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25 Jun 2018

National Herbarium of NSW: This is Your Life!

Some of you may remember the TV show, or perhaps I am just showing my age.  This year, the botanical collection in the National Herbarium of New South Wales celebrates its 165 Birthday. Many of the specimens in the collection are significantly older, a formal herbarium was not established in the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney until 1853 when Charles Moore started a small herbarium for public reference, and a botanical museum.

While many collectors, such as Charles Fraser, Allan Cunningham, Major Thomas Mitchell and Ludwig Leichhardt were actively collecting prior to this (and we have some of their specimens now in our collections), the collection of the National Herbarium of NSW was slow to expand. It wasn’t until Joseph Maiden became Director in 1896 that the number of specimens grew significantly.

By 1900, the herbarium contained 15,000 named species – almost all the species then known in NSW. Maiden actively networked with national and international herbaria to develop a substantial exchange program, receiving and sending duplicate specimens, something the National Herbarium of NSW still does to this day.

The first dedicated herbarium building was opened in 1901, and illustrator Margaret Flockton began her long and productive career illustrating the many specimens that were fast populating the many white cardboard boxes on the shelves.

The old Herbarium in Maiden Theatre before it moved to the Brown Building.

War slows down specimen collection

Wars have had a significant impact on herbarium and museum collections the world over, and the National Herbarium of NSW was no exception.  Limited manpower, supplies and funding slowed the expansion of the herbarium during World War I, through the Great Depression, and to the end of World War II.

Even today we can find specimens housed in newspaper in the stacks, awaiting mounting on new archival paper. During World War II, the location of the herbarium near the naval dockyards at Garden Island was considered a risk, and a representative set of specimens along with important specimens and rare books were temporarily sent for safe keeping at the Glen Innes Experimental Farm (now the Glen Innes Agricultural Research and Advisory Station).

Rapid growth of the collection begins

Space is always an issue for herbarium collections. Discussions about the expansion of the original herbarium building began in the 1930’s. One hundred years after inception, the herbarium contained over 700,000 specimens, and the original building was rapidly running out of space, and the Botanical Museum was boxed to create more room. 

By 1970, the herbarium had grown to over a million specimens, and the staff and collections were split across five different buildings. Finally, in 1982 funding became available for the construction of the current building, and a fourth floor was added in the mid-1990’s. Today, we look towards yet again to expanding into a new building.

The National Herbarium of NSW has throughout its history embraced and accessioned orphaned collections as institutions become no longer able to house them. Some part of the collection were even purchased in the past, such as Reverend Francis Wilson’s herbarium of over 20,000 lichen specimens in 1899, a practice which is no longer practical or feasible. 

Collections from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (now the Powerhouse Museum), Hawkesbury Agricultural College, the University of New South Wales moss collection, the NSW Forestry wood collection, and more recently collections from the John Macarthur Agricultural Institute have become incorporated into the National Herbarium of NSW.

1914 map of botanic garden sydney
The herbarium building was on the Gardens map in 1914.

How the collection continues to grow

Enthusiastic collectors also leave their personal collections to the National Herbarium of NSW, providing many valuable specimens that document the flora of NSW and elsewhere, and increasing the resource available for scientific research. The Herbarium has also transferred parts of the collection as the scope of research has changed, such as the fungal collections which are now part of the New South Wales Plant Pathology & Mycology Herbarium.

Specimens have been contributed from collectors from diverse backgrounds, not just scientists and explorers, and today we receive many collections through the Botanical Information Service, the herbarium identification counter. Many people have graced the halls of the National Herbarium of NSW, and if only the walls could talk they would tell a great many amusing and fascinating tales about science, botany and the history of the Botanic Gardens.

Find out where the next phase of growth will take the herbarium on our blog here.  

Category: Science
Tags: herbarium
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