fungi (frogs) and pheromones

In the course of the follow-up visits (Nov 2011) to Wildlife (ANWC), Insect (ANIC) and Herbarium (ANH) curators and managers emphasise the way images and visualisation contribute to the development and management their collections. The Atlas of Living Australia, the remote microscope, microscopy, scanning, analysis techniques and DNA sequencing are central to expansion and revision of collections, the research and analysis of extant material as well as managing and accessing data attached to each specimen.

The significance of contemporary imaging technology for studying these collections and for revealing the relationship between them also underpins the concept of the CSIRO Spectra symposium and an exhibition proposed for later in 2012.

My visits continue to yield audio and visual material that highlights the scope and the intrinsic relationship between specimens and images, within and across the collections. Presented with so much extraordinary material in the course of these visits it maybe easy become overwhelmed —wondering at it all. To navigate this mass of specimens, images, and data I am tracing the ecology of a threatened Spider orchids and its symbiotic relationship to other specimens in the soil, plant, insect and wildlife collections. Unraveling its association with other organisms such as the mycorrhizal fungi and identifying its pollinator is not as straightforward as it may first appear. The ecology of this and other orchids is elaborate and their capacity for sophisticated deception of particular pollinators is an intriguingly complex feature of their ecology.

Identification and analysis of different aspects of the orchid’s ecology reflect the scope of visualising technologies. Spatial and spectral information about the biochemistry of different organic material, such as pheromones or soil types, presents in very different visual systems from (numerical data in) graphs to satellite maps and these converge in a whole account of this specimen.

While the development of botany and other sciences can be linked  (historically) to the use of visually accurate images and universally accepted graphic conventions: for artists and scientists digital tools and techniques of visualisation offer very different possibilities for observation and experience. They not only reveal a paradoxical relationship between visual accuracy and truth, they radically change the way that images are regarded in both specialist areas and in the broader culture.


At the Australian National Herbarium’s Cryptogam collection (ferns, mosses, liverworts and lichens, algae and fungi) housed at the Australian National Botanical Gardens (ANBG), I see how the small and often unspectacular dried specimens are handled and organised. Heino Lepp, whose special study is mycology (fungi), talks about his research and the co-existence of analogue and digital processes —drawing writing and DNA analysis are used to describe and identify.

Heino’s drawings are detailed descriptions of specimens through close observation of their form and structure. To see and draw the microscopic detail of the corticioid fungi Heino uses a camera lucida, a long-standing aid in scientific illustration.  The black line drawings of this specimen show it fragmented and these irregular forms and structures are drawn at much larger scale than the specimen.

Corticioid fungi forms on the underside of wood and in a comparison of drawings in different accounts from America, Europe, Asia and New Zealand, it is interesting to note first that these specimens are drawn using detailed rendering techniques that gives them a dense, rigid almost architectural structure and the respective accounts are alternatively orientated growing up (from the wood), and in others the in others the wood is above and the fungi is hanging downs below it.

By contrast Heinio’s almost whimsical cartoon like drawings some with curly, rounded, pointed features show as much irregularity and variation in the specimen as it is possible to observe. The magnified shapes float informally across the drawing interspersed with hand written annotations describing different features. These drawn and written descriptions distinguish the specimen but it is clear how significant DNA is in further analysis and identification when species share similar features.

At the insect Collection (ANIC) Nicole Fisher who manages the imaging of the insect collection explains the significance of microscope techniques that enable automatic analysis and recognition of pollen grains taken from bees in the cabinets. In this instance the plant material found on bees in the collection can enable an isolated specimen to be reconnected with information about its environmental history and ecology. While this may tease the boundary between systematic separation of organic material into distinct collections, the high resolution microscopy images of the parasitic wasps (October) and scanning of whole draws (trays) of specimens, are among the numerous technologies that are re-imaging these collections.

next stage

reviewing documentation, further research, writing & planning ..

Following the series of introductory visits to collections and the myriad of items I’ve seen in each one of them (Wildlife, Insect, Botanic Garden, Herbarium, Plant Phenomics and Soil), the conversations and concepts discussed, this project moves to another stage and to a different level of the research process. While there are still a number of collections I’ve yet to visit and I will also returning to these first ones, there are a number of different sorts of tasks and activities underway concurrently. One of the first practical tasks is to attend to the already considerable amount of written, visual and audio material that I’ve accumulated from each collection I’ve visited: it needs to be edited, labelled and evaluated and as I continue to document its an ongoing part of the project. Some of it I’ll use directly in work I produce for the residency and some will be retained for future reference, some is discarded and some finds it way into this account of the project. I begin following up conversations I’ve had with a number of people at each of the collections about their own research and this means researching, revising and reading from general to specialist areas some I’m familiar with and others are new, so I revisit the biology text books, popular science and specialist publications. Though well into reading and enjoying Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, and my focus shifts (not too far), to the taxonomy and evolutionary theories of the eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first centuries: cherry picking from Linnaeus, Darwin, the evolutionary biology of A O Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Andrew Parker to Systematic Entomology and CSIRO scientists “Integrative taxonomy or interative taxonomy?” (209-217). There is much to absorb and enjoy.

