About Tasmanian Herbarium

A Brief History

The Tasmanian Herbarium is a section of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery which is administered by the Department of Tourism, Parks, Heritage and the Arts. The Herbarium presently houses about 370,000 plant specimens, with angiosperms being the largest plant group represented. Although smaller in size, the collections of gymnosperms, pteridophytes, bryophytes, lichens, algae and fungi are also very significant and include many Type specimens.

The founding collections of the Tasmanian Herbarium date from the early 1830s. They were made by amateur botanists such as Robert William Lawrence, Ronald Campbell Gunn and Joseph Milligan, residents of Tasmania who collected widely across the State. However, older Tasmanian material, dating back to the beginnings of European contact with the island, has recently been donated by the Natural History Museum, London. These include collections made by David Nelson during the visit of Captain James Cook's voyage to Bruny Island in 1777, and by Robert Brown, William Patterson and George Caley during the founding of the colonies at Hobart and Port Dalrymple in 1804.

In 1838, the Tasmanian Society was formed by the Governor, Sir John Franklin, with Ronald Gunn as its secretary. The aim of the Society was to promote scientific enquiry in the colony. A second scientific body, the Royal Society, was founded in 1843 by the succeeding Governor, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot. The two Societies merged in 1848 as the Royal Society. Botanists held prominent positions throughout the early years of the Society. Important plant specimens given to the Society included Joseph Milligan's collections presented in 1852; collections of Australian plants, presented in 1857 by Ferdinand von Mueller; collections of Tasmanian plants plus specimens from the Erebus and Terror expedition presented in 1861 by Ronald Gunn and Joseph Dalton Hooker; and Gunn's private herbarium presented in 1878. Regrettably, due to curatorial problems, this last donation was transferred to the National Herbarium of New South Wales in 1904, although some duplicates were subsequently returned to Tasmania.

In 1928, the Royal Society of Tasmania founded a Botanical Section of the Museum, with the aim of developing a Tasmanian Museum Herbarium. The Herbarium, under the directorship of the Honorary Government Botanist, Leonard Rodway, was housed at the Botanical Gardens until 1932 when Rodway resigned and his wife, Olive Rodway, was appointed Keeper. The collections were moved back to the Museum, and important additions made in succeeding years were Rodway's personal herbarium, consisting of flowering plants, fungi, mosses and liverworts, and R.G. Brett's collection of eucalypts. Olive Rodway resigned in 1941 and the Herbarium was again moved to the Botanical Gardens. It was housed there in a wooden hut, under the care of a part-time Keeper, Dr Winifred Curtis.

The instigation of degree courses in Botany by the University of Tasmania in 1938 saw the development of an herbarium at the University, comprising collections made mainly by staff, particularly the Head of the Botany Department, Dr Hugh Gordon, Dr Winifred Curtis and Miss Janet Somerville. Dr Gordon persuaded the Trustees of the Tasmanian Museum and Botanical Gardens to transfer, on loan, the Herbarium collections to the University campus, in order to expedite the preparation of a revised Flora for Tasmania. Dr Curtis took charge of this project and the first part of The Student's Flora of Tasmania was published in 1956.

In 1950, separate Boards of Trustees were established to administer the Botanical Gardens and the Museum and Art Gallery. The herbarium collections were allocated to the Botanical Gardens but remained on loan to the University of Tasmania.

In 1965, the collections were moved to a new building which housed the Botany Department on the Sandy Bay campus of the University. The collections were in the care of Professor W.D. Jackson, the Head of the Botany Department.

In 1975, an Australian Biological Resources Study grant was made available to formulate a plan for the future development of the Herbarium. Mr John W. Parham was appointed to undertake this study. His recommendations led to the adoption of the name 'Tasmanian Herbarium' and the formal transfer of the collections in 1977 from the care of the Trustees of the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens to the Trustees of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

From 1978–1992, Dr Tony Orchard was the Senior Curator in charge of the Herbarium. In 1988, the collections were moved from the Botany Department to a new, purpose-built facility nearby. The Herbarium remains in this building today, under the direction of Mr Bill Bleathman (Director) from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (Department of Tourism, Parks, Heritage and the Arts) and with the Head of the Herbarium being Dr Gintaras Kantvilas.

(Taken, in part, from G. Winter (1993), Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania 127: 61–66; andJ.W. Parham (1976), ABRS Tasmanian Herbarium Project. Final Report.)


Role of the Herbarium

In late 2000, a new Strategic Business Plan was developed by the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, with the following four key objectives:

I. Conservation of Tasmania's cultural and natural history record,

II. Public programmes,

III. Promoting Tasmania, and

IV. Financial diversification.

The activities reviewed in the following pages are presented according to these objectives.


Core business of the Herbarium

1. The Herbarium is responsible for the development, maintenance and management of the botanical collections of Tasmania. These currently number about 370,000 specimens and represent the most comprehensive, vouchered scientific record of the Tasmanian flora in the world.

2. The Herbarium undertakes research into the identification, classification and relationships of the Tasmanian flora.

3. The Herbarium provides a wide range of botanical services to the Tasmanian community and a window to the Tasmanian flora for the rest of the world. These services include:

  •  A reference collection available for consultation by individuals and agencies for investigations on Tasmanian plants.
  •  An up-to-date inventory of all vascular plants occurring in Tasmania, with details of their distribution in time and space.
  •  Development and maintenance of a computer database of specimen label data, providing information on the distribution of Tasmanian flora.
  •  A plant identification service for the general public.
  •  An identification service for forensic, poisons, quarantine and weed-control related enquiries.
  •  Specialist and independent advice and information to support land-use, resource management and flora conservation activities provided for governments, industry and individuals.
  •  Qualified personnel to undertake surveys and environmental impact assessments.
  •  Handbooks and research publications on the Tasmanian flora.
  •  Maintenance of a specialist botanical library.
  •  Support and assistance with education, particularly for post-graduate students from the University of Tasmania but also for undergraduates, and students from technical colleges and schools.
  •  Management of documentation dealing with the transit of scientific botanical specimens into and out of Tasmania (e.g. CITES, loans, exchanges).

The core activities of the Tasmanian Herbarium are complementary to aspects of botanical research and survey undertaken in several other professional organisations in Tasmania. These organisations include, in particular, the Nature Conservation Branch, Threatened Species Unit and the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, the Division of Forest Research and Development at Forestry Tasmania, the Forest Practices Unit of the Forest Practices Board, the Australian Antarctic Division, the School of Plant Science, the School of Agricultural Science and the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania.