Managing Small Museum Collections: Charterhouse School Herbarium (GOD)

Many collections databases are arguably overkill for small museums. Very few loans, limited authority files, and lack of digitization resources are often factors that lead small museums to go with a simple solution like a spreadsheet. However, within large museums, smaller collections are often deliberately separated from larger ones for historical and curatorial reasons, thus opening up a whole range of options on how to document them and represent them on-line.

Such is the case for Charterhouse School Herbarium, which was assigned the standardized museum designation GOD because it was located in the Charterhouse School Museum in the town of Godalming, Surrey, England.  This unique accession number prefix allows it to be treated as a separate herbarium housed with larger collections. It was donated to the University and Jepson Herbaria (UC/JEPS) at the University of California, Berkeley in 2007, and old Carthusian Andrew Doran has been volunteering on this historical puzzle ever since. On arriving at the Berkeley Herbaria, it was frozen for the first time in many years and so began the slow task of curation and documentation. 

The GOD Herbarium is mostly in bound fascicles and folios (above), which would make inserting specimens into the large University Herbarium difficult. It would also mean breaking up the collection, which would remove any specimen to specimen and collector to collector relationships that could be used to decipher collectors, localities, provenance, etc. How the collection was assembled and by whom still remains uncertain and whilst digital analysis of the collection (when fully digitized) provides some assistance in solving this, having the collection housed together as the Charterhouse Herbarium (GOD) solves this problem.

GOD started its on-line existence in the herbaria@home project, a citizen science project run by the Botanical Society of the British Isles to catalogue UK plant collections from images using extensive authority files built up from participating institutions. Once CollectionSpace (CSpace) was installed at UC/JEPS, it was moved into CSpace and now herbaria@home is given periodic exports. 

Once rehoused in custom cabinets and inventoried, it was clear that a number of notable botanists were included in the collection and that the herbarium had been assembled at Charterhouse from a number of different sources, including private herbaria. The most notable of the latter are from the Reverend Tullie Cornthwaite, classics teacher in a noted private school in east London, James Edward Moxon, explorer/South African settler and correspondent of Sir William Jackson Hooker, and William Gardiner, bryologist, poet, umbrella maker, and prolific plant collector.

One of the few collectors from the school is Chemistry Beak (Charterhouse slang for master) Rev. Samuel Titmas whose specimens include collections from the grounds of the school, in addition to locations in England. Above, one of his collections from the school grounds, with his chemistry class, and drawn by then chemistry student and budding caricaturist, Max Beerbohm.

Almost every specimen in the collection tells a story and is not only a snapshot of historical biodiversity but also an insight into the history of botanical exploration and beyond. Some specimens in GOD are from early plant expeditions and are some of the first introductions to cultivation by famous London nurseries like Loddiges, the gardens of James Vere and William Curtis, and one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens, The Chelsea Physic Garden. 

Not all the collections are cultivated and many have yet to be identified. Using CSpace as an on-line platform, cryptic label data can be brought up to date, localities geo-referencedand specimens can be included in modern electronic floras. An example would be the above specimen of Metrosideros from Oahu collected in 1825 by James Macrae, botanist on HMS Blonde’s voyage to Hawaii to repatriate the bodies of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamāmalu, who died in London of the measles. Almost 200 years later, a high-resolution image of the specimen was sent on “electronic loan” to a leading authority on the Hawaiian flora to make an identification from the image of the specimen. 

Some of the bound folios require particular care and handling when being imaged. In 2017, the first of these to be digitized was a fern folio from William Gardiner’s Illustrations of British Botany, which, although unsophisticated (a large piece of cardboard for support), produced great results and reduced handling of the folios. CSpace was used to capture page numbers and titles from the folios in addition to The Internet Archive scanning one of Gardiner’s three editions of Twenty Lessons on British Mosses, owned by UC/JEPS.

images, can be searched in the UC/JEPS public portal and by entering the first part of their unique accession number followed by an asterisk such as GOD*

With GOD fully accessible physically, attention is now focused on virtual access, which has already led to several loans being made. Andrew Doran is available to work with anyone with specialist knowledge of a family or genus that would be prepared to annotate specimens. Andrew is also willing to work with researchers remotely to send e-loans. A new website is planned to offer a greater insight into the fascinating history that these specimens are part of and UC/JEPS continues to provide GOD data to the Global Biodiversity Research Facility, giving exposure to this historical collection for the first time.

Special thanks to Andrew Doran, Curator of Cultivated Plants, University & Jepson Herbaria, University of California, Berkeley for authoring this guest post. Interested in submitting a post? Contact collectionspace@lyrasis.org.