Cambridge University Herbarium goes national

image: Specimen of Sicyos villosus (a member of the cucumber and squash family) collected by Charles Darwin in 1835 from the Galapagos Islands, but which has never been found since.
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Credit: University of Cambridge Herbarium

This award recognizes the Herbarium’s natural history collections as being of great historical and scientific importance to the country.

Established in 1761, it holds around 1.1 million plant specimens from around the world, making it one of the largest collections of pressed and dried plant specimens in the UK. An estimated 50,000 of these are “type” specimens – the specimens selected as the original reference to define a plant species.

The collection includes nearly 1,000 specimens collected by Charles Darwin during the voyage of HMS Beagle – perhaps the most famous scientific expedition in history. Darwin’s specimens, along with others in the collection, including those of Darwin’s mentor, John Stevens Henslow, played a key role in the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Other specimens were collected by three centuries of influential naturalists, including Alfred Russel Wallace, Joseph Banks and Hans Sloane. Some were dismissed from famous expeditions, including the HMS Challenger Expedition (1872-6) and the Ross Antarctic Expedition of HMS Erebus and Terror (1839-43).

Dr Lauren Gardiner, Curator of the University of Cambridge Herbarium, said: “The Cambridge University Herbarium is a unique – and vital – resource for many areas of scientific and historical research, from current conservation science to the history and development of scientific ideas about the natural world. .”

She added: “We are extremely pleased that the Herbarium has achieved Designated Status and that this important biodiversity archive is now officially recognised, alongside the other extraordinary collections held by the University of Cambridge.”

The Arts Council England designation system recognizes pre-eminent collections of national significance held in non-national museums, libraries and archives in England, based on their quality and significance. The University of Cambridge Herbarium Award demonstrates that its holdings are among the finest and most important in the country, and recognizes that the University of Cambridge is committed to ensuring the continued safekeeping and use of this remarkable collection for the benefit of generations to come.

Dr Nick Merriman, Chairman of the Nominations Committee, said: “The Nominations system plays a vital role in enhancing the visibility of collections of national and international significance across England. We hope this projector will protect them for the enjoyment and enrichment of many generations to come.

“I am delighted that the program has recognized the exceptional nature of the Cambridge University Herbarium collection. This demonstrates the breadth of collections that exist in our institutions and the role they can play in addressing the planet’s past, present and future.

Part of the Department of Plant Sciences, the University of Cambridge Herbarium is held in air-conditioned facilities located in the University’s Botanic Garden. The specimens can currently be seen at specific exhibitions, public lectures and online activities organized by the Herbarium. A new website and specimen portal will be launched later this year and will make high-resolution images of specimens freely available online. Digitization of specimens has begun, which will allow much wider use of the collection.

The more than 3,300 herbaria around the world are crucial resources for addressing many of our greatest global challenges – including the ongoing mass extinction of plants and animals, food security and climate change. They are at the heart of efforts to identify and name plant species, conserve biodiversity, preserve indigenous knowledge about plants, and improve the economic status of local communities around the world.

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