Under My Nose: Tour of St. Louis Botanical Gardens’ Conservation Lab and Library

Today’s post is by 2018 MRCG Emerging Professionals Scholarship winner Greg Niemann, who is the Conservation Technician at the Missouri Historical Society.

Growing up about an hour north of St. Louis meant many long bus rides on class trips to many of the landmarks around the city. As a kid, you never truly appreciate all of your surroundings, all that makes up your world and everything that influences you. I can remember touring the Botanical Gardens, admiring all the flowers in full bloom as I walked by, or seeing the Climatron and being amazed at the grandeur of the structure and what it held inside. I never stopped to think of all that went into the preservation of flora that I so relished.

When I returned home from college, my friends and I would regularly attend the concerts the gardens would host every Wednesday during the summer. My drive to and from would take me past all these buildings, one of which was the Botanical Library, but I had never given them a second thought. Thankfully, through the kindness of MRCG to grant me a scholarship, I was able to attend this year’s symposium and see what I had been missing out on.

Upon entering the foyer of the building, there were several beautifully carved pillars made from the trunks of various trees. Our building guide was Doug Holland, Library Director at the Botanical Gardens, who discussed the anti-seismic features that were incorporated due to the concern posed by the proximity of the New Madrid Fault. We were then led upstairs to the library and conservation lab. Susie Cobbledick, book conservator at the Botanical Gardens, talked about the challenges in maintaining historical books not just for exhibition but for use. We were shown some of the current projects she is working on, including the largest book in their collection, weighing approximately 40 pounds, which contained beautiful color images of flora.

We were then next led to the Rare Books section where several examples of the collection were on display for us in their reading room. Books ranged from elaborate and ornate, such as a floral illustrative book for Madame Bonaparte, to more humble, mass produced books of the Industrial Revolution era. Susie also showed us some of the oldest books they have, dating as far back as the late 1400’s.

For our final stop on the tour, we were shown a small fraction of the collection of botanical samples they have. Upon entering, I was overcome with the intense smell of what I could best describe as tea. Their collection spans the entire globe and is considered to be one of the largest such collections the US. Susie discussed the fact that many other collections have become ‘orphaned’ due to a cut in their funding and were absorbed by the institution, a problem that they themselves are dealing with since one of their biggest sponsors, Monsanto, was sold to Bayer.

I only know now of the dedication and effort in the preservation of not only our gardens, but of the knowledge of flora from around the world. I wish that I would’ve known sooner so I could’ve already been exploring the vast catalog of knowledge that have been so close to home. It’s time to make up for some lost time.



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