Another aspect of this stage of the project is planning and preparation. There are series of conversations and meetings with Discovery’s director Cris Kennedy throughout Aug – Sept about realizing the project’s outcome(s), Discovery’s programme schedule and CSIRO — pragmatic and conceptual. Part of this [plan] is for a Symposium and in light of the project’s conceptual focus and intention proposed in our application to ANAT, I start to review and assess other (numerous) art/science-science/art talk-fest- conferences and talk to colleagues. There is no value reinventing the wheel, so by clarifying the scope and focus of this event it does develop its own identity and name (Spectra2012)! The latter shifts the discussion further and Cris and I meet this time with academic writer and artist Mitchell Whitelaw (University of Canberra). This conversation and the planning continue.

This is also the first follow up visit to a collection and I return to the Soil Archive. Over three days (Sept) I re-examine some of the historical material, it’s a chance to take in the collection again —and with the Munsell Soil Color Charts at hand to look more closely at the contents of some of the thousands of neatly stacked soil specimens and to document these further. As well as this David Jacquier (ASRIS) and Linda Karssies (the Archivist) walk me through a number of the research laboratories in Land and Water. In one of these is Seija Tuomi who explains her work running the infra-red spectrometer lab, its applications and the spectrometer which makes rapid methods of soil assessment possible for research. On this (return) visit there is also a valuable opportunity to meet with the Dr Neil McKenzie Chief of CSIRO Land and Water Division. This meeting, the conversations with David, Linda and others, my experience of  the Archive, the laboratories and the literature on soils, all contribute to my appreciation of this collection and (in the context of the others) —its significance.


collections Black Mountain cont…National Soil Archive












leap of imagination—National Soil Archive (August 2)

The biological collections I have seen and described so far in this blog, the wildlife, insects and plants correspond with the expectation of rare, curious or noteworthy of things being collectable. Before the systematic sorting and classifying taxonomy of natural history collecting in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, these things, were found in the sixteenth century reference collections used by early naturalists such as Ulisse Aldrovandi and Conrad Gesner. Although whimsically referred to as ‘cabinets of curiosities, rarities’ or Wunderkammer the purpose and intent of these collections was for a comprehensive and universal understanding of nature. Various other curious objects and artifacts were in these collections as well as geological samples and in a sense these correspond most with the next collection and demand a leap of imagination. From evidently realized things that can be readily seen, touched, experienced and well understood to have been once growing and moving, to the enigmatic, inscrutable phenomenon of soil. Soil collection and the science and study of soil —Pedology (and processes that form it—Pedogenesis), date from the work of the Russian geologist Vasily Dokuchaev in the second part of the nineteenth century.

In contrast to the flora and fauna featured in the other collections the form and definition of soil material obviously very different stuff and apart from the immediate and superficial layer, for the most part it is generally out of sight and out of mind. Its deceptively complex and characterised by (the) extremes of scale: on the one hand connecting climate systems, topography and vegetation, on another (scale) a plethora of micro-organisms (animal and plant) and minerals. It has a central role in biological systems, land management, agricultural activity and environmental research.

The collection is part of CSIRO Land and Water Division and a meeting (2 Aug) in Discovery Center with Peter Wilson who manages a team of soil data and geographic information specialists, David Jacquier ASRIS (Australian Soil Resource Information System) and Linda Karssies the National Soil Archive manager, reveals its significance as a resource for the Division’s research program and other wider environmental research projects. We head off to the Soil Archive located at the top of Black Mountain to begin a comprehensive tour of the collection. The warehouse style building is filled from floor to ceiling with rack after rack of industrial scale shelving, each one closely packed with uniform one-litre jars of dried, analysed and labelled (and barcoded) samples. There are there are over 71,000 soil samples from 9,500 sites across Australia and each site is represented by numerous specimens that systematically sample the differences in soil as it changes (horizons) at the depths below the surface. Adjoining this area of the archive are the racks of shelving boxes and crates holding thousands of specimens from CSIRO and other organizations collections they are the ongoing task for the archivist.

