Hidden treasures of the Museum backlog collections

Lichen encrusted boot collected in Ecuador by a Cambridge University Expedition in 1967. The boot was finally accessioned in 2011 and included a new lichen record for Ecuador at the time

All large Museums and herbaria have backlogs of specimens that are waiting to be processed and incorporated into the collections, sometimes for a century or more. Whilst to many institutions, specimen backlogs can seem like an eternal cloud pulling at their consciences, the reality is that they are an inevitable consequence of uneven collecting effort, bequests, absent-minded scientists and the amount of money available to maintain natural history collections. It might be better to think of these collections in limbo as potential treasure troves for those who finally do get the time and resources to process them. Last week I went to meet Natural History Museum (NHM) curator Holger Thüs, herbarium technician John Hunnex and their volunteer team in the backlog processing area of the Botanical Collections.

One of several boxes full of packets collected by a lichenologist called West in the early 1900s. These collections contain many records from all over the UK and are important as they help us see how lichen distributions have changed over the past Century

Thanks to the efforts of Holger and his team at the NHM, over 2,300 boxes of lichen backlog have been processed in the last three years. During their efforts some important and hitherto unknown historical collections have been recovered which include specimens collected by Charles Darwin from Tierra del Fuego, David Nelson collections from Captain Cook’s third voyage and Francis Masson collections from South Africa, as well as many others. Maybe less glamorous though, but of great scientific value however are the big collections of 19th and early 20thC lichens from the UK as these provide an important snap shots that help document the impact of industrialisation on air quality and the landscape as it began and later as it gained momentum. These collections plug gaps in our knowledge thereby making the UK biota one of the most completely known.

Long dispersed between a cupboard in the herbarium and storage areas in the museum towers, this collection of lichens compiled by William Mudd in the middle of the 19thC contains specimens which formed the basis of the first UK lichen flora published in 1861 and material which he received in from colleagues across Europe. It was identified as such by lichen curator Holger Thues and visiting scientist Mark Seaward

Of particular value was the discovery of what is likely William Mudd’s personal lichen collection from the middle of the 18thC and which contains specimens which formed the basis of the first UK lichen flora published in 1861, ‘A manual of British Lichens‘. The 52 book-like fascicles of unbound sheets and hundreds of specimens were  rediscovered dispersed between cupboards in the Cryptogammic Herbarium and in stores at the top of the Museum’s towers where they were thought to represent spare / duplicate material for distribution. The fact that such a treasure was found in the backlog hints at what other amazing collections could be found in the coming years as the work to process it continues.

The William Mudd collections as they are housed now. The volumes are now  stored in a climate-controlled and pest-free space within the Bernard Sunley suite at the Natural History Museum



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