How to arrange a new Herbarium?

Thomas Pape thomas.pape at NRM.SE
Fri Feb 1 20:28:04 CST 2002

The recent discussion on how to best arrange such collections had a focus on alphabetic vs systematic order, yet I bet that EVERY collection will show a trade-off between these two possibilities. Arranging in supraspecific taxa (classes, orders, families, genera) certainly is in itself a systematic arrangement, while many collections have genera and especially species in alphabetical order for simplicity and ease of management. 

Having a mainly alphabetical order ensures easy retrieval. Print out a list of higher taxa from the collection database and any assistant or visiting researcher has good chances of locating the particular specimens relevant to his/her research. For large museums with few academic systematists to curate their collections, an extensive alphabetical order certainly has many advantages.

A mainly systematic arrangement may be pleasing to the scholarly trained user, and research material may to some extent be in nice 'juxtaposition'. A systematic arrangement may even have an educational function and be used for 'browsing' in order to identify specimens. Yet I do not use the (insect) collection under my care as a 'dip in' identification tool. I do not use the physical arrangement of cabinets and drawers to teach students systematics and classification.

To me natural history collections are depositories for objects that are used in research and education. I want easy and unambiguous retrieval of those objects - let them out to do their work! Alphabetic order is very well suited for that, yet systematics cannot be entirely avoided. As RANK is entirely artificial, both systematic order and alphabetical order is bound to produce variation between museums. And as both systematics and nomenclature produce seemingly never-ending changes, both systems will get out of phase with current 'state of the art'. What changes most may to some extent decide what arrangement to choose.

Thomas Pape - Naturhistoriska riksmuseet

Jim Croft asked:
> >The question is - what/whose is the 'best' system to use for arranging
> >plant families?

T. Lammers wrote:
> IMO, there is no advantage whatsoever to any system but the ALPHABET.  I've
> always considered a systematic arrangement of herbaria to be carrying a
> good thing too far.  What function does it really serve???  Does having
> specimens arrayed in some phylogenetic sequence *get* you anything, when
> you are trying to use the herbarium?

D. Yanega wrote:
> Since we're going to have to move every drawer anyway, we've decided
> to move them into phylogenetic order by superfamilies, and larger
> taxa will be divided to subfamily level. This has already been done
> for the Hymenoptera. This will ABSOLUTELY minimize the number and
> severity of future rearrangements.

M. Barkworth wrote:
> I agree completely with Doug. The arrangement is alphabetical here, and
> students think of the families as completely separate entities.  

P. Stephens wrote:
> I agree; the alphabetical arangement teaches you little, and it is hell to
> try and teach using an alphabetically-arranged herbarium of any size. 

Karen Wilson wrote:
> I also strongly support the 'systematic' order of herbaria. 
> Alphabetical order is great for those mechanically filing specimens
> and for finding specimens IF you already know the name of the taxon you want. 

T. Lammers wrote:
> ....  Until our classifications achieve a higher level of stability 
> (a goal I do believe is achievable in the near future), pragmatism will have
> to outweigh the ideal.

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