In addition to these boxes of specimens destined for the archive, there are historic soil samples: pre1945 they are free of chemical contamination from pesticides, herbicides and pre nuclear testing. In a quaint old fashioned filing cabinet (green paint and rusting draws) there are pink cards filled with hand written copperplate script describing sites and soil data from the 1920s; in other rooms and offices are more files and shelves of large leather bound account /record books, boxes of official forms with carefully drawn maps of locations and sample sites (1960s?), boxes of 35 mm Kodak slides show views of/from collection sites, glass soil slides and more recent (but still) dated looking computer printouts sheets. Apart from the intrinsic value of the data, this historic legacy of sampling is in itself an account of the shift in methodology and technology of data collecting, analysis and archiving across the twentieth century.

In a paradoxical way the seemingly obscure Soil Archive highlights key features that are also central to the other collections. As well as the taking care of their own range of unique specimens and developing the material to be a relevant resource and reference for research they utilize an array visual systems. Visualizing technologies are used to comprehend data and offer new insights about material specimens through analysis (such infra-red scanning), images are central for data management, access and interpretation in visual systems such as mapping. The soil information available in the Australian Soil Resource Information System (ASRIS) <> uses coloured maps, satellite images, tables, graphs and photographs. Considered together with the other collections, the National Soil Archive continues the quest of early naturalists who first sought a comprehensive and universal understanding of nature.

< >



CSIRO Black Mountain biological collection visits continue ….




There are two more collections at Black Mountain to visit before I begin the next stage of this project, are The Australian National Herbarium (29 July) and the National Soil Archive (2 Aug). The first of these the National Herbarium where approximately 1.4 million dried plant samples from Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea are preserved recorded and systematically classified for plant research.

The collection is a reference of botanical information and as the Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research is a collaborative organization between CSIRO Plant Industry and Australian National Botanical Gardens (Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts [DEWHA]). Plant scientists / researchers, students, technicians and voluntary workers have access to the specimens and described it is an integral part of plant industry science research. <>. An online resource with public access is the AVH is Australia’s Virtual Herbarium <>

Some specimens, such as those from Captain Cook’s expedition in 1770, have unique historical significance as well as botanical value. In response to my interest in re-examining a threatened plant the Crimson Spider orchid (Caladenia concolor), Collections Coordinator Jo Palmer located specimens for me. The many labels along the side of the specimen sheets highlight the issue of revision and reassessment in systematic classification and plant taxonomy. Some of the labels on these specimens had changed since my previous visit to the herbarium in January when I had been looking for its type specimen. Then, with the help of specialist knowledge from the Technician Anna Monro we compared the names of dried specimens and their descriptions to the research literature. It was confusing. Similar looking specimens had been re-grouped and re-named and I started to wonder which one I was actually looking for and what it’s name really was —I could only distinguish it with reference to the location in north east victoria where now it rarely occurs. It was in the herbarium’s library that Anna located an image,— in Robert Fitzgerald’s Australian Orchids of 1878, which would serves as substitute for the real thing what can be called an icon-type specimen. This delicately hand coloured lithograph presented another version to the specimen sheets and to the colour photos that I had seen already.

Based at the Herbarium is the team working on developing the remarkable online resource—the encyclopaedic project Atlas of Living Australia. < > It is a national database of flora and fauna and a phenomenal concept and resource for collecting extending and interpreting data, developing understanding and knowledge: it reflects the dynamic nature, relevance and significance of the collections and links the research relating to them. A collaborative project with other organizations, the Atlas not only posits the biological collections in a contemporary context and articulates the relationships between them.




collections, research, observation, imaging













ANIC 15 july—This was my second visit to this collection and meeting with Dr. La Salle: part of my continuing research for a series of work (The Real Thing) I’d visited ANIC in January 2011looking for specimens of the Thynnine wasp which had been suggested as the pollinator for a threatened species of Spider-orchid Caladenia concolor that occurs in North East Victoria.


Walking through the corridors of cabinets John describes his own research of (another) wasp, the parasitic Hymenoptera wasp. Its value for agriculture (in controlling the invasive gall wasps of Eucalyptus forests) and its significance for the biodiversity of ecosystems is clear from the dramatic photos of forests where it has and hasn’t been present. The small size of Hymenoptera illustrates how crucial microscopy is in this research and the scans shown here reveal the dramatic shift in comprehending its internal structure and morphology.

