Month: September 2014

A Visit to the Herbarium at Singapore Botanic Gardens

I really do love my day job. I have the occassional opportunity to venture into interesting places that I am eager to share.

The herbarium at Singapore Botanic Gardens is one of such places. It is tucked at a corner of the sprawling compound and may not be easily noticeable to common visitors. Part of the herbarium, particularly the preparation area is open for public viewing via a glass window in the library.

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Peek behind the glass for a closer look at herbarium preparation

Through the window, you can observe how the experienced technician mounts the herabium plant specimen by applying glue and adhering it to a rag-cotton archival-quality card. The specimen is then sewed onto the sheet for additional support before the information label is pasted on. This step of preparation is only one of the several steps involved in the herabium specimen making process.

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A completed herbarium specimen

Prior to mounting, other steps include collecting the plant specimen, preparing the sample using chemical treatment, preparing the information on the label and cataloguing the specimen in a database.

The widespread, scientific circulation of the herbarium specimen is precisely why it is so important to maintain a high level of accuracy and precision in each step of the preparation process.

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Applying adhesive to the specimen

In a nutshell, a herabium specimen is a physical sample of a known plant classified according to the modern Angiosperm Phylogeny Group Plant Classification System. The specimen is usually collected during a fieldtrip or a floristic survey. About 30cm of the plant, representative of its growth, including leave, stem, flowers and fruit is collected intact. Each collected sample is accompanied by comprehensive field notes and desk research. Information include the collector’s name, date of collection, collection number, locality, habitat and description of the plant habit, especially notes on field characters that cannot be observed on the dried specimen.

Famous herbarium collectors who had graced the shores of Singapore include the great naturalist, Alfred Wallace, best known for his work on the theory of evolution through natural selection in 1858, paralleling the work of Charles Darwin. He conducted extensive fieldwork in Borneo and Malaysia, using Singapore as his research base. Wallace’s herbarium specimens now reside in UK collections, such as his fern collection in Cambridge University spanning 33 species, 22 genera and 17 families. More information can be found at http://cambridgeherbarium.org/collections/alfred-russel-wallace-ferns/.

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Old herbarium collections

Another famous plant collector well known in Singapore is Henry Ridley, the first Scientific Director of Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1911. He was known for the many years spent promoting rubber as a commercial product and his discovery in 1895 of a means of tapping which did not seriously damage the rubber trees. Due to his discovery and work, he was largely credited for establishing the rubber industry in Malaya and Singapore. Less well known, Ridley lived to a ripe old age of 100 and retired in Kew, where he continued to visit the Royal Botanic Gardens on a regular basis. He also bought back many herbarium and timber samples now stored in Kew. The picture below shows one of such sample which I had the privilege to hold when I studied in Kew.
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So how do herbarium samples relate to bookbinding? According to Duke University Herbarium (http://herbarium.duke.edu/about/what-is-a-herbarium), Luca Ghini, professor of medicine and botany at the University of Pisa during the 16th century, is credited with the invention of the herbarium. Traditionally, several plant specimens were glued in a decorative arrangement on a single sheet of paper. These sheets were then bound into volumes, stored in a library, and cited like books. Specimens were thus placed into a fixed order from which they could not be removed without destroying the specimens.

It was the famous Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus who advised readers of his Philosophia Botanica in 1751 to mount just one specimen per sheet and refrain from binding the sheets together. For storage of the mounted specimens, Linnaeus suggested a specially-built cabinet where individual sheets could easily be inserted at any place, removed at any time, and reinserted again anywhere in the collection. In contrast to the bound volumes of older herbaria, the order that Linnaeus’ herbarium cabinet brought to his collection was not fixed into perpetuity. This “internal mobility” of the herbarium could accommodate the arrival of new material and enabled the user to repeatedly rearrange that material to reflect new knowledge.

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Example of a bound herbarium volume

Hence, while not common, herabarium found as handbound volume do exist and are treasured. So, next time you stumble upon a volume of herbarium specimen, who knows, it might turn out to be quite valuable!

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Weaving and Binding Pages of History — A Cultural Mapping Approach to Bookbinding

In August 2014, I had the privilege to collaborate with National Arts Council (Singapore) and Georgetown Festival (Penang, Malaysia) to launch a series of art exploration workshops which use cultural mapping techniques to rethink the format of classroom based craft learning.

Weaving and Binding Pages of History was envisioned to bring participants, particularly locals, closer to where they stay and to discover nuggets of history in their neighbourhoods. These nuggets of information are grouped within an umbrella theme (e.g. nature, history, culture, sports, etc) which also serves as the inspiration for them to create personalised covers and structures for the book.

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4 workshops, 2 in Singapore and 2 in Penang were created after a period of research and experimentation with potential book structures and art mediums. These 4 workshops are “Glorious stained glass and tiles in Bras Basah”, “Sacred tree and green spaces in Toa Payoh”, “Stories cast in stone, exploring Georgetown’s Chinese architectural symbolism” and “Penang and its world of spices”. 

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The format of the premise is straight-forward. Participants are first bought on a guided tour around the neighbourhood, understanding the history and culture of the vicinity. Thereafter, the theme for the day was announced and participants are given some time to collect found objects or raw materials to create their unique book. With the gathered items, everyone heads back to the classroom, discuss what and why they had gathered these objects. Then using suitable art mediums, participant create personalised designs on the covers and the book before finally binding the covers and text block together. Each workshop lasts about 4 – 6 hours and there is nary a dull moment in the workshop as each activity component actively engages everyone’s mind and hands. The required energy and input may be much higher than a typical bookbinding workshop but it definitely doubles the satisfaction level as well!

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By engaging participants to immerse in the community, the community will reciprocate by showing its vibrancy. Learning becomes interactive and the workshop becomes a two-way flow of information between the instructor and participants. Without venturing out, participants would not have realised the potential of their surroundings as a form art inspiration and likewise, the instructor would have underestimated the potential of each participant in creating works of art within a short time.

These four workshops have truly opened my eyes to the potential of using cultural mapping techniques even in 1 day craft and bookbinding workshops. In fact, I believed strongly in the potential of art as a community changemaker that I even gave a talk on the potential of simple art and craft as a way for everyone to create “mental maps” and “visual time capsules” for their surroundings!

For more pictures and information, visit my facebook album and see the Bookbinder and Flaneur presentation.