Jessye Wdowin-McGregor, recent University of Melbourne conservation graduate

In January 1972, 126 sheets of foreign collected plant specimens from the Araliaceae family (largely from the genus Schefflera) was sent on loan from the National Herbarium of Victoria in Melbourne, to Dr. David Frodin, Keeper of the Herbarium, University of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. In mid-1978, the loaned Araliaceae material was seriously damaged in a fire, resulting in many of the sheets becoming severely burnt. The material includes specimens collected in Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Samoa, Timor, New Zealand and one specimen from Sydney, Australia. The 126 sheets are significant, featuring many specimens collected in the nineteenth century and sent to Ferdinand von Mueller, who established the National Herbarium of Victoria in 1853.

During February through to May in 2015, recent University of Melbourne conservation graduate Jessye Wdowin-McGregor conducted a detailed and comprehensive assessment of the burnt Araliaceae specimens. A description of the damage to each sheet was recorded and the burnt material was sorted into categories according to condition (fair, poor, unacceptable). While just over a third of the sheets suffered severe scorch damage to specimen, label and mount and will require specialist conservation treatment, it was determined that the remaining sheets could be re-mounted in house or were stable enough to stay in place on their original mounts. In addition, each specimen was removed from the newspaper that contained it and placed in acid-free tissue paper between a new folded bond.

Dr. Pina Milne, Manager, Collections at the Herbarium, uncovered important additional details about the collection during the project upon contacting Dr. Frodin, who is now retired, and an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. Dr. Frodin noted that the fire was accidental, resulting from faulty electrical equipment or wiring within the temporary herbarium building in which the collection was housed. It is fortunate that Dr. Frodin had earlier gone through the specimens and put together his own notes, which contain details of the species, collector, geography, date and MEL number. Dr. Frodin’s card notes were invaluable for the assessment, particularly where this type of information was lost or unreadable on the remains of the specimen labels.

It is hoped that the assessment will also be useful as a reference when preparing an application to secure funding for possible conservation treatment to those specimens that require it.     

The project was supported by National Herbarium of Victoria, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria staff Dr. Pina Milne (Manager, Collections) and Wayne Gebert (Curation Officer).