The Clinton Herbarium


(This 1088th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 29, 2012.)



Specimen Pages


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 even 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 world-wide. 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 in the current climate he will not be replaced. With no one to oversee them, the valuable collections will then be neglected and may even be lost.


In 2003 the Buffalo Museum of Science, under the questionable leadership of museum director David Chesebrough and board chairman Philip Ackerman, decimated the museum’s curatorial staff and our museum joined this downward spiral. No longer was there immediate supervision over the collections of mammals, birds, insects and flowers.


Well, who cares? I hope that many of us do. 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 also even provide unique records.

Thankfully the current museum administration under the leadership of its president and CEO, Mark Mortenson, and its 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 now.


However, easily 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 during the earlier debacle.


But now a group of volunteers from the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society has reactivated this collection. A group of them 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 Carol 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 so busy I was embarrassed to interrupt their work to be shown around.


Busy indeed. Much work is being done. For example, they were busy cataloging the 2100 UB specimens, having already processed almost 5400 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 collections 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 twenty individual items of information. Years ago I entered similar data for Wayne Gall and Mark Potzler about insects and I know how painstaking this process is.


The Clinton Herbarium is named for George Clinton, son of Governor 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.-- Gerry Rising