The Ghosts of Prairies Past: Uncovering Yesterday’s Truths with Museum Collections

2 Herbarium Sheets 2048x1003
Vincent Becerril, Collections Technician
April 8, 2022

From expansive cities to agricultural fields, it may come as a surprise that Illinois was once covered in millions of acres of prairies and forests. In 1820, about 22 million acres of prairie occupied two-thirds of the state up north, with about 14 million acres of forest dominating the southern foot of the state.¹ Much of these lands were transformed to be used for agriculture by the 1900s and, eventually, heavy urban development. Although many of us are accustomed to our environment today, how often do we take a moment to think about how the land has changed around us?

1 Illinois Land Cover

Maps from The Nature Conservancy showing differences in land cover type throughout Illinois from the early 1800s to the present.

The Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is working on a project supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to make advances to its botanical collection, including uploading media of herbarium specimens to an accessible online database, enhancing specimen data through georeferencing, and integrating specimens from the backlog (specimens not yet fully processed) into the primary collection. I am one of the collections technicians in the Collections Department working on this project, and one aspect of my work includes georeferencing spatial data that were recorded for each botanical specimen. Georeferencing is the process of communicating localities in the form of latitude and longitude coordinates based on the original textual information so that it can be plotted on a map. For herbarium specimens at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the original data is often recorded in hand-written notations. The advantage of georeferencing specimen locality data is that it allows museums to provide a visualization of a collecting event — anything from a specimen collected yesterday to one collected a century ago. Georeferenced spatial data can be further utilized to “research anything from species distributions and relationships to environmental changes or targeting conservation practices.”² While georeferencing a handful of botanical specimens collected from places around Chicago, I was intrigued by a specific locality. I encountered eight specimens that were collected near the intersection of West 86th Street and South Kedzie Avenue; this location is quite familiar to me, and I couldn’t imagine finding these plants at such an intersection. My suspicion was on the right track, to an extent, because on any map of today, you will see that this intersection is actually a commercial shopping center featuring stores and restaurants. I don’t think Veronicastrum virginicum is on the menu, unless I’m missing out. However, these specimens were collected between the years 1970 and 1971. It is not too unlikely that other modern structures could have stood in place of the Subway and Metro PCS store in the ‘70s, but historical maps tell us otherwise.

2 Herbarium Sheets 2048x1003

American cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus subsp. americanum), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), and Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) specimens collected by George E. Iannarone from W 86th St and S Kedzie Ave in Chicago during the 1970s.

Maps from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) between the years 1963 and 1993 show that the exact location of these specimens in Evergreen Park were actually found in a small vacant plot of land that became an extension of the Evergreen Cemetery and eventually a site for local radio towers. Although the majority of prairies in Illinois were long gone by the time these specimens were collected, it still provides us with an excellent example of how their preservation offers a look into the past.

3 USGS 1953 Map

United States Geological Survey (USGS) map from 1953 showing land use changes near W 86th St and S Kedzie Ave.

4 USGS 1963 Map

United States Geological Survey (USGS) map from 1963 showing land use changes near W 86th St and S Kedzie Ave.

5 Google Hybrid Current Map

Current map of the same highlighted area illustrating commercial and residential developments that took over the eastern portion of the land.

The Academy’s botany collection contains specimens from the early 1800s, and with all the land changes in Illinois over the past 200 years, as I work with these specimens, my mind drifts to how different the areas from which those specimens were collected look compared with today. Without the availability of these specimens and their data to researchers, scientists, administrators, and the public, we would further exacerbate the effects of what is known as “environmental generational amnesia.” Coined by Peter Kahn, a psychology professor from the University of Washington, environmental generational amnesia describes the idea as “with each ensuing generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation tends to perceive that degraded condition as the non-degraded condition, as the normal experience.”³ In other words, there is “a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory, and/or knowledge of its past condition.”⁴ This is a phenomenon we experience every day without realizing it. When we cross intersections like West 86th Street and South Kedzie Avenue today, many of us will accept the presence of these commercial or residential clusters as the ecological baseline for those areas and further normalize the degradation of our environment. This is where museums can participate to make a positive impact.

As I continue to work on the botany project for the Chicago Academy of Sciences / Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, I would like to emphasize the responsibility of museums to utilize technology and resources to make as much of the information they preserve accessible for all. Free online platforms such as Google Arts and Culture, Arctos, GBIF, Internet Archive, and other archival resources are great tools of exploration for those who cannot physically visit the collections in person. My hope is that as these resources become better known among the general public, more and more people will recognize the changes in their environments and resist normalizing further degradation. The usage potential of our collections goes beyond the issues I have briefly discussed here, so it is important that we continue to preserve and enhance our collections data for the benefit of future generations.


¹Illinois Department of Natural Resources. (n.d.). Illinois prairies. Education.

²T., Jonathan. (2016). Why georeferencing is the most important thing for the museum since sliced bread: Digital collections programme. Blogs from the Natural History Museum.,utilised%20in%20new%20research%20projects

³Kahn, Peter & Friedman, Batya & Gill, Brian & Hagman, Jennifer & Severson, Rachel & Freier, Nathan & Feldman, Erika & Re, Sybilcarrè & Stolyar, Anna. (2008). A plasma display window?—The shifting baseline problem in a technologically mediated natural world. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 28. 192-199.

⁴Soga, M., & Gaston, K. J. (2018). Shifting baseline syndrome: Causes, consequences, and implications. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 16(4), 222-230.

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