From Plant Press, Vol. 19, No. 3, July 2016.
It has been an eventful year. Last summer when it became apparent that I would likely become Chair of the Department of Botany I realized that among many other things I would have to organize and orchestrate a spring symposium. A number of ideas floated through my head and suppressing panic, the strongest of all the ideas, I decided that a symposium on pollination biology might be interesting. I had dabbled with the subject early in my career and I knew that even though pollination biology per se is not a focus of research done here in the Museum, a symposium on this topic could easily underscore the valuable systematic and phylogenetic research done by our Botany and Entomology Departments and inform some of our research on the evolution of plants and insects. When I pitched the idea to Susan Pell of the U.S. Botanic Garden, our partner in this enterprise, she agreed and as they say the rest is history. Of course, a good number of Botany staff worked very hard to make this happen and I think we all should be very pleased with the result: an intellectually stimulating day with one of the largest registrations yet for our symposium series.
Another inherited project, which was planned before but inaugurated after I became Chair, is our digitization conveyor project (see The Plant Press 19(2): 6, 7. 2016). The scale of the accomplishments here in the last ten months is phenomenal. As of last week, 566,824 herbarium specimens have been digitized, their label data have been or are now being transcribed, and the specimen images and information will soon be fully searchable on our website. This is currently the largest herbarium digitization project in the Western Hemisphere and to put the scale of what has been accomplished into perspective, I need only add that the average size of the 3,200 institutional herbaria in the world is a modest 100,000 specimens! As with the symposium, this project also is a partnership. The Digitization Program Office (DPO) of the Smithsonian Institution has been a driving force, our principal benefactor, and the administrative contact with Picturae, the Dutch company that owns and runs the conveyor belt and that subcontracts the transcriptions being done in Suriname. The very hard work in getting us to this point has been that of not only the contractors employed by Picturae, but also Botany and Museum staff and contractors who planned the project, prepared the specimens for digitization, verified the transcriptions, and who are now importing the data into our collections database.
The past year has also seen a transformation in the U.S. National Herbarium, which although far from complete, augers well for the future. The new cases designed to house our bulky bamboo collections (see The Plant Press 19(2): 8. 2016) have been installed and the specimens transferred from the old cases to the new. We are poised as well to order new cases for the ferns and for an area currently used as our specimen sorting center and these will be in place before the end of the year. The sorting center will be relocated and this will provide room for us to expand the Asteraceae. The new cabinetry was purchased with monies awarded by the Smithsonian’s Collections Care and Preservation Fund (CCPF) for which we are extremely grateful. A separate CCPF grant is helping us to process a large backlog of grass specimens that will free up space and generate a significant amount of exchange material. A separate, moderately controversial change was the reintegration of the D.C. (District of Columbia) Herbarium into the main collection. Space and the need to focus staff resources on other matters drove this decision. In addition, we also came to the conclusion that the most efficient organization of the U.S. National Herbarium is to have the least number of separate collections possible.
Having taken stock of a few of our major activities where do we go now? There will be another Smithsonian Botanical Symposium in May 2017 and we have initiated a discussion with the U.S. Botanic Garden about the theme. We are continuing the digitization of the herbarium and are beginning to think about how we can use very large data sets to address and answer questions with herbarium specimens that we could not imagine doing before. We are reorganizing the phanerogamic portion of the herbarium as a prelude to converting our filing scheme to a modern one that better reflects our understanding of phylogeny. Finally, you might ask why these things matter. They matter because we are trying to support and improve our research on the systematics and evolution of plants, fungi (i.e., lichens), and algae.