Botanic Gardens Trust, Sydney, Australia


Another significant anniversary

We've had many celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the  Friends of the Botanic Gardens. A less well-known event in 1982, but one crucial to the Friends, was the completion of the new herbarium building - the Robert Brown Building.

Why crucial? Because previously there were no meeting rooms that could be used for Friends' activities and public events. It was not coincidental that the first general meeting to set up the Friends was in July 1982, with members' events starting in December 1982.

During February 1982 all of the herbarium collections, library and scientific staff moved out of the old National Herbarium of New South Wales (now called the R.H. Anderson Building) across the walkway to the Robert Brown Building - named after the outstanding Scottish botanist who came to Australia with Matthew Flinders. The Anderson Building was renovated over the following months to provide administrative and education office space plus our first shop cum visitor centre (what is now the Charles Moore Room) and a meeting hall, the J.H. Maiden Theatre.

The completed complex was opened on 6 November 1982 by the Premier, the Hon. Neville Wran, QC, MP. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the project to provide a modern, purpose-built herbarium for the nearly one million valuable dried plant specimens held at that time, with the corollary of providing space for other activities in the vacated old building.

The Brown Building's space seemed immense back then. The herbarium was spread over Levels 1-3 in 55,000 specially designed red plastic boxes, and the scientific staff were housed in appropriate spaces, rather than at desks squeezed between the shelving as in the old building. We also gained a laboratory, scanning electron microscope and a full drying room to dry our herbarium specimens efficiently. All this was the height of luxury for those of us moving from the old building. That year also saw the purchase of the first two personal computers - an event preceded by much discussion of whether we really needed two or would one be enough.

A fourth level was added to the Brown Building in the mid 1990s, providing work spaces for our growing number of staff, students and volunteers as well as shelving for 20,000 more red boxes. The new level was topped by a slightly sloping roof to avoid leakage problems such as arose from the supposedly leak-proof flat roof of the original building, exacerbated by years of those vandals of the bird world, the sulphur-crested cockatoos, chewing the roofing materials. Thirty years on, the 'new' roof does not leak but the number of herbarium specimens has grown to more than 1.2 million and we are again close to filling the available storage - discussion of possible solutions is beginning.

Looking back, 1982 was a very significant year. Not only did the Friends begin, but there was a major expansion in Trust activities, and scientific botanical research entered the modern age - all thanks to the addition of one building to the Sydney site: the Robert Brown Building.

Karen Wilson
Senior Research Scientist, National Herbarium of New South Wales 

Opening of the new building comples by the HOn. Neville Wran, QC, MP, Premier of New South Wales. Seated (l to r) Professor MG Pitman (Chairman of the Trust), Mrs J Wran, Dr LAS Johnson (Director), Mr DF Blaxell (Assistant Director (LIving Collections and Communication). Photo: Ron Israel.