Chad Machinski – “Into the Herbarium Cabinet”

The Range – This is where pressed plant specimens are kept. Filed by plant Family, Genus, Species, and Geography. Image used with permission by the University of Michigan Herbarium. Photography by Chad Machinski

The romance of the herbarium is not readily apparent upon first approach. I don’t know much about architectural style, but “office building meets warehouse” is the best way to describe the Research Museums Center, where the herbarium is located. Cubicles and offices at first really make you wonder if you’ve entered the correct building, but further meandering presents you with the Range. ‘The Range’ is where herbarium specimens are kept. Approximately 1.7 million pressed plants exist in the Range, making it the second-largest herbarium at a public university in the world. The Range is daunting. The rows of cabinets almost seem to go on forever. The vastness is then furthered once you open a cabinet and see that they are, more often than not, filled to the brim with pressed plants from the mid-1800s to the present, from across the globe.

Inside a cabinet. The different colors indicate the general geographic region of the world they are from. Each folder may hold a few sheets to several dozen sheets. Image used with permission by the University of Michigan Herbarium. Photography by Chad Machinski

The herbarium can feel inaccessible to the mind, and in some ways it is, since it is not designed to be a public-facing museum. However, if one is graced with the opportunity to work among the cabinets, this museum offers an accessible view of the natural history of the world, a history of the study of botany at the University of Michigan, and even provides personal connections. I had never worked at a herbarium before, so when the opportunity arose to intern there for the Museum Studies Program I knew I had to pursue it. Re-filing, data entry, and unpacking were primary tasks that I was assigned, all of which offered opportunities to learn about herbarium processes and botany.

When re-filing specimens to their taxonomic family, I found it a fun challenge to see if I could identify specimens to family and potentially genus and it was thrilling to see a specimen from Mexico, know that it is in Thalictrum (Meadow-rues), yet be able to see that it is not quite like the Thalictrums here in Michigan. One of my favorite specimens that I came across was for Senecio canescens from the Aster family. I don’t think in my life I had seen a plant that was as wooly as this plant was, and although the drying process had turned its otherwise white hairs brown, it was still just as awe-inspiring.

Senecio canescens. One of my favorite specimens to come across, MICH: 1558200, Image used with permission by the University of Michigan Herbarium. Photography by Chad Machinski

While spending hours among the cabinets in the Range was certainly possible, digitization and data entry needed to be done. Interestingly, data entry was one of my favorite tasks as it allowed me to see hundreds of specimens in a relatively short amount of time. At the herbarium, the general practice of collectors is to provide decent information regarding the plant. Collector, location, description, date, and more are usually all given on a label, allowing one to get a better picture of the moment of collection.

I saw the names of botanical heavy-hitters come across my screen, some I knew, some I didn’t: Ivar Tidestrom, Harley Harris Bartlett, Mary Wharton, Elzada Clover, H.H. Rusby, Ed Voss. You begin to see the patterns of collection and see where they spent significant time collecting; Bartlett in Washington, D.C., Wharton in Kentucky. You learn who had terrible handwriting or who provided just the right amount of information and who didn’t; screw you Rusby, bless you Wharton. As collectors or determiners (the person who identifies the specimen), I saw all the names of current and retired faculty who still hold offices in the herbarium: Berry, Burnham, Rabeler, Andersen, Reznicek, Ruhfel.

One of many almost completely illegible labels written by the one and only H. H. Rusby, ‘Quercus pungens’ being the only thing I can confidently interpret. MICH: 1567729, Image used with permission by the University of Michigan Herbarium. Photography by Chad Machinski

I began to notice strange connections from the past to the present, often sobering. Elzada Clover, the first woman to raft the full length of the Colorado River, collected in Lake Mead. At the time of that specimen coming across my screen Lake Mead had been in the news; drought had brought it to its lowest point, so low that bodies in barrels were being found. Would Clover recognize Lake Mead today? Another label from a different collector 90 years ago gave a locality as “20 miles north of Uvalde.” Yes, the same Uvalde where the devastating school shooting happened on May 24th of this year. Other labels, while not connected to the news, gave unfortunate looks into the time between the moment of collection and the present. For example, a label from Florida provided the locality as “Pelican Lake” but gave no county. A Google map search for Pelican Lake gave me a small town near Lake Okeechobee, but I felt unconvinced this was correct. A little more digging led me to a website with an old map of the area showing Pelican Lake just barely southeast of Lake Okeechobee. But Pelican Lake was no more; it was drained in the early 1900s and filled in for agriculture, a fate met by many a shallow lake and wetland of North America.

Surprisingly, personal connections abound in the herbarium. Interested in what plants are there that have been collected in your town? A query shows me what plants from Lambertville, MI have been collected, by whom, and when. Did we have any collections from near my family’s cottage? Query for Middle Bass Island. Without intentionally looking it up, I found that on my 10th birthday, Oldham and Bakowsky were collecting Humulus lupulus, or Hops, along the Rainy River in Ontario, Canada. On my 21st birthday, C. T. Philbrick and Claudia Bove were in the Paru River in Brazil, collecting Apinagia, a genus of plants that is found clinging to rocks in freshwater habitats of South America.

One day, I decided to run a query when I had a minute to spare:

Collection Object

Cataloger Last Name


168 results, not all his, but mostly his. “Kay” is my best friend’s last name who passed away last December due to complications from a life-long battle with an immunodeficiency disease. When we were roommates in 2014, he worked at the herbarium for a short period of time. He wasn’t a botanist, actually a physical therapist and later a computer scientist, but he needed a job during our last semester of undergrad and the herbarium was hiring. I wanted to see what he cataloged; mushrooms apparently, I assumed he was doing plants. Other than his name being attached to the records as the cataloger, there is no indication that he is the one that typed in the data. But something about knowing that he typed those words, maybe even on the same keyboard as I worked, and that he moved through these halls gives me one more connection that I’m always looking for.

This past spring, I heard a museum professional say that they would never visit a particular museum institution, the only explanation for this seemed to be that the subject matter wasn’t of interest to them. I found this to be a discouraging statement and one that has stuck with me, as I assume that some people may feel the same way about the herbarium. However, I am of the firm belief that a museum is only as interesting as you allow it to be; if you are curious, there is something there for you to learn. Connections abound within the herbarium cabinet, but the first step to realizing them is opening it up.

Thank you to the Museum Studies Program for funding this internship and thank you to Brad Ruhfel and Kyle Lough for giving me the opportunity to work at the herbarium. I appreciated your patience with me as I navigated through this work. 

Chad Machinski

Besides being a MSP Graduate Fellow, Chad Machinski is a Graduate Student in the School for Environment and Sustainability in the Conservation Ecology track. He is the President of BUDS, the botany student group, and a Caretaker at Nichols Arboretum. Chad’s free time is spent botanizing and his busy time is spent thinking about how he’d rather be botanizing.