The colonial legacy of herbaria

Study suggests that colonial exploitation of plant specimens has inverted the relationship between where plant diversity naturally occurs and where key scientific evidence is catalogued and housed

GBIF-mediated data resources used : 50,303,354 specimen records
Erythroxylum pelleterianum
Erythroxylum pelleterianum A.St.-Hil. collected in Brazil via the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, USA

Four hundred million specimens residing in herbaria worldwide form the basis of our understanding of the planet's flora. Originally collected to describe species and identify species of potential economic value, herbarium specimens have since served as the basis of further innovation, most recently through advances in digitization, sharing of open data, and methods for high-throughput DNA sequencing.

Despite efforts from institutions of natural and cultural history, plant collections remain embedded in sociopolitical connections in which potential legacies of colonialism and representation persist. Early botanical exploration often took place within the framework of colonial expansion and exploitation and with complex relationships between collectors and indigenous guides sometimes coloured by duress or lack of consent.

In a study published in Nature Human Behaviour, Park and colleagues from 31 countries on every continent analysed data on more than 85 million plant specimens to quantify geographic patterns of where specimens were collected and where they currently reside. In addition to 50 million GBIF-mediated records, the authors also surveyed 172 institutions directly, receiving responses from another 92 herbaria across 39 countries.

Upon compiling country-by-country matrices separated into two subsets by period—before and after the second World War (WWII)—they revealed strong imprints of colonialism in collections. Specifically, most of the world's flora was stored in temperate regions, and institutions in the United States and several European nations housed more than twice the number of species that occur in these nations.

While overt colonialism drew to an end after WWII, the historical trend of specimen movement to Europe and North America from the rest of the world remained largely constant after WWII. The proportion of specimens collected from other continents has increased over time, and the US emerged as the largest collector of overseas specimens after WWII.

The authors suggested as the main take-home point of the study that the colonial legacy of herbaria should be acknowledged and presented in collections alongside specimen interpretations and role in scientific research to help ensure inclusiveness in future curation and use of these collections. They also highlighted targeted funding initiatives, such as Biodiversity Information for Development (BID), as potential means to help address disparities. Most importantly, the authors stressed that the needs and wishes of the people who lived under colonial rule must guide efforts to address the colonial history of these collections.

Park et al (2023) The colonial legacy of herbaria. Nature Human Behaviour. Springer Science and Business Media LLC. Available at: