Curation Upgrades

The Botany Department has recently upgraded its Type and Special Collections facility and its Herbarium Cabinets. The department is currently undertaking a project, Virtual Types, to present the type collection online.

Virtual Types

A project to Digitize and Image the Types and Authentic specimens at the Herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences (PH).

The goal of this project is to image and database the types and authentic specimens housed in the herbarium of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia (PH), and to make these data freely available over the Internet. The project is supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), with matching contributions from the Academy through the Hattersley Family Collections Care and Up-Grade Fund. The historical nature of the collection at PH provides justification for undertaking this work over and above the now well-established benefits that stem from on-line provision of such resources for systematic research. The Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP), founded in 1812, is the oldest continuously operating natural history museum in the Americas and PH is the definitive collection of specimens for early North American botany (1780-1900). In large part because of the historical depth and breadth of our holdings, the types collection is large (ca. 37,000 specimens) and diverse. Further, because early collectors often did not collect multiple sheets, many of these specimens are not duplicated by holdings in other herbaria.

On-line availability of images and data from the type collection at PH will make readily available a unique resource for systematic research. Specimens that pre-date the 1950s are properly characterized as types and authentic material (i.e., one of perhaps several specimens studied by the author). Modern nomenclatural and revisionary work brings these names and specimens into conformity with modern standards for typification. This painstaking process begins with location of authentic specimens which can be very difficult using traditional bibliographic methods.

On-line availability of specimen data and images facilitates the work of researchers who lack access to a large research herbarium and to research-quality libraries. These challenges are especially keenly felt in developing countries and can impede the best efforts of scientists. Because the images and digital data will satisfy many requests for information about our specimens, we anticipate reduced wear and tear owing to less handling and fewer physical loans of the specimens themselves. This will also result in reduced risk of loss and damage associated with loaning of specimens.

The web-served data will be used extensively by scientists, and other institutions can freely use and contribute to the open-source tools created. We anticipate that the historical nature of our collection will result in use by many historians as well.

Types and Special Collections Room

The botany department recently upgraded the condition of storage for the special historical and type collections which number more than 40,000 sheets. The upgrade included an entirely refurbished room complete with climate control and a state of the art fire suppression unit (FM200). All new cabinets were acquired for the types and special collections. Work is beginning on an effort to database these specimens and replace non-archival quality folders as necessary. This upgrade was largely supported by the Save America's Treasures grant to conserve the Lewis and Clark specimens.

Herbarium Cabinets

As of the end of 2002, we have made a complete transformation at PH. During the Fall, the old wooden, open-fronted compactorized shelving system (shown right) was demolished and replaced by a new system with far superior storage conditions for our herbarium specimens.

The project was implemented in stages, beginning with the delivery of 45 double-wide herbarium cabinets from Viking. We accommodated these in a number of locations around the research wing of the Academy and then off-loaded about 1/4 of the herbarium into these new cases.

That now empty portion of the old cabinet system was then demolished down to the rails, new carriages arrived and were installed and, finally, the next shipment of herbarium cases arrived and the cases went directly onto the new carriages. Herbarium staff then off-loaded the next 1/4 of the herbarium into these new cabinets and the demolition / construction process was repeated. The final step involved putting the first-delivered cases onto new carriages in the last section of the herbarium to be refurbished.

Working in this leap-frog way, we were able to avoid having to box and move the entire collection off-site. We also retained access to nearly the complete collection through almost the entire process.

There were of course a few additional complications. For example, we have combined the "local" and "general" herbaria so that herbarium users need look in only one place for all sheets of a given species. We also reordered the herbarium alphabetically below the genus level. Doing both of these reorganizational tasks as we went along required a great deal of tracking, counting of cubby holes, etc. Also, we began the project with some plants in herbarium cases on the floor below the general herbarium: these had been frozen to kill bugs that damage herbarium specimens. Again, plants had to be intercalated as appropriate back into the general collection as it was moved. Finally, for reasons that elude us at this point, we did most of this alphabetically backwards - that is, from z to a. We are happy to report that we were largely up to the challenge!

In addition to the very obvious ways in which the new system is infinitely superior to the old, installation of cabinets with doors permitted a design that includes rows that face out into the general space of the herbarium. These are accessible 24/7, regardless of what other rows are being used. This has resulted in a nearly two-fold increase in the number of rows of the herbarium that can be in use simultaneously. A second advantage was serendipitous: the light color of the cases and end panels, plus the fact that one can "park" the rows in any configuration (all cases have doors such that there is no need to press the rows tightly together to "seal"), has made the herbarium a much brighter and cheerier place to work.

The lion's share of the credit goes to former Collection Manager James Macklin and Curatorial Assistant Sasha Eisenman but, to a person, all botany staff put their hearts and souls into the project. We also owe thanks to a number of our colleagues at the Academy who cheerfully dropped what they were doing at a moment's notice when we called for help. Mark Sabaj, Mike Littmann and John Lundberg in Ichthyology deserve special mention. Thanks also go to the contractor, O'Brien Business Systems and to Kevin O'Brien in particular. The work went on schedule, as planned, with far greater attention to detail than required, and almost always in very good cheer. O'Brien Business Systems works with Montel who built the carriages and apparatus for moving them. The herbarium cabinets (including those specially designed to accommodate our large collection of Pandanaceae seeds, fruits and infructescences ) were supplied by Viking. Altogether, the system both works beautifully and IS beautiful.

We are not resting on our laurels! Work continues on the reorganizational steps described above. We also have a great deal of work to do on our backlog of unaccessioned specimens. Most importantly, we will continue to fight the legacy of bug infestation that the old system has left us. We have already frozen about 1/3 of the collection, including of course the specimens of taxa favored by the bugs. We will continue this process until we have frozen the entire collection. Fortunately, we have a much larger walk-in freezer at the Academy than we had six months ago and we have safe homes for specimens once they have been frozen (i.e., our new herbarium cases).

Rehousing of the general herbarium at PH was made possible by grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museums Commission, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, with matching funds coming from the Academy's "Collections Care and Up-Grade Fund."