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Volunteers revitalizing museum's botany collection

Almost all of us who visit museums do so to be educated and entertained. We enjoy those big dinosaur skeletons, the scenic dioramas, the mounted animals and birds, the working models of physics principles and the explanatory posters. We also enjoy the special lecture series and the traveling exhibits that bring to our community outstanding national and international attractions. Our Buffalo Museum of Science serves us very well in all of those roles.

But museums have another role that is almost completely hidden from the public. They serve as collector of and repository for historical materials. This is a role that is currently threatened worldwide. A case in point: the curator in charge of flora collections at the New York State Museum, Charles Sheviak, is remaining well past retirement age because he knows that he will not be replaced. With no one to oversee them, the valuable collections will be neglected and may even be lost.

In 2003, the Buffalo Museum of Science decimated the curatorial staff and our museum joined this downward spiral. No longer was there immediate supervision over the collections of mammals, birds, insects and flowers.

These collections provide important and carefully annotated historical evidence about the occurrence of animals and plants in specific locations; they serve as a source for teaching, demonstrations and exhibits; they satisfy information and loan requests from researchers at other institutions; and they serve as a resource for identification through comparison. In a few cases they even provide unique records.

Thankfully the current museum administration, under the leadership of President and CEO Mark Mortenson and Science and Research Director John Grehan, is supporting volunteer activities that are addressing some of the problems raised by the absence of professional curatorial staff. For example, Ichiro Nakamura is working with the entomological collections.

However, the best known of the museum's collections, the Clinton Herbarium, was for several years moribund. The professionals who had maintained this high-quality collection, Richard Zander and Patricia Eckel, were among those summarily fired in 2003.

Now a group from the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society has reactivated this collection. The volunteers traveled to Cornell University to receive training and returned not only to bring this collection up to date but also to accept and record collections given to the museum by the University at Buffalo and Canisius College.

The volunteers include Laurie Baldwin, Hillary Forsyth, Edward Fuchs, Joanne Schlegel, Michael Siuta and Carol Sweeney. Early on, James Battaglia and Marilyn Reeves also made important contributions. Of that group, only Sweeney, who recently retired from her position at Niagara University, can be considered a professional botanist.

A few days ago, I received permission from Curator of Collections Kathy Leacock to visit the Clinton Herbarium to see the work these people are doing. The volunteers were busy cataloging the 2,100 UB specimens, having already processed almost 5,400 from Canisius. Each of these specimens is mounted on a large paper and has to be carefully examined. Some require cleaning, remounting, repairing labels and, in a few cases, identification or correction of past misidentifications, updating of scientific names and, finally, entry into the collection's computer-based records. The individual specimens then have to be "frozen" for days to kill destructive mites.

I watched as Baldwin entered a single record into the computer files. This involved filling in about 20 individual items of information.

The Clinton Herbarium is named for George Clinton, son of Gov. DeWitt Clinton and first president of the museum. Several plant species have been assigned his name to honor his work. The museum was founded in 1861 and the herbarium just one year later. It is the ninth-oldest collection in the United States.

email: insrisg@buffalo.edu