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Nightshades: the paradoxical plants

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As I mentioned in an earlier post on the Seeking Nightshades in South America blog, I am in North Carolina at Duke University to give a talk about Alfred Russel Wallace (whose centenary we celebrate this year with lots of exciting events at the Museum in London) at the opening of an exhibit featuring the Duke herbarium.

 

Collections associated with universities are under threat worldwide - they take up lots of space that could be given over to labs or teaching space, and are often not considered necessary for the research projects that attract funding. Larger collections like the ones we hold at the Natural History Museum in London, or those at Kew Gardens or the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh sometimes have an easier time justifying themselves in the face of competing pressures, but not always!

 

The herbarium is thriving at Duke - with almost a million specimens, it is one of the largest plant collections associated with a university in the United States. There is new housing for the flowering plants, and the university administration values the herbarium as an integral part of the Department of Biology. This is a real success story.

 

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New compactors for the flowering plant specimens in the basement of the celebrated Duke Phytotron building; curator Layne Huiet bring me more Solanum specimens to identify!

 

I have spent the last couple of days working in the collection here, and it has come home to me how important these specimens are, and how important it is that they are held in institutions of higher learning and not just given away to big national museums.

 

The value of university collections

 

The Duke collection is a resource for a person like me - who comes in and wants to see as many solanums (or whatever else they might be working on!) as possible, but also a resource for the students, who can use the collection on-site to explore questions about the natural world.

 

These university collections are also unique in that they hold the materials that have been generated as part of PhD studies, or first year field courses - they are a part of the legacy of the institution in the same way as is a library. Unlike a library though, students can be part of building a museum or herbarium collection through their own contributions. The plants they collect on field trips or field courses become permanent records and can help other students.

 

The Duke collections are strong in plants of the region - making the herbarium locally relevant - and in plants from Costa Rica, where a long association with the Organization for Tropcial Studies brought projects and interest. So how did the botanists manage to make the herbarium seen as an asset and not a drain?

 

The power of positivity is at work here - the halls outside the herbarium are full of posters showing how herbarium specimens have been used to answer big questions in biology - climate change, invasive species, spread of disease - with big full page pdfs of articles in those high impact journals so beloved of those in charge. Kathleen Pryer, the director of the herbarium and fern systematist (and the person who, with her student and another colleague, rather famously named a fern genus for Lady Gaga!!), markets the collections tirelessly, with good effect.

 

Rather than giving ties or engraved glass bowls to visiting dignitaries Duke administrators now give away framed scans of beautiful herbarium specimens - and people love them! In fact, they are so in demand that the botanists are talking about going out and collecting some iconic local plants to make some new special prints - what a clever idea. Each scan comes with its biological relevance, driving home the message. The exhibit that opens today is entitled 'Botanical Treasures from Duke's Hidden Library' - a very good analogy.

 

 

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Framed scans of herbarium specimens from the Duke collections in a biology conference room

 

 

There is a lot of discussion worldwide about consolidation of collections and some universities at least are deciding they no longer wish to keep the herbaria and museums that formed part of their past academic offering. Perhaps they are seen as old-fashioned, a drain on resources or just not relevant anymore. This is a mistake I feel, as these collections are the starting place for many new questions - if they are made accessible and valued.

 

It is not necessarily easy, but university collections are special just because of where they are, in the thick of training the next generations not only of scientists, but of citizens.

 

Long may they last in their academic homes, inspiring students and being part of the fabric of universities everywhere......