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So there doesn’t seem to be much interest in keeping the leftover shells. Can no one explain why they were deemed important in the first place?

Well here’s something else that’s been buried and forgotten amongst the clutter for years. Some old moss. It was found in the herbarium a month or two ago. No one appears to have missed it before, and there are other specimens of this plant, so it will be returning to oblivion unless someone is interested enough to want to rescue it.

Darwin moss

33 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve permalink
    08/07/2009 10:50 am

    The name, place and year are very evocative. Does it mean Charles Darwin himself collected this? What would his thought processes have been in collecting this particular plant, particularly as there are other specimens of the same plant (also collected by him?)? Hopefully an expert is at hand to help.

  2. 08/07/2009 12:09 pm

    Hi Hermit

    This small specimen of moss is of great interest and value for it represents the ultimate mummified bog body- a body made from the material of the bog itself. It is a META-BOG BODY.

    This fragile bog moss body is very worthy of saving. And there is a strong case for this specimen to be repatriated its original habitat. I would suggest a repatriation to the original site of extraction in Tierra del Fuego.

    To accomplish this task I would invite my collaborator Claire Long to help me. We would construct a special wooden keg in wich to bury this small sample of moss. We would wrap this box in a burlap sack and either send the bundle to an Argentinian artist for repatriation and subsequent burial or take the specimin to a local Dartmoor bog for a symbolic dramatized repatriation. The wrapped box containing the moss would be taken to a preselected spot and using an asze or a very sharp knife blade we would cut a square sod of bog out of the ground and ceremoniously lower the box into the hole. We would seal the hole with the peat sod. We would document the process of repatriation and present this to the museum for archiving.

    Bogs are terribly important but fragile habitats that also have some astonishing properties of preservation. Prehistoric peoples actually used the bog as a fridge or pantry to store butter in wooden kegs..” Bog bodies” have also been discovered in mumified condition mainly by peat cutters.

    The preserving powers of “bog”make it into the ultimate museum – A symbol of preservation and memory.
    For these reasons Darwin’s moss sample MUST be saved.

  3. 08/07/2009 12:49 pm

    I’m liking this. I am working on a poem about the hermit.

  4. Vicky permalink
    08/07/2009 12:55 pm

    the possible link to Darwin suggests its worth keeping this and researching into it more…I like the idea of it possibly being a hidden treasure, reappearing after years in the herbarium… like a memory of an experience from years ago.

    Who knows what significance people in the future might attach to this specimen, – is it right to destroy it now?

    Anyone who saw the excitement of young children being able to see a finch that Darwin had collected himself at one of the museum’s Big Saturdays would hopefully agree. I’m not sure the moss would take much handling, but it’s a good starting point for thinking about why things are collected – why we collect things ourselves, and imagining the journey of the object from place of origin to the museum.

    save the moss! If another object is required in its place, I will substitute my sandwich!

  5. Lindsey permalink
    08/07/2009 12:59 pm

    I am Assistant Curator of Botany here and I was the one who found this specimen recently. We didn’t know we had it. I was in the herbarium searching for some other moss specimens to send on loan, when I came across it. His name jumped out at me!

    I feel very fond this specimen and I would like it to be on display in the museum.

    Charles Darwin (he’s written his name on the front of the packet) collected many hundreds of plant and animal specimens, most of which were identified at a later date. We have several of this species of moss, mostly collected by different Victorian gentlemen because it was a fashionable hobby at the time.

  6. 08/07/2009 1:44 pm

    Why should someone making such crass, pretentious and ill-thought out remarks be taken seriously? I assume you are simply being provocative in order to draw attention to your rather feeble art project. You might argue a case for the moss sample to be retained at Darwin’s home, Downe House, in Kent. But to simply destroy it? The point about retention is that in an ideal world, all items of historical interest could be retained, in case anyone ever wished to see them for whatever reason.We need to aim for that unreachable idealist position all the time. So the world is materially less than ideal – would you then apply your impatient and intolerant scorched-earth policy out of frustration with the inability to achieve perfection? Go home and stop sharing your mundane wittering with the world. (I’m annoyed with myself for even replying to you…)

    • 08/07/2009 2:20 pm

      dear id,
      Thank you for appearing here.
      Are you by any chance my id?

    • 08/07/2009 4:45 pm

      Gosh, id! I’m not sure I like the sound of your ideal world. Wouldn’t it be terribly cluttered?

      Just imagine everything ever being preserved. That’s a lot of stuff. Have you ever visited one of those houses which are stacked to the ceiling with piles of old stuff because the owner cannot bear disposing of anything?

