Rhian Rowson, Natural Sciences Curator at Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives visited Kingston, Jamaica in September/October 2016 with a WIRP Travel Grant. This is Rhian’s report from her visit.
The original plan was for me to travel alone to Jamaica, partly due to the extra cost of sending two people. However, we were advised that Kingston is not a safe city to travel around alone and therefore two members of staff needed to travel. This was a challenge as the WIRP Travel Grant we received was only enough for one person to travel. Opportunities for true international partnership and cross-disciplinary working are rare for our Natural Sciences team and it would have been a shame if I could not accept the WIRP Travel Grant and undertake the visit to Jamaica. Additional funding for travel was sought for my colleague, Dr Victoria Purewal, from the Art Fund’s Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant scheme once the WIRP Travel Grant has been awarded.
The aim of this study trip was to establish close communication and understanding between Bristol Museums, the Natural History Museum, the National Library, and the Urban Development Corporation of the University of the West Indies. With these key institutions we hoped to form a strong partnership through a shared project, exchange curatorial expertise and knowledge, and find new and engaging ways to connect Bristol’s Jamaican communities with our own stunning collections.
Through researching the historical background of Dr Arthur Broughton we would gain insight into his role in Jamaica in the 18th Century, including his introduction of cultivated species as food source for slaves, and his passion for learning about the native vegetation of the island. Anything we could learn about the impact this scholar had on the community and the landscape of Jamaica we would share through online resources.
We also aimed to verify the localities of the specimens, hand-inscribed by Broughton and to collect modern material for comparison beside this old collection. These will be useful to make comparisons in terms of systematic botany and gain new narratives regarding the species he collected.
Our first day included meeting with the herbarium curator and one of the botany lecturers from the University of the West Indies. Together with Keron Campbell, the Natural History Museum botanist, we headed to Long Mountain gathering as much replica plant material as we could find. It was fascinating to gauge how botanists in the field in Jamaica approach plant collecting compared to the UK; for example a plastic bag for collecting and a large machete for cutting through the bush to clear paths for us. Unfortunately social change and development has much affected the habitats surrounding Kingston. We had to be very careful where we went as areas have been secured by individuals for illegal clearing; charcoal burning and taking the land for their own personal use. The land can be guarded by dogs and it can be dangerous. During our trip we visited Long Mountain, the Pallisadoes, Liguanea, Salt ponds and Hope Botanic Gardens. All of the habitats differed greatly, once rich in biodiversity, but now sadly much of the natural habitats have declined, we were fortunate to find 28 matches across all of the sites available to us.
We also spent time researching in the library and archives. We were successful in finding out some key information on Dr Broughton that no-one else had, including his year of birth and date of death. However, our trip was cut short by 5 days as we were in the direct path of Hurricane Matthew and work had to stop until normal activity could resume safely.
Through the privilege of this visit we gained a great deal of understanding about ourselves, Broughton and his collection. By working with experts in the field, I gained so much knowledge about the vegetation of Jamaica, and gained new experiences of carrying out field work in a tropical country. All the field work we carried out was fascinating, as well as being fruitful in yielding specimens from Long Mountain, Salt Ponds and Pallisadoes.
I learned about the University/Museum’s Jamaican digitisation projects, the lectures they deliver and about their own herbarium collection. This highlighted some of the similarities between our institutions. The trip gave me confidence through networking with the Director of the Institute of Jamaica, who was so enthusiastic about our collaboration, the academics, curators and documentation assistants. Here I improved my knowledge on best practice.
I learned to control my nerves under potentially dangerous conditions with scary illegal activities taking place nearby, working in territories in which crocodiles had been seen, and especially the threat of a major hurricane on the trip.
The Broughton project is seen as one way to utilise the museum’s collections to engage with the cultural history of this community, and act as a link between the island and that community here in the UK. This formed a more tangible connection and closer working with another country and its community. We will establish a greater web presence with three Wikipedia sites, making our work with hard-to-reach communities locally more accessible through our project website, where we can share knowledge on Jamaican plants, botanical remedies and recipes with the communities. We have a much deeper insight into the habitats and communities within Jamaica and can impart our own personal experience to the project including surviving some quite testing events. It will increase the value of our collection having determined what is rare, extinct and endemic from the Broughton collection. It has also strengthened ties for potential future collaboration with the University and continued collaboration with the Institute of Jamaica, as we are developing a website between our three institutions and we will be electronically contributing to and attending a Botanical symposium on the 10th of November being held in Kingston, Jamaica.
This is a great example of a project featuring international co-operation on a historical natural science collection that transcends boundaries and engages with hard-to-reach communities in the UK. We plan to showcase it at a Natural Sciences Collection Association (NatSCA) AGM, an annual conference attended by curators from all around the UK. The UK Natural Sciences Collection Consortium Project Group is currently trying to make the case for Natural Sciences Collections nationwide, and this project could be used as an exemplar. We will also present it at the Caribbean Curatorial Symposium in November via Skype. We hope this project will inspire other museums to lead in similar projects with their historic collections as this will allow them to be studied from online resources throughout the world, to engage with museums in the countries where the collections originated. It will aid them to gain a better insight and use shared knowledge, leading to potential outreach to communities in the UK that have roots in those countries, helping them feel at home in Britain with their own heritage. Other UK museums with Jamaican botanical collections can also tap into our project, learn more and share the information they have.
We need to ensure that the Robert Long and Rev John Lindsay Jamaican Natural History manuscripts of the 1750’s are made available online. These are manuscripts associated with our Broughton collection. This would be a good follow-on project for which we are investigating potential sources of financial support.
Once our work on the specimens we collected is complete, we intend to learn and share ideas on Jamaican plants via a webpage run and shared by Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and NHMJ, maintained by the Natural Sciences team and Keron. This website will allow us to write blogs and share knowledge about our Jamaican collection and the relevant botanical work Keron carries out in his country. People of Jamaica and individuals from a Jamaican background in Bristol and elsewhere around the world can share their comments regarding plants, herbs, recipes and remedies just as Broughton and Lindsay’s own written work does. The Jamaican virtual herbarium created by the University of West of Indies and NHMJ could be hosted here too along with our Broughton virtual herbarium. We wish to set up Wikipedia pages on Rev John Lindsay and Robert Long and to update the Broughton Wikipedia page.
We have applied for the BSHS Engagement Fellowships Expressions of Interest for Host Organisations, 2016-17 to work on the Broughton collection. If we are successful this will help us achieve our goals sooner. We are also working closely with our community team to engage the Bristol Jamaican community with the botany of Jamaica.
Keron will continue to work through the 1,000 BMAG’s specimens collected by Broughton, updating the current scientific names of the plants from Jamaica, giving us an accurate record of what we have.
“Rhian’s visit to Jamaica has opened up wonderful new avenues for one of our most significant collections. The opportunity to spend time with museum and university colleagues in the country and to experience its modern habitats and cultures has generated rich new understanding, ideas and opportunities for collaboration that could not have been achieved remotely. It has also given our wider team the confidence to further pursue international working.”
Isla Gladstone, Senior Curator (Natural Sciences)
“An incredible experience that I will never forget and I will always be grateful for having had an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Rhian Rowson, Curator (Natural Sciences)