Conserving the Carpological Collection

Published on 2nd May 2018

The Linnean Society has recently been awarded a Preservation of the Industrial and Scientific Material (PRISM) grant by Arts Council England to conserve Sir James Edward Smith's carpological collection.

The carpological collection is a complement to Smith's herbarium, which has plants collected by Smith and donated to him by important naturalists of the late 18th and early 19th century: Carl Linnaeus the Younger (son of Carl Linnaeus), Robert Brown, John Ellis and Joseph Dalton Hooker, amongst others. It contains many type specimens. The carpological collection contains the parts of a plant that could not easily be pressed on a herbarium sheet: seeds, fruits and branches.

flying fish wing

It contains 637 objects and specimens, all of different natures and various sizes. They range from botanical specimens such as seeds, bark, gum, fruits (such as cones), and leaves (such as tea leaves), as well as other natural objects such as the wing of a flying fish or the cloth from an Egyptian mummy. Many specimens are still enclosed in their original wrappers, with the name of the species written by the collector or the recipient (often James Edward Smith).

Bottle of Citronella

The collection adds an extra layer to the historical understanding of 18th–19th century botany. It reveals what parts of a plant early scientists and explorers considered important to collect. In addition, it points to their interest in plants for economical uses: the collection not only contains seeds and fruits but also objects that pertain more to economic botany, such as a jar of citronella, tea leaves, or cochineal. The collections is also of interest to historians of science and material culture.

Currently, the items are contained in polythene bags of various sizes, themselves boxed in 20 cardboard boxes. The items within the boxes are at risk of physical damage, due to the non-archival quality of the packaging, and the fact that they are loose within the boxes.

Lambert Cashmere
Lambert Cashmere

The PRISM fund is allowing Conservator Janet Ashdown to clean and rehouse the items from the collection. The majority of the seeds and other objects are encased in their original wrappers. These will not be removed them from their wrappers, as they bring historical context to the object. However, the wrappers that are very dirty are being gently cleaned, revealing illegible writing.

The rehousing consists of relocating each object from its current polythene bag to a small box, encasing seeds in small envelopes within their wrappers, and replacing the objects in bigger boxes, which will replace the current cardboard boxes. The arrangement within the boxes has yet to be decided in collaboration with the honorary curator of botany Dr Mark Spencer, and depending on the results of the appraisal of the collection which is ongoing.

Conserved Boxes

The carpological collection will be rehoused in the room which houses the Smith herbarium. This room, located in the basement of the Society, is temperature controlled and a dedicated area for herbarium specimens. The collection will be stored in the shelves of a custom-made table.

The carpological collection has always remained on the margins of the other Society collections. It is thanks to pressure from Fellows of the Society that it was not sold along with other specimen collections in 1863. Since then, the matter of what to do with it has come up again and again in meetings. With the PRISM grant, it is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Isabelle Charmantier, Deputy Librarian

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