Coronavirus lockdown: How to work on Te Papa specimens when shut out of the building

Coronavirus lockdown: How to work on Te Papa specimens when shut out of the building

In mid-March 2020 people started talking about the possibility of Te Papa shutting down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. What if we all had to work from home for an extended period? Many of the Natural History staff could research and write papers from home, but what about the people whose jobs normally involved handling specimens every day? Natural History technician Bridget Hatton came up with a workaround and takes us through what happened.

At Te Papa’s herbarium of dried plant specimens, as with most other herbaria worldwide, we have a ‘backlog’. These are specimens mounted on sheets of card or paper that have often been in the collection for many years. They were originally recorded in old registers and allocated numbers but have not yet been digitised.

An open ledger in front of a stack of old books
Original registers from the old Dominion Museum. Photo by Bridget Hatton. Te Papa

Our technicians are working their way through these but it is a detailed process. Each sheet needs to be looked at, the information on handwritten labels deciphered and entered in the database, and mapping coordinates worked out.

A page of notes and dried plants
A selection of plant specimen labels. Photo by Bridget Hatton. Te Papa

With the lockdown looming, one of our technicians realised that with some tweaks we could use our existing method of imaging specimens to quickly take photos of backlog herbarium sheets, upload them to our computers and the work could then be potentially done from anywhere. We already had a list of plant families that were not completely databased, so 29 boxes were pulled out and imaged.

A woman leaning over a flat surface with a camera sitting above her on a pole
Bridget Hatton, Natural History technician, imaging specimens in the herbarium. Photo by Te Papa

Image-viewing software was checked and updated, the large files were uploaded and staff were advised to take their computers home each night (just in case!). When the doors were locked on Saturday 21 March, we were prepared.

Nettles and spurges and sundews, oh my!

Over lockdown, details of nearly a thousand plant specimens were added to the database, and ten plant families completed – stonecrops, nettles, spurges, sundews, gunneras, oxalis, gooseberries, cucurbits, tamarisks and willows.

Now that the technicians are back in the herbarium, there is still some work involved with writing the registration numbers on sheets and labelling folders and boxes. The photos will also be added to Te Papa’s Collections Online.

A woman sitting at a long desk with scissors, paper and dried plants on the surface
Ashleigh Immers, technician, processing specimens after lockdown. Photo by Bridget Hatton. Te Papa

The system worked so well one day of imaging provided more than two weeks of databasing that we have decided to do some more imaging to create a bit of a reserve, just in case it is needed in the future.

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