The main entrance to the Herbarium at RBG Kew. [Photo: J. Tonkin]
View of Wing C, Herbarium. [Photo: J. Tonkin]
From the ABLO
A view from Kew
I have been asked to provide a few words about the ABLO experience of 2006–2007, but first I offer a minimal and potted history with a brief note as to what the position entails.
The Australian Botanical Liaison Officer (ABLO) is an annual appointment to work at the Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, UK . The Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria (CHAH) cooperates with the Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS) in administering the ABLO process. As a position at Kew, it falls somewhere between a long-term visitor and a volunteer, and is designed to facilitate Australian botany through the servicing of requests for information regarding all aspects surrounding the Australian flora and the history of botany in Australia. These requests are not only Australian in origin, but also from the UK, Kew in particular. In some cases, the ABLO undertakes work in European herbaria on behalf of Australian botanists.
The position was instigated following the recommendations of the Hill report (Arthur Hill, Director of RBG Kew, early 1900s) into Australian Botany. Originally the position rotated around the Australian State herbaria, but in the last decade or so, the position has been one which must be applied for through ABRS, with applicants being drawn from all over Australia.
The position has been associated with Kew for seventy years with the appointment of Charles Gardner from PERTH as the first ABLO (see Appendix I for full list), and quite possibly for a similar period with the Natural History Museum (NHM) albeit more informally. The original aim was to provide further taxonomic training to new Australian botanical graduates, but has evolved to include facilitation of research for the Australian and New Zealand botanical community. These requests have increased substantially since the initiation of the Flora of Australia project, which in turn precipitated great taxonomic activity in Australia.
The ABLO position has been mirrored by similar posts which were also supported by other Commonwealth governments and affiliates. However, the South African Government post (South African Botanical Liaison Officer, SABLO), has been rescinded, but the Indian Government still maintains the position of Indian Botanical Liaison Officer (IBLO).
The position is acknowledged to be of tangible benefit to Kew, and I suspect has proved similarly beneficial to the NHM in the servicing of enquiries and requests for assistance from Australian and New Zealand botanists and historians. These range in nature from taxonomic and nomenclatural queries, location of herbarium materials (types especially), provision of information and contacts, imaging of specimens, assistance with loans, visits, library research as well as sourcing and photocopying literature unavailable to botanists in Australia and New Zealand. Kew in particular passes on to the ABLO any request regarding Australia. Aside from the general run of botanical requests, I have talked with researchers for the BBC Wildlife and Natural History Unit regarding Australian contacts and information regarding climate change and the effects on Australian flora, provided identification for a poisons enquiry originating from Sydney and provided information, contacts and guidance for one of Britain’s peers about conservation of a hortus sicchus… a diverse, curious and at times very challenging remit.
Coming from the Southern Hemisphere to work at Kew requires not so much of a physical shift in presence, but a shift in attitude and viewpoint. For most Australian botany students, Kew looms large on the horizon as the botanical and horticultural Mecca of our world, or at the very least, the place to which we turn and pay homage. Working here though, this is not the reality. The staff at Kew and Wakehurst are brilliant: in intellect, eccentricity and human kindness, and they underscore the realisation that if you are fortunate enough to be employed in botany in Australia, then you will enjoy collegiate experiences similar to those I have been privileged to enjoy here. Botany, its attendant joys and frustrations, is the same the world over.
Of course being able to discuss problems with world authorities the calibre of Bernard Verdcourt, Nicholas Hind, Dick Brummitt, Tom Cope, Mark Chase, Brian Spooner, David Goyder, Henk Beentje, Charlie Jarvis and Lulu Rico (to name a few) is a joy that requires continual thanks. What also makes the ABLO experience unique, are the facilities and conditions offered by this workplace. While these are at times bemusing, they offer opportunities most of us only dream about. Of course having access to the herbarium dried collections is brilliant (in particular, Herb. Benthamianum), but add to this experience, access to the most wondrous botanical library with its overwhelmingly huge illustration holdings, priceless Linnaean and pre Linnaean collections and the ethnobotany museum, and you have the makings of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And in common idiom, ‘but wait there’s more’… access to the Jodrell Laboratory with its genetics laboratory, scanning electron microscopy unit, and mycological herbarium — it all simply beggars belief. It really is a phenomenal opportunity, and the opportunities don’t stop there…
Because next on the frequently visited list is the herbarium of the Natural History Museum (the NHM ) in South Kensington. It is housed in the Waterhouse building with its glorious German Romanesque architecture and contains more fabulous collections. I have had to source original Parkinson engravings and been fortunate enough to view the Bauer drawings and paintings, search for Banks and Solander materials, seen the Walter herbarium and Sloane’s hortus siccus and tried to unravel collection details for Robert Brown collections from his original field notes — all an exquisite thrill. Walking in to the Linnaean vault at the Linnean Society in Burlington House, viewing his correspondence and breadth of biological endeavour, handling his books and the materials he touched, is humbling.
And if you thought the experience ended there Reader, you are sadly mistaken. For then you have the option of visiting other botanical jewels, which in my case have included Cambridge, Edinburgh, Paris, Prague and Berlin… in fact, Paris is a most under-utilised facility for Australian botany. It has in my opinion, an even better collection of 18th and 19th century Australian collections than Kew.
Go on, apply for it. You’ll never regret it.
Bernard Verdcourt’s cohort (from left to right): Brian Schrire, Henk Beentje, Lulu Roco, Barbara MacKinder and Bernard Verdcourt. [Photo: J. Tonkin]