28 April 2013

Getting behind the scenes at Kew Herbarium

Kew Herbarium is one of those bits of Kew Gardens where real work gets done and the general public are not normally allowed to see.

It sits just outside of the main gates on Kew Green in Hunter House, which was used as a residence by the Duke of Cumberland until he became King of Hanover in 1837.

The building has grown since then and now holds approaching 2 million samples of plants and fungi.

It was opened for a day to Members of Kew Gardens and i duly booked my slot, not so much to see the collection as to see the house.

There is a lot of work involved in collecting, recording, classifying and storing all the specimens and that is what we were shown over the course of an hour and a half. Kew Gardens thought that the tours would take forty minutes but they made insufficient allowance for our curiosity.

The origins of the collection include contributes from several amateur collectors in the late 1800s but now collecting is more systematic and Kew Gardens seeks samples from specific regions, such as those seen to be under threat from climate change.

The methods are still fairly Victorian though and include dried pressed samples and notebooks that describe the situation in which the samples were found.

They are then flat-packed in standard size packs, used well before containerisation was invented. Larger specimens are carefully folded to fit. On arrival at Kew they are frozen to reduce the risk of any infection being brought in. Then they are brought to the Herbarium to be worked on.

The centrepiece of the building is this magnificent hall packed on all three levels with cupboards of samples all carefully described, catalogued and indexed.

The processing is all very manual. Bar codes are used but digital photography is not as the too-clever software in the cameras changes the colours.

Kew prefers to employ artists to hand-draw samples when they are wanted for publication.

We met one of these artists and she explained some of what she had to do to produce accurate scale drawings of plants so big they have been folded several items or so small that a microscope is needed to see them properly.

Further down the production line we met two ladies who did the last stage of preparing the finished sample. This meant taking the sample and formal description and gluing these on to a sheet of acid free rice paper. The glue was special too and the main skill was in ensuring that all parts of the sample were firmly glued to the sheet and that none of the dried glue could be seen. Not easy.

We met other people involved in the process in a series of enthralling conversations.

Yet, enthralling though the conversations undoubtedly were, my attention was repeatedly drawn to the room around me with its well organised clutter and prison-like structure. We even got a go on one of the spiral staircases.

The people working in the Herbarium clearly loved their work and this came though in what they said, the enthusiasm with which they said it and their willingness to say it to strangers on a Sunday afternoon.

And that leads me to my main conclusion from the afternoon, only the Public Sector can deliver something as wonderful and necessary as the collection at Kew Herbarium. We must cherish and respect places like this, and Kew Gardens itself, to prevent them falling in to the hands of the zealous privateers in the government.

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