Natural history collections and connecting people with the reality of environmental change

The acquisitive nature of people has resulted in varied repositories of cultural and scientific materials around the world. Of particular interest to humans throughout our evolution and during the development and diversification of our societies has been our fascination with objects from the natural world. In western cultures, this study of nature is most regularly traced back to the ancient Greeks and particularly Theophrastus. More recently, the science of natural history as it became to be known have flourished, to varying degrees, throughout much of the last four centuries in most European countries. This has resulted in a diversity of museums and societies specifically devoted to the study of the natural world. In particular, the nations within Great Britain and Ireland can easily claim to have been world-leaders in the study, collection and curation of objects from nature, especially during the Victorian era; this special penchant for collecting objects from the world around us has resulted in a great many national, regional and local museums and as well as a very large number of societies devoted to particular groups of organism – not many countries in the world can lay claim to having an amateur community running societies devoted to the study of earthworms or plant galls as well as the more typical groups such as birds, bats and wildflowers. One of the most important bodies devoted to the study of the natural world is without a doubt the Natural History Museum in London. This museum is of international importance as a scientific research institute, place of pilgrimage for tourists and as a repository for over 80 million collected specimens, manuscripts, books and artwork devoted to the documentation and understanding of the natural world. 

The apparently insatiable need of people to discover new lands, species or even experiences continues to this day. Scientists continue to discover new species or come to a greater understanding of those we already know of; humanity as a whole is constantly inventing new modes of communication and expression. To satisfy this drive to discover and define, we tend to seek novel environments or platforms on which to express ourselves, yet we tend to overlook what is already within our grasp. It would appear that the acquisitive urge is such a powerful force in our collective psyche that we often tend to be unable to revisit and reappraise what is already within our possession. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise to learn that within the vast collections of the Natural History Museum (and many other museums) there are many, many dark cupboards full of mysteries. One of the treasures of the Natural History Museum is the British and Irish Herbarium; this is a collection of over 620,000 dried and pressed wild plant specimens collected across Great Britain and Ireland during the last 300 years. The herbarium is a unique resource that documents the very significant changes that have occurred in the environment during this time and allows us an opportunity to make direct observations of past British and Irish plant-life without relying on proxies such as manuscripts or books. It is akin to a first-hand witness in a trial where there is no intermediary to ‘fudge’ reality.

Surprisingly, much of the British and Irish Herbarium remains to be curated; many of the objects are in the condition they were when the museum acquired them. The reasons for this are complex but a key factor is that during much of the twentieth century British and Irish botany was perceived to be a low priority. This scenario is not unusual; most institutes worldwide have collections that have become ‘backwaters’. More recently, the need to understand the impacts of environmental change (a broader concept than ‘climate change’ embracing all forms of human-induced change) on the living world has driven a reappraisal of the value of natural history collections at the Natural History Museum and worldwide. Collections are now regularly used to understand a wide range of issues including the impacts of human exploitation on plant populations such as American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), the spread of invasive non-native species or the effect of ocean acidification on corals. It was this need to review the potential of the British and Irish Herbarium that led me to look, once more, at a long overlooked collection of early twentieth century photographic plates.

The collection consists of approximately 1400 plates in 144 boxes and was, initially, a mystery to me. The photographer and former owner was not apparent. I have no expertise in the curation and conservation of photographic materials and I was reluctant to take action that would endanger the objects. However, my knowledge of botany enabled me to establish that the images consisted primarily of landscape and habitat views from various parts of Great Britain, especially the highlands of Scotland and parts of East Anglia. The collection also contained what we came to call ‘plant-portraits’, images of individual plants within their habitat as well as an eclectic range of other images including euthanized rats! Without the invaluable guidance of Bergit Arends, former Curator of Contemporary Art at the Natural History Museum, I would have remained ignorant about the identity of the photographer. Through her, I was able to seek the advice of Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, regarding suitable conservation of the material and, ultimately because of her, Chrystel and I met and were able to secure funding for the project from the Gulbenkian Foundation.

Collaborative projects involving scientist and artist are now commonplace. Both communities have rationales for why this form of relationship is of value. Bluntly, these partnerships are often about funding; increasingly, grant-awarding bodies preferentially support interdisciplinary programmes. This need to make links with apparently unrelated disciplines is often challenging and may be unsatisfactory. However, my initial meetings with Chrystel and Bergit proved to both personally pleasurable and professionally stimulating. In particular, Chrystel and I had some form of epiphany of understanding whilst looking at a set of images of a mature Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) embedded within a cohort of younger, less mature trees; I described to Chrystel how the wide-spreading branches of the larger tree indicated that in its earlier years it had been growing alone in a more open landscape and that the more narrow, upright growth of the younger trees demonstrated that they had all grown at the same time and were competing with each other for light and space. For both of us, this photograph very clearly encapsulated how photography could capture change in the landscape. A key component for why this project has been so successful has been the ability of scientist and artist to respect and understand (not always entirely) each other’s discipline and the partner’s objectives without feeling the need to ‘bend’ perspectives to suit our own particulars.

