Heritage Lottery funding to safeguard Lincolnshire plants

A new Heritage Lottery Fund supported project aims to inspire young people to become the botanists of the future, helping to safeguard and improve our understanding of plants and the environment.

Pioneered by Lincolnshire Naturalists’ Union, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, the Sir Joseph Banks Society and the Natural History Museum, the project is called ‘Lincolnshire Plants – Past and Future’. The University of Lincoln will support the project by studying the genetics of these plants.

flowers

A development grant of £21,400 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has already been secured to begin setting up the project. Once this development phase is complete, a larger grant of £473,100 has been earmarked by HLF for a three year project.

This larger grant will partly be used for a range of lifelong learning events and public engagement, a key aspect of which is to help young people connect with wildlife and develop botanical skills like plant identification, wildlife recording and the careful collection of important specimens.

The project will fund the creation of a contemporary collection of Lincolnshire plant specimens, inspired by a collection created by Sir Joseph Banks, the eighteenth century Lincolnshire naturalist who famously voyaged around the world with Captain Cook. This will compliment an older collection currently preserved by Lincolnshire Naturalists’ Union.

Over the last 150 years the Lincolnshire Naturalists’ Union has been compiling a huge collection of over 9000 plant specimens, including some of Lincolnshire’s rarest plants. Such a special archive can provide lots of information about climate change, plant genetics and nature conservation. However, with no proper storage facilities available in Lincolnshire the collection is now at serious risk of deterioration. Fortunately, as part of the lottery funded project the Natural History Museum in London will now look after the collection, securing it safely in facilities designed specifically for the protection of plant specimens. The Natural History Museum will also professionally catalogue and document the specimens, unlocking a treasure trove of vital environmental information.

These plant collections will allow scientists to study changes in our environment over the last three centuries, dramatically improving our understanding of the natural history of Lincolnshire and informing future environmental decisions. Scientists at the University of Lincoln hope to study the genetics of the specimens once they have been catalogued.

Chris Manning, Chair of the Project Steering Board and from Lincolnshire Naturalists’ Union, said: “This project is a wonderful opportunity to inspire young people with nature and improve our knowledge of Lincolnshire’s natural history. We need new botanists to help us understand the impact of climate change and to champion the knowledge we can gain about our environment from studying plants.

“Once our past and present plant collections are catalogued and stored by the Natural History Museum we will have a huge resource to help botanists and scientists better understand our environment.”

Combating mercury poisoning

A safe and cheap procedure to aid the reduction of harmful levels of toxic pesticides in museums’ plant specimens has been discovered.

Historically, museums and other collectors applied pesticides to botanical materials to prevent insect and fungal damage, commonly using highly toxic compounds of mercury and arsenic. These poisons remain in the collections today, potentially causing serious health and safety concerns in museums across the world.

University of Lincoln School of Life Sciences academic Professor Belinda Colston and PhD graduate Dr Vicky Purewal have now developed an innovative and economical method to detect harmful mercury in preserved plant specimens.

They have discovered that the mount paper used to display the specimens will shine fluorescent orange under a UV lamp if mercury is present, allowing for rapid detection without the need for expensive and time-consuming laboratory testing.

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, where Dr Purewal is the Botanical Conservation Officer, has used the methodology to identify a number of contaminated specimen sheets in its huge collection and to prioritise which specimens required immediate re-mounting.

Dr Purewal explains: “When specimens were treated with pesticides, the mercury would run off the plant and be soaked into the backing paper. The person handling the specimen would be absorbing these contaminants through their skin. Nobody realised this was happening. Some institutions were reapplying the pesticide to prevent damage to the specimen, unaware that the mercury was accumulating on the backing sheets.”

Dr Purewal decided to investigate the issue of mercury contamination after attending a conference in which the issue was discussed.

However, spot tests on specimens did not reveal any contaminants. Dr Purewal and Prof Colston then started using UV radiation to image the specimen, and observed the fluorescent spots on the backing sheet. Research has linked these spots to the presence of mercury.

The discovery is now being used to help other organisations scan their specimens.

Dr Purewal, who recently scanned 300 specimens from the Royal College of Surgeons’ botanical collection, said: “It gives museums and collectors a really quick idea as to what they are looking at and whether collections are safe or need to be re-mounted. Taking specimens off the backing should reduce contamination 20 fold. It’s just a case of raising awareness.”

Professor Colston added: “It is hoped that this method will allow safe, standard procedures to be implemented within museums to protect personnel and visitors when handling the collections. It is a very simple and cheap technique that is accessible to even the smallest museums across the world.”

Biocides and pesticides are no longer used to protect botanical specimens; instead they go into a deep freeze of at least -20°C for 3–5 days. This is not, however, a long-term solution, so cyclic freezing is necessary.

Vicky completed her Conservation Science Masters at De Montfert University, Leicester, followed by a PhD under the supervision of Professor Colston at the University of Lincoln.

Detecting mercury in historic plant specimens

A University of Lincoln academic and PhD student have been working to develop innovative and economical methods to detect harmful mercury in preserved plant specimens in museums.

Vicky hard at work at the Louvre Research Labs
Vicky hard at work at the Louvre Research Labs

Historically, museums and other collectors applied pesticides to botanical materials to prevent insect and fungal damage, commonly using highly toxic compounds of mercury and arsenic. These poisons remain in the collections today, causing serious health and safety concerns in museums across the world.

Working with the National Museum of Wales (NMW), Professor Belinda Colston and Vicky Purewal’s research focuses on the chemistry of the natural ageing processes occurring in the mount paper used to display collections. They have demonstrated that as the mount paper degrades over 30 years or more, it will shine fluorescent under a UV-A lamp if mercury is present. The NMW has used the methodology to identify severely contaminated specimen sheets in its 800,000 strong collection and to prioritise which collections required immediate re-mounting.

Herbarium specimen
Herbarium specimen

 

Professor Colston says: “It is hoped that this method will allow safe, standard procedures to be

implemented within museums to protect personnel and visitors when handling the collections. It is a very simple and cheap technique that is accessible to even the smallest museums across the world.”