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Where do the herbarium specimens come from?

For more than twenty years, there has been a heated debate about the close relationship between museums and colonialism. A new study in the prestigious journal Nature Human Behaviour examines herbarium collections around the world, their colonial legacy and the extent to which herbarium data has been digitised. One of the study's co-authors is Patrik Mráz, Head of the Herbarium Collections at the Faculty of Science, Charles University.

There are over 3400 herbarium collections worldwide, which together contain more than 400 million specimens. For example, the Herbarium collections of the Faculty of Science contain over two million items and are among the largest in the world. The first herbarium collections were established as early as the 16th century and in the last decade there has been something of a revolution in the collections as herbarium items have increasingly been digitized. With the possibility of remote access to the digital repositories (most of the digitized data is collected within the Global Biodiversity Information Facility), scientists around the world may have access to unique data, which opens up brand new research opportunities. Nevertheless, important ethical questions arise in relation to herbarium and other museum collections.

Herbarium collections of the Faculty of Science, photo: Petr Jan Juračka


Museums were founded by monarchs and wealthy patriots in developed countries to serve as temples of culture and art. The vast majority of the rarest artefacts came from foreign countries and these artefacts were not always acquired through ‘normal’ trade. In some cases, they were looted from the colonies. Increasingly, therefore, there have been voices calling for the determination of the rightful ownership of the museum artefacts. Perhaps the greatest media interest in this respect has been aroused by the dispute over the ownership of the Rosetta Plaque (located in the British Museum in London, but Egypt claims ownership). Museums around the world are thus currently undergoing an era of so-called decolonisation. As part of this process, the ownership of artefacts is being verified and, eventually, they are returned to their rightful owners. Other activities are also part of the decolonisation process of museums, such as working closely with local or indigenous people to develop the exhibitions and stories that museums present to their visitors.

The recently published study focused on herbarium collections and examined how colonialism has affected the items these collections own. The authors of the study contacted herbaria around the world and obtained detailed information from nearly 100 herbarium collections from 39 countries. They were thus able to map where herbarium collections obtained their items. The researchers were also interested in the progress of digitization of more than 80 million herbarium specimens.

Herbarium collections of the Faculty of Science, photo: Petr Jan Juračka


The results showed that the majority of herbarium collections (more than 60% of collections holding over 70% of herbarium items) are located in Europe and North America. The influence of colonialism was very strong in the establishment of collections - the greatest diversity of flora is found in the tropics, but the vast majority of it is paradoxically held in herbaria located in the temperate zone. In Europe and the USA, herbariums host about twice the species richness of those areas. In Asia and Africa, on the other hand, we would find more diversity in nature than among herbarium specimenss. Thanks to the enormous amount of detailed data, scientists have found that plant material flowed into Europe mainly prior to 1945, and into North America after 1945 as part of the so-called US Exploring Expeditions, which provided tens of thousands of herbarium items that were subsequently deposited in the Smithsonian Institution herbarium.

Mapping the movement of herbarium specimens, source: the original study


The other side of the coin is the fact that the US and Europe have seen a more intensive digitization of herbarium specimens, which have subsequently become more accessible to scientists worldwide. The rate of digitization of herbarium items is currently very low - less than 30% of herbarium items have digitized basic information such as locality and date of collection, and high resolution photograph / scan is available for less than 10% of herbarium items. Nevertheless, digital data repositories are an important information source and allow interesting analyses in several fields such as systematics / taxonomy, biogeography, or ecology. For example, the extensive database allows studies of the origin and spread of invasive species, adaptation to eutrophic or otherwise polluted habitats, or even analyses of changes in the flora in relation to global climate change.

Digitization of the herbarium collections, source: the original study


How, then, do herbaria relate to the origins of their collections and the colonial legacies of their home countries? For more recent herbarium items, the solution is easy. Since the ratification of the Nagoya Protocol (an international convention in force since 2014), scientists must collect samples in duplicate - one of them must be stored in the country of origin and only the duplicates can be taken to another country and subsequently stored in collections or used for other scientific purposes. However, the implementation of this measure is not so straightforward, as many poorer countries do not have museums or suitable institutions where herbarium items can be deposited. Thus, as with archaeological artefacts, the debate on the decolonisation of herbaria will be a long one and the path to resolving the situation is likely to be challenging.

Herbarium collections of the Faculty of Science, photo: Petr Jan Juračka

Park, D. S., Feng, X., Akiyama, S., Ardiyani, M., Avendaño, N., Barina, Z., ... & Davis, C. C. (2023). The colonial legacy of herbaria. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-10.

Veronika Rudolfová


Published: Jul 25, 2023 06:10 PM

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