      Or would you draw the line of “historical interest” somewhere? In which case, wouldn’t you need a process of choosing which things to keep and which things to dispose of?

  7. Austin permalink
    08/07/2009 2:07 pm

    Dear Hermit,

    You are rather arrogantly making the assumption that only the people who read your musings are qualified to care; it doesn’t follow from the fact that nobody chooses to feed your ego by begging you to save these items that nobody cares about keeping these things. Can you imagine the outrage in ten years time if the descendents of an ancient African tribe come to Manchester to seek out some significant cultural artifacts they’ve heard are in the Museum, only to be told that they were destroyed in 2009 as part of an ‘art project’ and why didn’t they read the Hermit’s blog at the time?

    Please don’t destroy anything else.


  8. Bodger permalink
    08/07/2009 4:03 pm

    “Please don’t destroy anything else.”

    I don’t reckon he’s destroyed anything. I don’t think he will. It’s all a bit of a gimmick.

    I’m still interested in finding out whether the museum or the hermit are paying his council tax while he lives at the museum…

    • Cosi permalink
      08/07/2009 9:39 pm

      you’re still a cynic!

      and i think he might destroy stuff after all….
      calling all this a gimmick & a stunt makes it pretty easy for yourself to avoid engaging in what this projects purports to be about, don’t you think?

      • Bodger permalink
        09/07/2009 3:14 pm

        I might well be a cynic but please don’t think I’m not engaged.

        My frustration is with an art experiment where we are threatened with destruction of materials when I have grave doubts that the museum will actually allow him to destroy things. Given that museums generally seem to be much more in the habit of gathering rather than getting rid of.

        When I see evidence that one of the museum objects has been destroyed, I will gladly revise my opinion.

        In the meantime, I will engage and enjoy the debates as best I can.

        • 09/07/2009 5:35 pm

          You sound like you actually want to see things destroyed, Bodger.

          • Bodger permalink
            09/07/2009 11:32 pm

            Why not? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with destruction. In essence, that’s what the universe does through entropy anyway.

            • 10/07/2009 7:09 am

              Sabbo ādīpito loko,
              sabbo loko padhūpito;
              Sabbo pajjalito loko,
              sabbo loko pakampito.

              Akampitaṃ apajjalitaṃ,
              agati yattha mārassa —
              tattha me nirato mano.

              The entire world is in flames,
              the entire world is going up in smoke;
              the entire world is burning,
              the entire world is vibrating.

              But that which does not vibrate or burn,
              which is experienced by the noble ones,
              where death has no entry–
              in that my mind delights.

              Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.168

  9. Patricia permalink
    08/07/2009 5:16 pm

    I agree with Lindsey – I think it should be on display in the Museum particularly as in 2009 there are international celebrations to mark both 150 years since the publication of his chief work “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” and also to mark 200 years since his birth.
    Good to see that Charles Darwin was recycling paper in 1833. I’m really intrigued to know what is printed on the reverse of the label!

  10. 08/07/2009 5:59 pm

    I wonder perhaps, if you got a little square metre of sod from the amazonian rainforest daily, and offered to destroy it, would it have any more urgency in people’s minds, despite the irony that way more than a measly square metre is being destroyed is impunity and legally?

    I bet Darwin would be hugely concerned with the other hundreds of dying species of (just) alive moss and other flora.
    Is this an extinct moss?
    Could I accidentally find it in my hair after a rough and tumble walk where it was gathered that long ago?
    Can we grow it in a lab? Can I grow it in my garden?

    Maybe we could make it into a merkin for one Eco-tranny act?
    Once we’ve photographed it and sampled its’ DNA and catalogued it, surely then we can release back to where it would have gone anyway – into obscurity!

    • 09/07/2009 5:59 pm

      Love the way you think frecklescorp!
      Can I come on that rough and tumble walk with you?

      And thank you from the very bottom of my heart for making me look up a merkin.

      I mean find out what one is.

  11. Leander permalink
    08/07/2009 9:13 pm

    Well, I think you ought to destroy it and destroy it good and proper. However, I see from your comments that you’re not keen on hearing what people think ought to happen, but rather what we would do ourselves. So, in that case, I guess I’d better destroy it myself. That’s my offer…and I will. It will be so easy for me. It would be over in a jiffy.

    But, why on earth would I? I am after all the poor bloke who is responsible for the plant specimens at the Manchester Museum. Well, this is why. I’d do it as a protest. I want to shock people. I want to scream from the roof-tops, create a stir, outrage people

    And the reason I want to shock and appall is because I am appalled that this specimen has been hidden in the collection probably since 1890 and no-one has noticed. And what really breaks my heart is that I’m not the slightest bit surprised. It seems very normal to me. We’ve recently conducted an audit of our moss collection and found out (thanks to a fantastic team of volunteers) that it contains 70,000 specimens hidden away in the stores. We could put the Darwin moss (or mosses in fact – we have another 12) on display but what about the remaining 69,999 specimens. We can’t possibly display them all. We can’t possibly show them all to people on tours of the stores. We can’t possibly use even a fraction of them in public programmes or for schools programmes or for University teaching.

