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6 Dec 2021

Historic finds uncovered in Australian-first project

The first mass-imaging project of herbarium specimens in Australia and the southern hemisphere is nearing completion – and it’s bought with it some amazing discoveries.

Australian Institute of Botanical Science staff and volunteers have spent nearly three years carefully going through more than one million precious plant specimens contained in tens of thousands of boxes in the current herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, some of which haven’t been looked at for decades.
Among them were two specimens that pre-date the herbarium’s known collection of 824 specimens Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander collected in Australia in 1770 on Captain Cook’s first Pacific voyage.

While the herbarium’s treasured Banks and Solander collection is tucked away under lock and key, these two specimens were surprisingly discovered among the rest of the collection, made up of about 70,000 boxes.

One of them is the snowberry or Gaultheria antipoda, collected by the pair in 1769 in New Zealand. The other is Parietaria debilis, a herb native to Australia and New Zealand that Banks and Solander collected the same year from Tolaga, Opuragi and Motuaro.

Collections Manager Hannah McPherson said there were different theories as to how these specimens were overlooked.

“We’ve never been able to look at every specimen in the collection in one go – we have audited the Banks and Solander collection regularly – but never before this project did we recognise these two New Zealand specimens should be united with it,” she said.

“It’s like doing a spring clean but with priceless historic specimens. No institution that holds collections knows exactly what they have, but at the end of the digitisation project we will have recorded 99 per cent of our collection.”

The historical specimens will now be added to the ‘special collections vault’ in the herbarium’s new state-of the-art building at the Australian Botanic Garden in Mount Annan, which will cement the Institute as one of the country’s premier botanical research organisations.
Dr Trevor Wilson inspects a specimen in the spirit room in the current herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
Digitisation Manager Andre Badiou said the specimens were still in remarkable condition considering their age and journey to England and back.

Skilled in collecting, preserving, and describing plants, Banks and Solander accompanied Captain Cook on the Endeavour and had eight assistants, including three artists. 

“They would have kept thousands of specimens in a leaky ship and kept changing the paper they were in to keep them dry and you can imagine what the weather was like,” Mr Badiou said.

“What they were doing was really quite amazing. They collected thousands and thousands of specimens around the world before they got lodged in herbariums.”
Digitisation staff Andre Badiou and Melissa Wong in the herbarium, being relocation to the Australian Botanic Garden Mount Annan.

Smile for the camera: A million plants line up to get their photo taken

As part of the relocation, the herbarium underwent the mammoth task of digitising its collection. One of the world’s most renowned digitisation companies, Picturae, has been meticulously taking high-definition images of each specimen as part of a global movement to prepare plant data for the digital age.
“We’ve been pulling out these amazing things because there are 70,000 boxes and no one has ever gone through them all at once, so we’ve found specimens we didn’t even know we had,” Mr Badiou said.
“The collection holds more than one million individual specimens, from tiny orchids stored in alcohol to palm leaves so big that they hang in a cupboard.”
Dr McPherson said with the herbarium currently closed to loans because of the move, the images were already proving a valuable resource.
“We’re getting lots of inquiries from researchers around the world to use the images that have already been uploaded, and they’re of such high quality that they don’t always need the actual specimens,” she said.
The images are being made available through the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Open Data Sponsorship Program and will all end up on the Atlas of Living Australia for the public to freely use.
Chief Executive of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust and the Australian Institute of Botanical Science, Denise Ora, said the historic digitisation project was taking the herbarium into the digital age, allowing more people around the world to access information and data to advance research, education and conservation.
“We’re taking a snapshot of these specimens that will last forever in a truly unique project of international significance that raises the profile of the Australian Institute of Botanical Science and puts us on the world stage,” Ms Ora said.
“This historic, Australian-first digitisation project will ensure generations to come can delve into its collections of specimens collected from all over the world, from 250 years ago to today.
“This has been an incredible project, pulled off by teams across four continents, and a fantastic achievement for Australian science, conservation and research.”
Many people wouldn’t realise that the information on the label that goes with the specimen can be just as important as the specimen itself. Alembo is a specialised transcription company based in Suriname which has been working with the team to transcribe labels that have never been databased before, creating new digital records for a significant proportion of the collection.

With the plant specimen imaging nearing completion, the team now has its sights set on the herbarium’s prized botanical illustration collection.
This comprises a mix of modern and historic illustrations, including the world’s largest collection of Margaret Flockton originals.
Margaret Flockton was a giant in the field of Australian botanical illustration and produced an impressive body of work from 1901 to 1927 when the director of the herbarium was J.H. Maiden.

Find out more

Download the Australian Institute of Botanical Science prospectus for a detailed look at the vital science work we undertake.

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