In 1944, the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Honorary Curator of Botany, Anna Pedersen Kummer, reflected on recent developments to the Academy’s Herbarium in The Chicago Naturalist:
“Much excellent materials been discovered in this most recent attempt at good housekeeping,” she wrote. “Just now we feel that all else can wait until we have the unmounted three-fourths of our Chicago region material in order. We would like to be able to turn at once to the Galinsoga that Moffatt collected in 1891 at the old Exposition building and labeled ‘rare,’ or the Myosotis that Babcock found ‘abundant’ in Riverside. Meantime, all other material has been sorted according to its geography, treated with insecticide, and wrapped securely.”1
And “all else” did wait. For over 75 years, most of the specimens that Kummer wrapped in 1943 remained secure in brown paper packages, tied up with strings.
In 2019, Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Collections Department staff and volunteers took the first steps into planning the effort it would take to integrate the backlog of over 6,000 nineteenth-century botanical specimens into the main Herbarium, so they would be available for use. With information about how much time it would take to mount and identify specimens, transcribe labels, and scan herbarium sheets to create digital images, the institution submitted a grant proposal to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for support of the project.
The grant was awarded, but the project was slow to progress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, last fall, Collections staff eagerly began processing the backlog. Each package from the botany backlog is a time capsule, documenting pre-industrial landscapes untouched by twentieth century urbanization and agricultural developments, which destroyed much of the region’s natural flora.
According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “about 60 percent of Illinois, approximately 22 million acres, once was prairie. Now about 2,500 acres remain. Most of the land once occupied by prairie is now farmland.”2 Scientists, environmentalists, historians, educators, artists, and plant-enthusiasts alike will benefit from the knowledge stemming from processing this collection.
Behind the scenes at our collections facility, Collections staff are busy unwrapping these historic pressed plants from their original pressing papers, mounting them to herbarium sheets, identifying specimens, researching collectors and taxonomy changes, cataloguing data into Arctos, and creating high-resolution scans of each specimen. We will be providing updates to the project as we continue to process these irreplaceable specimens.
Interested in learning more? Check out this Curious by Nature episode about Academy Botanist Anna Pedersen Kummer.
Our Collections Technicians, Victor and Alex, are also documenting their discoveries through blog posts. Recent posts include The Ghosts of Prairies Past and Collections Reveal Traces of Living Animals. And follow us on social media for more updates as the project progresses!
1 The Chicago Academy of Sciences (June 1944). The Chicago Naturalist, Vol. 7, No. 2.
2 Illinois Department of Natural Resources. (n.d.). Illinois Wildlife Action Plan. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/conservation/IWAP/Pages/FarmlandandPrairie.aspx. Accessed April 22, 2022.