CAREFULLY PRESERVED: Botanist Frank Hellwig holds a folder of dried plants in front of a cupboard of similar items at the herbarium in the University of Jena, Germany.
By Andreas Hummel
Botany professor Frank Hellwig strode down a narrow corridor lined with cabinets reaching to the ceiling in the University of Jena’s main building. He squeezed past a cart piled with books and folders and opened a door to rooms filled with folders, bulging with preserved plant specimens amassed over centuries.
Founded in Weimar in 1896, the Haussknecht Herbarium is home to about 3.5 million specimens, all carefully dried, pressed and identified. It’s the largest herbarium in Germany after the Botanical Museum in Berlin and, according to Hellwig, one of the 10 largest in the world.
It’s not open to the public, and even most Germans have never heard of it.
The professor pulled one of the thick folders out of a cabinet, untied the ribbon and gently pushed one page after another to the side.
“You mustn’t flip through the folder,” Hellwig said. “If you did, you’d damage the plants,” which are fragile and lie loosely between the sheets of paper.
For centuries, German researchers have been among the world’s best at painstakingly creating collections — typically hidden away behind university walls and largely unknown to the public.
They also include stuffed animals, bugs in alcohol, archaeological artefacts, quaint old devices, maps, coins, plaster casts, anatomical specimens and true-to-life wax reliefs of diseased body parts.
The 19th-century idea of scientific research was to collect. The 21st-century idea is to do field work and record in situ. But the scientific community is increasingly recognising value in these old treasure troves again too. Many of them are in a precarious state.
Sufficient funds and personnel are often lacking to properly maintain and work on them. The very existence of some collections is in danger.
“We’re far from having optimal conditions,” remarked Cornelia Weber, head of the Berlin-based Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections in Germany. “At many universities there aren’t even regulations on collections’ minimum standards.”
Such regulations should include, she said, a precise assignment of responsibilities as well as clarity on who is allowed access to the collections, where they are to be kept and how they are to be funded. Nevertheless, she said, awareness of these treasures is growing.
“For a long time the collections were like Cinderella, kept out of view. Now they’re being rediscovered.”
A report issued in 2011 by the German Council of Science and Humanities played a major role in this. Describing university collections as “essential infrastructure for research,” it noted that many were in critical condition.
A survey revealed that nearly 300 of over 1,000 known collections in Germany had either been liquidated or lost.
Researchers writing in the London-based scientific journal Nature that year lamented at what they said was the “distressingly” high number of historic scientific collections in Europe that “are being lost or left to rot in universities.”
The Haussknecht Herbarium in Jena is testimony to the fact that such collections can be valuable to researchers far beyond the respective universities. Beside the entrance is a table where plant specimens are readied for shipment to botanists worldwide.
On one recent day, a staff member was carefully attaching dried plants to paper with adhesive tape.
“We ship as many as 10,000 specimens a year,” Hellwig said.
Some specimens, called types, serve as the reference point when a plant species is first named and are therefore particularly important to botanists in determining the correct application of a name.
“For us, they’re exemplars — like the international prototype metre — but for plants,” he said, noting that the Haussknecht Herbarium had an especially large number of type specimens: about 60,000.
“We were lucky that little was lost during World War II.”
For the past seven years, the herbarium staff have been meticulously identifying specimen types, digitally photo-scanning them and making scans available online. That saves the cost of mailing specimens round the globe, and reduces the handling and shaking that damages them.
This is one way the collection is becoming newly useful to 21st century botanists. Hellwig said the project was half finished and had produced a gigantic amount of data as each computer file comprised some 200 megabytes.
He’s now looking for a new sponsor following the expiration of funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation of the United States.
Another problem is the herbarium’s tight quarters.
“We need approximately 2,000 square metres of storage space but have only around 600 at the moment,” said Hellwig, who also bemoaned having to store the thick, specimen-filled folders upright in the cabinets.
“That’s outdated — a specimen can easily slide out. We need loose, horizontal storage and therefore a lot more space.”
What’s more, the herbarium has to periodically battle plant-munching pests. In 2010, much of the collection was removed for two months and freeze-dried while the rooms were fumigated amid a tobacco beetle infestation.
Having recognised the problems facing many of the country’s scientific university collections, Germany’s Ministry of Science has set up an assistance programme totalling 7.5 million euros (about 8.5 million US dollars).
“The politicians have now taken up this issue, but we’ve got to go much further,” said collections coordinator Weber. “We’ve got to better utilise the collections’ potential.” -DPA