Curator of an Herbarium

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Curator of an Herbarium

An herbarium is a collection of preserved plants used for research. The job of a curator of an herbarium is to coordinate the growth of the herbarium while preserving the past collections. Depending on the size of a facility the curator may supervise a small or large staff, thus the salary range is great: approximately $25,000 to $80,000 or more per year. A curator also assists herbarium users and researchers and conducts her/his own research. Most curators of large herbaria have doctorate degrees, but in smaller herbaria the position may require only a master's degree. Degrees required are related to some branch of botany, most commonly plant systematics.

The curator oversees the selection of specimens to be placed in the collection. Specimens are selected for their quality and completeness. The curator knows the contents of the general collection in the herbarium, and selects specimens that add new information. She/he also chooses specimens that are used in specific studies, called voucher specimens.

Those who process new specimens are trained by the curator to mount the collections on herbarium paper, to prepare them for accession into the herbarium, and to file the specimens. Sheets must be carefully mounted with a label that contains the collector's information, and then a number (called an accession number) is stamped on each sheet. The plant is sterilized and filed. The filing must be done carefully, as a misfiled plant may not be seen again for years until it is accidentally found. At university herbaria, student workers are hired to assist in all of the herbarium functions, and that is how many interested people get their introduction to an herbarium and get their first botanical job experience.

Often the information on an herbarium sheet is entered into a computer database. This information is kept in the herbarium for visitors and users, and increasingly such information is being posted on Web sites. Searchable databases may subsequently be linked with similar databases from other herbaria and accessed by any computer.

Visitors and users of the herbarium may include the public, researchers, students, or representatives from public agencies trying to solve problems or accurately enforce laws and regulations. The curator is both a botanist and public servant who has knowledge of the local plants. He/she must try to confidently identify specimens brought to the herbarium, including those that are not in ideal condition. Accurate identification is a skill that takes time to develop. The curator is knowledgeable about the literature available, reads new articles as they are published, and acts as a librarian who is able to direct people to the resources they need to find answers to their questions.

Herbaria both borrow and lend specimens so that researchers working at specific herbaria can study them. The borrowed specimens are treated carefully, kept in herbarium cabinets, and before the sheet is returned a small label (called an annotation label) is attached describing the study or naming the specimen. Herbaria also exchange duplicates of specimens so that other facilities can have more complete collections.

Herbarium curators usually have their own research projects. Often the curator becomes a specialist and publishes papers on her/his research. Publications from an herbarium inform the rest of the botanical world that the herbarium is active and is the location of expertise. The curator is also an administrator, determining the needs of the herbarium and budgeting money to effectively accomplish the herbarium's mission. The scope of this responsibility is varied from herbarium to herbarium. Herbaria may be associated with universities or museums, publicly or privately funded, or a combination of both. Many changes are coming to herbaria as science finds new information and paths of research. An herbarium curator is at the center of many and varied disciplines, protector of a historical asset, and a growing resource. Curators of herbaria are generally dedicated people who are fascinated by their jobs.

see also Taxonomist.

Philip D. Jenkins


Benson, Lyman D. Plant Classification, 2nd ed. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company,1979.

Bridson, Diane, and Leonard Forman. The Herbarium Handbook, 3rd ed. Kew, UK: Royal Botanic Gardens, 1998.