranged neatly and artistically, again with many per page, but in this album there is no attempt at specimen identification on either the seaweeds or the two pages of mosses. You can see that the algae have been wet-mounted from the reverse of the page where it has buckled with the damp from the specimens.

Page of seaweed specimens, Port Arthur Seaweed Collection.
NMA. Photo : George Serras

Like the previous album there are also several pages of  cryptogams that have been collected. The page is labelled "Mosses" but there are a few ferns mounted in there as well.

Page of bryophyte specimens, Port Arthur Seaweed Collection.
NMA. Photo : George Serras

Dr Kirsten Wehner in her article (hereon these two albums had an idea that 'C. Frere' could have been Catherine Arthur, the daughter of George Arthur,  Governor of Tasmania 1823-1836. Catherine later married Sir Henry Bartle Frere while they were both living in India, so this last week I have been tracking down examples of her handwriting and signatures so the team at PATE can compare them.
This would be a wonderful link, if the evidence supports it, because then the album would have a whole layer of history to add to it, linking it to other events both in Australia and overseas.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the two national institutions I have been artist-in-residence with - the ANBG and the NMA - have collected similar types of objects from similar periods of time.  However, that is where the similarities end.  As a scientific institution, the ANBG herbaria (there is one for the Cryptogams and another for vascular plants) need to have as much information about where the specimen was collected as possible, otherwise they are useless as a point of reference. Herbaria have sets of type specimens - i.e. those which define and act as name-bearers for a species. New specimens can be compared against the type specimen and results published in scientifically reviewed papers. There are about ten categories of type specimens but two examples are holotypes (a single specimen designated as a type of the species by the original author at the time the species name and description was published); and isotypes ( a duplicate specimen of the holotype). A scientific herbarium would never collect an object such as the Port Phillip or Port Arthur Seaweed Collections because there is simply not enough relevant data that accompanies them; the specimens are compiled together,  risking physical damage and/or contamination, and they are perhaps not displayed correctly as a tool for future research. However, although these two collections are not suitable for scientific institutions, they are incredibly important objects with regards to a Museum collection. 

The NMA collects objects on several different levels for its collections, the main one being the National Historical Collection, or NHC.  Objects within the NHC comprise a rich and diverse collection of Australian historical material which is held in trust for the nation. These objects contain important stories about our past, present and future as a nation and can vary widely in type and size. For example, the other day out at the Mitchell repository I saw the painted double decker Peace Bus, which was used by the People for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1970's. Measuring 9 metres long, 4.3m high and weighing a massive 10,400 kg this amazing bus was totally decorated with hand-painted flora and fauna of the Pacific. In contrast there are many smaller and more fragile objects, including the two seaweed albums I have been researching.  To date my research of these albums has been online by gaining access to the hi-res photographs that have already been taken of the albums under strict conditions.  Although not as tangible as the real objects themselves, these photographs show details that perhaps you would not see as clearly with the naked eye viewing the actual album.  Because both albums are so fragile, they must be viewed with a conservator or registrar at hand to turn pages and ensure the book has the correct supports to prop it up for viewing .  I have made an application to view these books in a few weeks time so will blog about that soon.


  1. Lovely, reminds me of a job I had at RBGS. I was scanning the exsiccate drawn by Margaret flockton.

  2. Thanks Spike, I checked out Margaret Flockton's drawings and they are very beautiful. It is also great to know there is an annual contemporary scientific botanical illustration prize in her honour, the Margaret Flockton Award, so that her legacy lives on. More details can be found at

  3. Wow, I've emailed you and am now just blown away to find this lovely blog and to find out what a fantastic AIT position you have! I'll make your blog a fave of mine. Many warm regards, Trisha McLatchie