Filed under: Engaging audiences | Tags: botany, darwin, digital, herbarium, kew, kew gardens, livingstone
Sometimes, you just have to be there to see something. Well perhaps the role of tweets, Facebook and the rest is partly to replicate the serendipidity of coming across something really interesting.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know precisely what a herbarium actually did so my interest was piqued when I saw a sign offering tours. I tagged along on a Wednesday morning with two volunteer guides who had a profound knowledge of Kew and the work done in the Herbarium. As with so many things at Kew, if it didn’t actually start with the Hooker family (friends and contemporaries of Charles Darwin), it certainly came to life with them http://www.kew.org/heritage/people/hooker_w.html
A herbarium is much more than a place to store or catalogue plant specimens, I discovered, it actually acts as a definitive reference point so that botanists can say this plant is x and this specimen is new because it does not match anything else known. So as well as information on the plant, its location and behaviour, a reference copy of the plant itself (pressed onto acid-free paper and referenced like a library book) is kept.
In essence, herbariums in general and Kew’s world class one in particular, are the basic pre-requisite for the entire science of botany.
Our trip took us through the magnificent new Herbarium building and into the original chamber where we saw specimens collected by Darwin on his trips (and later catalogued by one of his descendants, who worked at Kew). We also saw a specimen collected by Dr Livingstone. As I have a real interest in Victorian explorers (a pretty rum bunch on the whole, Livingstone and Darwin excluded), I was aware that the collection of rare plants and fruits was always high on the agenda of explorers – at least since Columbus returned with spuds and tomatoes from his travels – so it was great to see some examples. I took some pics and you can see them on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#/photos.php?id=7574226993
Piles of folders, stuffed with plants, often sandwiched between sheets of local newspapers from far-off lands, were stacked and getting ready for processing. These incredibly precious spoils of botanical expeditions will be analysed, checked for alien life forms, digitised and lovingly arranged as specimens as they pass through the hands of the experts who work in Kew.
We also dropped in on the digitisation team with their own custom-made scanners (these ‘upside down scanners’ allow samples to be scanned without getting crushed). Apparently they have digitised the known specimens of Africa and are well on their way to completing Latin America’s. Magically (if you are a scientist at least) you can get a PDF of these specimens here for free http://apps.kew.org/herbcat/navigator.do If you get a chance to visit Kew on a Wednesday in August or September, I can highly recommend you snag yourself a place. Booking essential: http://www.kew.org/education/toursthemed.html
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