Published: 15/11/2013 11:00 - Updated: 14/11/2013 17:11

Thurso museum volunteers make exciting discovery

Written byCatriona Metcalf

Joseph Hooker’s herbarium sheet.
Joseph Hooker’s herbarium sheet.

AN exciting discovery has been made among the herbarium sheets of the Robert Dick collection at Caithness Horizons in Thurso.

A big name in the botany world was found as the team of volunteers looked carefully at each of the thousands of sheets which have all been photographed and are now being documented into the museum’s Mimsy XG Collections Management database.

The team of Joanne Howdle, curator at the museum, and three volunteers are aiming to record electronically as much as possible about each herbarium specimen of UK plants.

While artist Joanne B. Kaar, one of the volunteers, was going through some of the sheets she found 12 with the name Hooker on them.

Recognising it as an important name among plant collectors, she set about finding out whether it could be the real thing, sending photographs of the sheets to the various people who would know.

This set off a string of excited exchanges between experts working at the Manchester Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Edinburgh and Kew, and it has just been confirmed the sheets are of a father and son who were both eminent botanists and directors of Kew.

Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865) is the father of the two, who showed an early interest in botany and, in 1809, with the encouragement of Sir Joseph Banks, made an expedition to Iceland.

In his early years he laid the foundations of his herbarium which later formed the basis of the herbarium at Kew.

He was knighted in 1836 and in 1841 was appointed Kew’s first official director.

William’s son, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817–1911), travelled the world surveying flora and sending back specimens to Kew.

In 1865 he succeeded his father as its director. Joseph was also a close friend of Charles Darwin who sent his herbarium sheets and specimens to Professor Henslow in Cambridge while on the Beagle’s voyage of 1831-1863. Joseph married Henslow’s daughter.

Ms Kaar was extremely excited to have made the discovery and said that although the plants may not all have been picked by the Hookers themselves, they must have passed through their hands at some stage.

She said: "Earlier this year I photographed all of the herbarium sheets and only now have found the time to go through them. I’ve been sitting and looking at the images in detail, but there are a few thousand of them so it will take a while to get through them all.

"We’re digitising them so everyone can see them."

The team accept they are involved in a long process and on a good day manage to document about 10 specimens. It will take several years to complete as they only spend a day a week working on it.

The museum is also trying to raise funds to have the herbarium specimens conserved and mounted for display as each specimen can only be displayed for three months every five years. So far, 200 specimens have been conserved.

"Suddenly a name popped up at me because I’ve been looking at other herbarium collections and I thought it sounded like something I’d read before," said Ms Kaar.

"I didn’t know which Hooker was which, but the folk at Kew Gardens helped out and it turns out 11 of the sheets are Joseph’s and we’ve got one of his father’s.

"William’s sheet dates to the 1850s, so that would be when he was director at Kew. It’s possible it came from Kew Gardens.

"It’s all really exciting because there are lots of little clues and we have to put them together."

Ms Kaar said the collection would have been looked at a long time ago, but people must not have realised what they were seeing.

The botanists had an "exchange club" to fill the spaces of plants not in their collections by swapping them with another collector and this is why so many different names can be found in Robert Dick’s herbarium.

Ms Kaar said as Manchester Museum and other places start eddigitising their collections, over the next few years lots more of Dick’s work might be found as no-one is sure what they have until they scan them all.

"I started on this five years ago when I was asked to make something based on an object in Caithness Horizons and I chose the Robert Dick collection," she said. "The portable museum came out of that and people all over the place are still borrowing it.

"As we dig a bit deeper we don’t know what we’ll find. Some of them don’t look like anything but, if you pass through them quickly, that’s how things get missed.

"You never know – we might find one of Darwin’s!"

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