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Botanical Curator Blues

A herbarium specimen of the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid.

One of the problems with being a botanist working at a museum is that most of the botanical specimens cannot be displayed in an exhibit.  The bulk of the collection consists of herbarium specimens (dried, pressed plants mounted on paper) that are very fragile and light sensitive.  As a result they usually can’t be displayed for long (or at all) without being damaged.  Further, a pressed plant is only a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional organism and can’t really convey the true beauty of the species.  As a result, I need to be innovative when creating exhibits in ways that my colleagues with their fancy artefacts, skeletons and fossils don’t have to be.

A model of the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid.

One of the ways that we represent plants in our galleries is by creating models of what the plant looks like when it’s alive.  Our artists will go into the field, photograph a plant and then collect a specimen of it.  Back at the Museum they take colour notes, do drawings and take more photographs, to get as much information as they can.  They then dissect the plant, make molds of each part, and later those parts are re-created out of a variety of materials, like waxes and resins.  After painting all the plant parts, each of the pieces is then put together like a giant three-dimensional puzzle.  The Western Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera praeclara) model, our most complicated one, consists of 300 parts!

An actual Western Prairie Fringed Orchid in the wild.

Another way that people will be able to appreciate the Museum’s botanical collection, as well as another hard-to-exhibit group of organisms-pollinating insects-is via our upcoming Prairie Pollination  virtual exhibit.  With funds from the Virtual Museum of Canada, the Heritage Grants Program of the Manitoba Government and The Manitoba Museum Foundation, this exhibit will feature over 200 specimens of prairie plants and pollinating insects.  Visitors will be able to see photographs of the Museum’s specimens, photographs of the organisms in the field and interpretive information on how plants and pollinators interact with each other.  Video tours of native prairie and The Manitoba Museum’s collection vault, learning resources for teachers and a variety of games and activities will help visitors learn more about these organisms and why they are important.  Full and temporary staff (including me, of course) are busy preparing the content for this new exhibit, which will open in October of 2013.  Prairie Pollination  will be an innovative way for people to access information on recent Museum research and collections in an interesting and user-friendly way.

To help The Manitoba Museum obtain additional funds to create a mobile phone application that will link our collections with restored and remnant prairies where these organisms live (a virtual biocache) please consider voting for the “Click, Text and Pollinate” project at the Aviva Community Fund website http://www.avivacommunityfund.org/ideas/acf13466.

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Dr. Diana Robson

Curator of Botany

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Dr. Robson obtained a Master’s Degree in Plant Ecology and a Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been working at the Manitoba Museum since 2003, conducting research mainly on rare plant and pollination ecology.