This insight into John’s research of the wasp, his demonstration of the award winning Remote Microscope, the capability of a “virtual taxonomy lab” (between ANIC and Beijing) and the concept of the 10-12 million specimens in these cabinets, indicates the value of optical technologies, scanning and visualisation across the work of the ANIC. Imaging the morphology of microscopic features,  scanning whole trays of specimens and their labels and accessing these digitally allows for comparative observation and  ‘management’ of the collection, the Remote Microscope makes it possible for specimens found in geographically remote locations to be identified quickly — from images rather than the physical specimen being sent across the country. While applications of imaging  and  visualisation underpin the research and task of maintaining  the  material in this collection, it also contributes to the dissemination of information as well as developing and extending its content. Additional information on the collection can be found at


ANIC (and the other CSIRO biological collections) is a  leading partner in the collaborative project to developing the online resource of biological information—The Atlas of Living Australia. The Atlas will provide online information on Australian species of plants and animals and build on the biodiversity information held in museums, herbaria and biological collections across the country.


In the midst of these conversations and meetings is a weekend visit to James Turrell’s skyscape “Within without” at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). As he says “its about seeing”, and immersion in the dome certainly is about perception of natural phenomena— ephemeral clouds, air, sky, colour its a total experience [of seeing] that resonates in certain ways with the observation, visualisation and perception of the millions of specimens in the biological collections at CSIRO.


In following days there are visits to other Biological Collections, meetings and conversations with CSIRO staff members from, Research Facilities, Discovery Centre and visual artists all to discuss different aspects of the project. At the first of these (Monday 18) at the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) is an afternoon meeting with Murray Fagg to discuss the scope of his work and the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research (CANBR).

Refer to <>. Murray’s comprehensive knowledge of ANBG, the CANBR, appreciation of the relationship between the range of organisations, research and the CSIRO Biological collections is invaluable. Murray contributes a number of suggestions for the direction of the research and we visit the Cryptogam Herbarium (plants that reproduce without seeds such as mosses, lichens, algae, fungi and ferns) for a chance meeting with researchers Heino Lepp, Judith Curnow and the Herbarium’s curator Dr. Christine Cargill. This is an opportunity for a very brief conversation about their research, the collection and how it may feature in aspects of this residency project. In looking at the links between these collections and their uses of imaging technologies I am tracing the complex ecology of the Crimson Spider orchid —its pollinator (still to be determined), the pheromone it secrets and the mycorrhizal fungi needed for its seeds to germinate.


Away from the Biological Collections (9/7) and back at CSIRO Discovery there are other conversations: with Discovery’s director Cris Kennedy about the concept for publication/symposium in 2012, the exhibition and art work for the project, the scope and role of CSIRO research and its applications and the biological collections in Victoria, Tasmania and WA. There is general and practical organizing to do— identifying who to contact in the other collections and arranging visits and setting-up a place to work from while I’m here. The artist and lecturer John Pratt from ANU School of Art visits the Re-Imaging Nature exhibition and tells me about (ANU) School’s Beam Project that may be relevant in my own plan to develop projections in this residency. Following this meeting is a guided tour of the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility — The High Resolution Plant Phenomics Centre. This isn’t a collection like the ones I’ve described where specimens are collected together and systematically organized and then researched, it is a research facility that has been setup for genome sequencing and plant biology, the specimens are in controlled conditions that support the development of plants and crops for commercial contexts. The plant specimen(s) I see are growing in cabinets where moisture and light are monitored and analyzed. The 3D camera (multi-view stereovision), infrared camera and Fluor Cam (fluorescence imaging) are central to this work. This imaging and monitoring extends to field sites and on a display of photos of these sites are the brightly coloured and patterned visualizations of the data that result from these monitored techniques.



In the afternoon I meet up with CSIRO’s Dr. Beth Mantle (Manager of the National Insect Collection), who has just returned from a research trip in central Australia, — as John La Salle had described to me the week before, Beth was able to send images of insects from the field to colleagues in ANIC for identification and analysis. In the first week of August I’m returning to Canberra and have arranged to visit two other collections the National Herbarium and the Soil Archive, in the intervening time I continue the process of thinking about, sorting and editing the material I have gathered so far.




wildlife collection 14 july- ANIC the insect collection 15 july

Having toured this collection of: sound; mammals; eggs; pelts/hides; bones and nests in draws and boxes; reptiles in jars of alcohol, we visit two labs and the collection of bird specimens. The first (lab) is for the CT scanner where the morphology of skeletons and bones can be imaged for further research and analysis. In the second (lab) surrounded by the paraphernalia of working tools, equipment, benches and refrigerators storing specimens, Gill Pfitzner is concentrating on the delicate task of preparing a small Rock Warbler* (Origima solitaria) for the bird collection. This is the last part of the whole Wildlife Collection to see and Leo Joseph shows me the range and extent of bird specimens held here: from the huge Cassowary (1.5-2 m) and exotic Birds of Paradise (from PNG) to the numerous and more familiar species of Parrots, Pigeons and Wrens. We marvel at the variety of markings, colour, iridescent feathers, the way different techniques such as DNA samples of a specimen can be applied to developing and understanding more about its evolutionary relationships (and can challenge existing knowledge).