    So, how can we use the collection for everyone’s benefit? I think perhaps one of the best ways to visualise the collections of plants (and other organisms) held in museums is to view them as a map showing the distribution of species at different times over the centuries. From our modern point of view these maps of historic plants can help us assess change and this can be very useful information for studies into the effects of climate change and other environmental factors affecting the distribution of plants around the globe. The specimens can also simply help us compile a list of the species from a particular area (such straightforward lists are lacking from so many areas in the world). But in order to do this we need the data on the labels to be transcribed into databases. This is hard work, really hard work but I feel that now, especially with habitat destruction and species loss being a major concern, we need to focus our efforts on finding out about the species that live in the world more than ever before and now is the time more than ever before for investment in collections.

    I feel overwhelmed by the botany collection on a daily basis, 650,000 specimens of torment every day. However, there are 20 million plant specimens in the UK alone and over 300 million in the world. My problems are small fry compared to the global problem. Nobody knows how many species of plants there are in the world. In fact nobody knows how many species of anything there are in the world. Some people estimate 3 million, some people estimate 30 million. No-one has a handle on it and that is why I want to scream it from the roof tops, ‘destroy the specimen!’. An act of terrorism? Call it self-harming. It’s a cry for help and I think a lot of help is needed.

    So, there we are. I’m a desperate man but these are desperate times and desperate measures are needed.

    • Ray permalink
      09/07/2009 5:15 pm

      Leander: Calm down, calm down!

  12. 09/07/2009 1:37 am

    Dear Leander

    Your heartfelt frustrations ring loud and clear.

    “Nobody knows how many species of plants there are in the world. In fact nobody knows how many species of anything there are in the world.”

    Please can you explain to me the importance of collecting knowledge about these species? There are so many species we will probably never know about; species that have come into existence recently, and species that no longer exist.

    Can you explain why it’s important that examples of species are stored in museums, even though many collected items may never been seen?

    While I have been writing this comment, it’s statistically probable that a few species have died somewhere on the planet. Should I be upset at this, even though we humans may not have discovered these species yet?

    many thanks

  13. 09/07/2009 2:40 pm

    Dear Hermit

    Did the moss fall down between the floor boards of your cave or do you still have it in your care?
    I looked for it in “leaving the Shell “where I thought it may have come to rest …..but it wasnt’ in there.

    Perhaps it will re-emerge in Tierra del Fuego a bit later on…………

    • 09/07/2009 5:52 pm

      The moss is still here. There seem to be a number of ideas around it. Let’s gather more (unlike a rolling stone).

      Although I’m only exhibiting one new object a day, the previous ones are all still up for discussion. I think we should gather as many responses as possible so that between us we can get a feeling of the best course of action.

      So – you’ve still got a few weeks to discuss it, or make a video or a song, or a picture or a poem, or a groundbreaking research proposal or an elaborate description, with maps, of your trip to the bog, or whatever you like.

      By the way Anna, judging by the enthusiastic idea for the bog burial you and Claire came up with, you would have enjoyed the ‘Lindow Man’ exhibition here at the Museum a few months ago.
      Peat Bog was the bloke who was last on show here, before I got the shoved into the vitrine.

  14. Bryan Sitch permalink
    09/07/2009 4:09 pm

    I don’t think Leander should be too depressed that this specimen has been in the collection unrecognized as a Darwin specimen since 1890. Personally I find it one of the enduring delights and attractions of museum collections that we can still make wonderful new discoveries after all these years. Perhaps if we knew everything there was to know about them they would be predictable and boring. More power to Lindsey’s (or anyone else’s) elbow, that’s what I say.

  15. Cosi permalink
    09/07/2009 5:51 pm

    I wish I could offer a suitable home for the moss, I think it definately deserves one. Seeing Darwin’s own handwriting will inspire people. Even though scientifically it makes no difference to the moss’s importance at all, somehow it adds importance to the sample that we know who collected it and wrote the label and that it was a person we consider special.
    Leander’s frustration has prompted me to offer my services to volunteer at the nearest museum (maybe data entry? all those labels!) and if they have no use for me, I might try to come over to manchester for a day….
    This may only be a little thing I can do, but it is something I offer to actually DO, not just words.

