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Natural History Museum of Jamaica preserving our natural heritage

Published:Sunday | November 27, 2016 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams
A section of the science library at the Natural History Museum of Jamaica located at 10-16 East Street, downtown Kingston.
The seeds and leaves of the Prinos dioicus are the oldest specimens in the collections of the botany department at the Natural History Museum of Jamaica. They were collected in Montserrat in 1778 by John Ryan.
A section of the ceiling of the Natural History Exhibition Gallery, now under construction, showing stalactites.

Jamaica has a long and colourful social and political history that is documented in diverse places. But the history of the island's flora (plants) and fauna (animals), some of which are endemic, is much longer. And one institution that is preserving that history is the Natural History Museum of Jamaica, a division of the Institute of Jamaica, located at 10-16 East Street, downtown Kingston.

It is the national herbarium that houses the national collection and documents the island's biodiversity, according to botanist Keron Campbell. It has four major departments: botanical collections, zoological collections, a science library, and the education and outreach department. The division is an important source of reference for local and international researchers and scholars.

The main objective of the botanical department is to preserve and manage the herbarium's collection of more than 130,000 specimens of flowering plants, algae, fungi, lichens, mosses, and ferns. It also houses wood samples, seeds, and fruits. It is important to note that not all the specimens are from Jamaica. Some are from other Caribbean islands, Central and South America. The oldest specimen in the collection is the Prinos dioicus, collected in 1778 in Montserrat by John Ryan.

The majority of the specimens were collected by world-renown botanist George Proctor. Hans Sloane, for whom some species are named, is one of the earliest collectors whose specimens are housed in the museum. Some of the specimens, such as the Myrcia Skeldingi (Mason River myrtle), collected at Mason River in Clarendon in 1957, and named for University College of the West Indies' Professor A.D. Skelding, are regarded as extinct.

Insects collected in Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean are preserved in the zoological department. These insects form the largest group in the zoological collections of 110,000 specimens, which include molluscs, reptiles, amphibians, and birds. It is said that the oldest insect therein is the endemic saturniid moth called Sloane Urania. It is now extinct. The museum said the collections "support the division's educational activities by providing specimens for display to the general public".

The museum's special science library has a reference collection of more than 10,000 sources, including rare collections. It also has maps, drawings, paintings, and audiovisual materials. The education and outreach department offers programmes and activities that foster awareness of Jamaica's biodiversity. This outreach is to be significantly extended when the new natural history gallery, now under construction, is opened.