*Images and sound recordings of the  Rock Warblers can be found on <>

More information of how this and other national collections contribute to the national and international biological knowledge  <>

Friday 15 JULY: I met Dr John La Salle, Head of the Australian National Insect Collection (ANIC) at CSIRO Discovery Centre and on our way to his office at ANIC he points out a lurp insect in a leaf (of an overhanging eucalyptus tree) and begins to explain his work on the parasitic wasp Hymenoptera. There are 10-12 million insect specimens in this collection and although insect collecting (and entomology) is often represented by spectacular colour and patterning of butterflies and beetles, the microscopic scale of this specific insect is remarkable and significant.





changing places….









We close the door of the sound archive and I imagine the potential cacophony of 60,000 wildlife calls and the anomaly of this acoustic record located here alongside the array of wildlife specimens. Concealed in row after row of cabinets, shelves, draws, trays, boxes and jars are 200,000 specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, skins, eggs, bones and teeth and frozen tissue.








In every uniform aisles draws and boxes reveal specimens organized: classified, identified (numbered and named), meticulously measured, labeled and tagged and positioned. The order is deceptively static. Here small (and large) variations are scrutinized and analyzed yielding different sets of relationships. Specimens are repositioned, names and labels over written. Analysis of data and imaging techniques from DNA sequencing to micro-CT scanning, reveal new stories.


wildlife—fur, feathers, eggs and much, much more…….



on site

The first visit of the residency (14 july) is to The National Australian Wildlife Collection (ANWC) where I am welcomed by the Research Director and its Curator, Dr Leo Joseph. We meet in a bright open room displaying framed paintings and drawings (of live specimens), maps and charts.



sorting labeling measuring


A quantity of empty boxes, wooden trays and draws have been neatly stacked in anticipation of the ongoing growth of the collection(s).  Work is underway around a large central table and and we interrupt the scene of industrious concentration with introductions and an explanations about my visit and the Synapse-CSIRO residency. Before we proceed to the collections themselves the activity underway presents a snapshot of the breadth and nature of the collection.


eggs of ..


Delicate speckled birds’ eggs are being systematically collated, labeled and sorted into boxes and nearby more small empty boxes are assembled, an indication of the ongoing task of storing and caring for these fragile specimens.  I juggle my pencil, pad and camera noting the references to reflectance spectrophotometry, research on cuckoo eggs, the curious heritage and hobby of egg collecting (oology).


sorting labeling measuring 2


Further around the table a researcher carefully measures the skull of a  small mammal animal and he enters its details into a data base for further analysis. Across from him specimens on loan from another collection are being packaged in preparation for sending back. In a small side room another researcher enters (bird) data into his computer …and then I am guided into a connecting room with shelves storing possibly the most ephemeral of collections — sound.





.. the Collections

CSIRO Discovery Centre, Black Mountain, Canberra

True Stories
research commences at CSIRO Discovery Centre arranging meetings and visits to the Biological Collections and Research Facilities located in Canberra.  The Re-Imaging Nature exhibition and the subsequent artist’s floor talk are a valuable opportunity to introduce the project and highlight  imaging as central to the purpose of the residency. The Collections are extensive and first visits offer an insight into the fundamental nature of their role and the scope of research that they support in CSIRO. With the Australian National Fish Collection (ANFC)  in Tasmania on the agenda for later in there residency, I begin with the most immediate in Canberra: the Australian the National Wildlife Collection (ANWC),  National Insect Collection (ANIC) and National Herbarium (ANH), Australian National Botanic Garden, the Australian Plant Phenomics Centre and the  National Soil Archive.  For a later date are —the Australian Tree Seed; Living Microalge; Air ; Wood inhabiting Fungi and  Dadswell Memorial Wood Collection.


true stories

Articulations: true stories is a working title

The first week of this 2011 Synapse Residency program with CSIRO coincides with the opening of the Re-Imaging Nature exhibition within the CSIRO Discovery Centre Canberra. The range of work in the installations Hidden Visions and Ground Truth includes artists’ books, prints, image and audio projections that offer a background to the residency and a reference for the beginning of this research project.

The postings in this blog will track the progress and process of my research into the CSIRO National Collections and selected research facilities. This has been initiated with preliminary planning and discussion with Cris Kennedy, Director- CSIRO Discovery Centre regarding the perceived outcome of the project and setting up visits to a number of the collections.