    Leander, maybe you should not be so hard on yourself (and the predecessors in your job) for this specimen lingering unaudited all these years. It is amazing what can be discovered in museums (I find myself again thinking of and referring to Gilgamesh X, part of the Gilgamesh epic which was discovered by Alan Millard in the British Museum – maybe it had to wait for him to come along, as apparently no-one before him was able to identify the text as part of the story).
    You are obviously interested in actually knowing what you’ve got -enough to organise an extensive audit. Maybe others before you simply had different priorities and the chaos they have left for you has left gems such as this to be discovered 🙂

    • 09/07/2009 7:31 pm

      Wonderful! Here’s some of that help you’re crying out for Leander. Come one come all! Sign up here! The more the merrier.
      They know how to party in that herbarium. There’s potions, magic herbs, the lot.
      (You can cut him loose from those lianas now)

    • Leander permalink
      09/07/2009 9:27 pm

      Hi Cosi,

      Thank you for your kind comments. I’d just like say that I didn’t intend to be hard on myself or hard on my predecessors. When you consider that there are more staff working in a Tescos on a Tuesday night than have worked in the herbarium over its entire 110 year history you begin to get the picture. None of us have stood a chance. I’m convinced we’ve all tried out very best…and probably all gone a bit demented in the process.

      I guess what I’m trying to drive at is that in times of crisis (e.g. war) governments are prepared to spend billions. However, in this time of biodiversity crisis there doesn’t seem to be enough action at a global government level to address this level of crisis. Hence my desire to scream from the rooftops and indulge in dramatic attention seeking gestures.

  16. Leander permalink
    09/07/2009 9:12 pm

    Hi Cosi and Hermit,

    Thank you for your offer of help and your comments. In fact, I think it’s even better than wonderful! You don’t even have to come to Manchester to help out. There’s a great website; where you can transcribe label data from botanical specimens using your very own computer. The basic concept is that if one person has to document one million specimens that’s quite an undertaking and more than a lifetime’s work. However, if one million people document one specimen then you’re really motoring and its about 5 minutes work for each person. Together we can move mountains.

    OK, they haven’t quite reached that level yet but they’re doing pretty well with over 40,000 specimens catalogued so far. At the moment they’re concentrating on the University of Birmingham’s collection. But, hey, I’m not parochial. It’s for the greater good, for the good of the planet. And don’t worry about making mistakes. They look after you pretty well.

    • 09/07/2009 9:35 pm

      Now THAT is the best offer I’ve heard so far.
      What! You mean there’s something we can actually DO?!

      • Leander permalink
        09/07/2009 9:55 pm

        Yes, that’s right. Anyone, anytime, anywhere (well, as long as there’s a computer). It’s brilliant…aaaah!…people power!

  17. 10/07/2009 3:06 pm

    Leander – you sound like you need a hug (or a strong drink)! Clearly this project has released much pent up frustration. Ha! I can imagine you now, blow-torch in hand, threatening to set alight all moss and fern deposits unless we do something with them NOW!

    Cosi (and everyone!) – you MUST come to the Museum and visit the Herbarium. It is the most magical and inspirational space I have had the pleasure to root around in and photograph. Any students we’ve had up there have loved the freedom offered to them to open up all the secret spaces and drawers; unload boxes and cabinets in search of that special object which makes a connection, sparks a memory.

    In fact, I think we should open up all the basements and enable people to visit the unseen, the hidden, and all those specimens ‘unworthy’ for display.

    Ansuman – I know you are ‘locked’ in your tower, but I keep hoping to come into the Museum one morning to find all those reject-objects filling the gallery aisles, mocking those trapped behind the glass as they make their bid for freedom from the basement stores.

  18. 13/07/2009 7:35 pm

    Everything that Darwin collected contributed in some way to his development of evolution. How do you document an intellectual process with artifacts? Evolution along with plate tectonics, gravitational theory and quantum theory are the unifying theories of science. If they had the apple that fell on Newton’s head and they could prove provenance, I would say keep it. If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.

  19. Leander permalink
    07/10/2009 11:55 am

    The Collections Development Panel, along with the director and the artist, discussed the diatoms at a meeting on 3rd September

    The blog responses and discussions were summarised as:
    “This was only found in the collection recently. There was an interesting proposal from Anne Kelleher to bury the moss on Dartmoor or to return it to Argentina; this inspired a number of other comments around burial and the journey. Another proposal was to burn the specimen as an expression of frustration with the enormity of the problems of survival. However, this specimen will be on display in the Charles Darwin exhibition opening in October.”

    The group suggest that we retain the specimen as it will be displayed in the “Charles Darwin: evolution of a scientist” exhibition from October.

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