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9 Jan 2019

Our plant specimens are going digital

The largest herbarium imaging project in the southern hemisphere will soon take place at the Garden with over 1.4 million of our precious plant specimens becoming high-definition digital images. 

First - what is a herbarium?

Botanists have been taking samples of plants from all over the world for centuries and their inquisitive nature and exceptional record keeping has created an invaluable source of data we rely on every day.

Our National Herbarium of NSW was created in 1853 and is home to over 1.4 million plant specimens which are at the heart of all our scientific research at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney. 

Each of the 1.4 million specimens offers historians, scientists and conservationists a window into the past and paints a picture of the vegetation and climate from when it was collected. The precious collection also includes 824 of the specimens Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander collected, such as Banksia integrifolia. 

Over 1.4 million specimens such as this Martensia australis algae collected in 1982 are kept in 75,000 red boxes at the National Herbarium of NSW. 
Banksia integrefolia collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in 1770. 
Inside the National Herbarium of NSW in 1820. 
Inside the National Herbarium of NSW today. 

Why are the specimens going digital? 

The digitisation project is part of moving the collection to a new Herbarium which will be integrated into a new Centre of Innovation and Plant Sciences at the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan. 

Going digital will help address a range of environmental management and conservation issues and will create many more opportunities to collaborate and share knowledge with scientists around the world. 

Dr Shelley James is the Collections Manager at the Herbarium and is leading the high-tech makeover for the herbarium specimens. If you want to learn more, Dr James recently co-edited a special issue of Applications in Plant Sciences about the global movement to prepare plant data for the digital age. 

How are the specimens going digital? 

Converting over 1.4 million specimens with handwritten labels into a standardized format that you can access online is challenging. This is why one of the world’s most renowned digitisation companies, Picturae, is partnering with us and a local NSW business to undertake the massive project. 

Picturae's recent digitisation collaborations include Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, as well as the Natural History Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in London. 

The process will take up to two years to complete and is the largest herbarium imaging project in the southern hemisphere, to date. 

Check out the awesome behind-the-scenes digitisation process 

In the meantime, learn more about the herbarium and the discoveries made by our botanists in our podcast

Hit play below and if you like the show, subscribe on your Apple or Android device to receive new episodes of our Branch Out podcast. 

Category: Science
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