The Herbarium: Hidden Science at the Museum

I stood in the main foyer of the museum staring out into a courtyard where some smart-looking people sat drinking coffees and having a chat.  I was waiting for Bonnie Isaac, the herbarium collection manager at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  I was anxious to start my internship in the Botany Section, though I really had no clue what to expect.  I had been to the museum many times as a child and more recently as an adult–the dinosaur and prehistoric mammal fossils feature heavily, but the flora in the dinosaur displays and other dioramas are also quite interesting.  There’s also an entire Hall of Botany with several displays featuring plants of various ecosystems, agriculturally important plants, and local toxic plants as well.  I know these public areas quite well, but I only had a vague idea of what was behind closed doors.

Bonnie arrived at the foyer and escorted me to the herbarium.  On our way, we meandered through the museum toward an infrequently visited hallway at the top of a stairwell.  Here there are several doors marked with signs, “Authorized personnel only.”  These rooms house some of the museum’s specimen collections each with their own specialty–plants, birds, mollusks and crustaceans, arthropods, mammals, fossils, and others.  This is where the museum does science.

We entered the herbarium and I was admittedly disenchanted at first impression.  Fluorescent lights faintly hummed above rows of metal cabinets and shelves.  A counter stretched along one wall and three cubicles were squeezed along an adjacent wall.  The metal cabinets and a few bookshelves dominated the room’s floorspace.  I received a brief tour of the workspaces and noticed a few specimens–one of these, an alcohol-drowned flower in a tall, thin glass jar.

The real life of the herbarium is hidden away in the metal cabinets in this room and another one floor below.  Hundreds of thousands of dried, pressed plant specimens collected from around the world are stored in the herbarium.  The collection dates back as early as the late 1800s and includes many type specimens.  Bonnie explained that because taxonomies change quite frequently, the collection needs reviewed and reorganized.  This task is accomplished over a great length of time and usually involves interns sorting through a family of plants.  I was excited to work directly specimens and familiarize myself with identification and professional botanical work.  It seemed daunting to organize hundreds of specimens according to updated taxonomy, but I was ready for the challenge.  Bonnie asked me to think about which family I might want to do–I wasn’t quite sure, Orchidaceae? Liliaceae? or perhaps something less familiar.

I stepped out of the herbarium feeling empowered–I was going to work in an herbarium and contribute to science.  As I made my way out of the museum, I glanced at a few of the displays and dioramas.  Knowing that there was science alive within the walls behind them provided a more meaningful perspective for me.  The museum is not a hall of dusty bones, but an active institution for research.

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