Without Chrystel’s diligent research the identity of the photographer may well have remained a mystery for many more years. On being told by Chrystel that they belonged to Sir Edward James Salisbury FRS I realised that we had a significant photography collection. Salisbury was a former director (1943-56) of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and a key figure in the development of ecology as a scientific discipline in the early twentieth century. He wrote notable popular science books such as The Living Garden (1936) and Flowers of the Wood (1946) as well as important ecological works such as Downs and Dunes: their plant life and its environment (1952) and Weeds and Aliens (1961). Closer inspection of the plates by Chrystel revealed that some were the originals of the illustrations in several of Salisbury’s most important works. After some discussion between Chrystel, Bergit and I, we all came to the conclusion that the collection was worthy of a multi-disciplinary project. A key benefit for me as a curator would be the cataloguing and conservation of the materials. The cataloguing, undertaken by Kath Castillo whose post was funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation, has enabled an understanding and overview of the collection to be obtained. Many of the images relate to Salisbury’s fascination with woodlands and were taken in the ancient woods of Hertfordshire, his home county as well as Devon, Blakeney Point, Norfolk and the Caledonian pine forests of Scotland. The majority of the photographs were taken during the 1920s and early 1930s, however some are as early as c.1907 and the last dates from c.1938, prior to WWII and Salisbury becoming director of Kew Gardens.

Conveying the impacts of environmental change on the living world (or ‘biodiversity’ in current parlance) to non-specialists is challenging. People find it hard to comprehend complex atmospheric processes when it comes to understanding climate change. This complexity is exacerbated in the living world; not only are biological processes highly complex, they are (compared to climatological processes relating to climate change) poorly documented and under-researched. To us biologists, this lack of knowledge is deeply concerning; the ‘passive green backdrop’ that us humans take for granted is the very stuff of life. Environmental change effects all vegetation types, cultivated, human-impacted lands and our rapidly diminishing wildernesses, and this will have an enormous impact on our own well-being. An accessible way of imparting the importance of environmental change is via photography. One of the most regular and successful means by which scientists demonstrate climate change is by the use of photographs of ice-sheets or glaciers: an ‘historic’ image denoting past conditions and recent photography that underlines the extent of the change. One of the sets of photographs taken by Salisbury and Chrystel, those of a sea loch at Arrochar, most clearly demonstrates this point. Salisbury’s photographs depict a foreground of salt-tolerant grazing marsh community dominated by a member of the sedge family, sea club-rush (Bolboschoenus maritimus). Some ninety years later in Chrystel’s photography this plant community has gone and is replaced by open water. As yet, we do not understand the processes by which this change has occurred (possible causes include sea level rise, a local shift in the underlying geology or civil engineering) but the important point is that change has taken place. Landscape and environment are not immutable.

The publication of this book and the associated exhibition are not necessarily the final, complete achievement of the project. The Salisbury archive at the Natural History Museum remains under-researched and the full potential of the collection for understanding environmental change remains to be realised. The Natural History Museum has many other photographic archives within its doors and these too are largely overlooked. Sadly, this is not a situation that is restricted to museums; during her researches Chrystel uncovered other ‘lost’ landscape photographic archives that were vulnerable to damage or even destruction. The United Kingdom has, in the past supported, often with public money, significant programmes of work taking pictures of our landscape; in many cases these collections are now inaccessible or possibly destroyed. Raising a plea to rescue historic landscape photography collections is not merely about the objects themselves, it is also about the very urgent need to understand the significant impacts of environmental change upon our own well-being and our relationship with the natural world. Between the late 1960s and early 1980s the elm (Ulmus species) populations of north west Europe were ravaged by Dutch elm disease, many millions of trees were lost and landscapes changed irrevocably. Several years ago I took a group of students to the Isles of Scilly, off the west cost of Cornwall; this is one of the very few places left where elm hedgerows and woodland can be seen. The students had no prior knowledge and experience of such a landscape (in many ways it is a living photograph) and the almost total absence of mature elm on the mainland is normality to them. Critically, ‘historic’ landscape photography is a means by which further loss and degradation within our environment may not go unnoticed and will hopefully be challenged.

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