I recently discovered that Cardiff Museum has a huge Herbarium catalogue and an extensive archive of botanical drawings, wax botanical models and various specimen collections residing in its backstage corridors. The collection is maintained by a small team of dedicated and knowledgable staff and the support of many volunteers. With my longstanding curiosity for botanical drawings and catalogue collections, I arranged to visit. I was lucky enough to have a guided tour of their extensive records; some pieces date back to the 1800s.
The Herbarium catalogue itself is divided and stored in lockers by genus, with pressed specimens painstakingly taped to acid free paper. After the pressing process, each plant is frozen to prevent damage from insects. A team of dedicated volunteers are responsible for taping the specimens in place and noting down their relevant information. Each sample also has a description of where it was found and who collected it. There is also a catalogue of mosses and lichens, as well as an extensive collection of funghi.
I was able to visit the many rooms where the catalogues and collections are systematically stored. Each box and shelf is carefully labelled.
My guide Heather has worked in the Herbarium department for 25 years, and her knowledge of the individual specimens and drawings is mind boggling. Selecting trays and boxes at random, she was able to tell me in detail about each item. She was also able to give me extensive background information on the artists who produced the botanical drawings.
One of the other ways of recording a species of plant is for an artist to replicate it by creating a delicate wax sculpture. Due to the transient nature of botanic life, this is the most effective way of illustrating plants in a museum environment – most of the specimens on display at the open exhibitions in Cardiff are made of wax. Models are also made to show the internal structure of different flora.
The experience was completely awe-inspiring. With so many amazing specimens I hardly knew where to look; I could have spent hours poring over just a tiny portion of the collection. I have arranged to go back with my sketchbook when I have settled on a slightly more specific area of interest…