Tufted conifer-weed

Description
RAMM's senior curator of natural history retired at the end of April 2012 having worked at the museum for over 30 years. Whilst undertaking some research in order to answer an enquiry from the Natural History Museum, London he found RAMM's oldest biological specimen to date – a seaweed sample collected over 215 years ago!

The specimen of tufted conifer-weed (Boergeseniella thuyoides), a red alga, was collected on the Cornish coast in 1801 by the renowned seaweed collector Mrs Amelia Griffiths who lived in Torquay. She was a dedicated and diligent collector who not only provided the foremost algologists of her time with new material to describe, but also popularised seaweed collecting and promoted our seaside towns as holiday destinations. In 1817 her reputation was so great that an eminent Swedish botanist (Carl Agardh) named a genus of red seaweeds Griffithsia in her honour.

This specimen is held in one of three volumes of pressed seaweeds that were collected, mounted and complied by Mrs Griffiths. Once the seaweed had been collected on the shore and cleaned of sand she would have floated it in a shallow tray of water to allow it to spread out in a natural form. She would then have slipped a thick sheet of paper underneath it and used it to lift the seaweed from the tray being careful not to disturb the attractive and biologically relevant arrangement of the fronds. The sheet would then have been pressed in much the same way as we press flowers today.
Accession Loan No.
91/1931/815
Collection Class
Algae
Common Name
tufted conifer-weed
Simple Name
seaweed: floated, pressed and dried
Full Name
Boergeseniella thuyoides (Harvey) Kylin: RHODOMELACEAE: tufted conifer-weed
Period Classification
George III (1760-1811)
Family Group

Collector / Excavator
Devon & Exeter Institution (from the collection of): Griffiths, Mrs Amelia Warren (from the collection of)
Collection County
Cornwall
Collection Country
United Kingdom: England
Collection Area Region
Northern Europe
Collection Continent
Europe
Phylum
RHODOPHYTA: EURHODOPHYTINA
Family
RHODOMELACEAE
Genus
Boergeseniella Kylin
Species
thuyoides (Harvey) Kylin

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    • Victorian botanist Amelia Warren Griffiths (1768-1858). Revered by many of the leading experts of her day, Griffiths was so renowned for her scholarly expertise that several seaweed specimens were even named after her, such as the Griffithsia and Furcus Griffithsia. Whilst Griffiths published relatively little in her lifetime, she maintained a constant correspondence with experts such as W. D. Harvey, who dedicated his seminal 1849 text British Marina Algae to Griffiths.

      Seaweed collecting had become a popular activity for Victorian women. In an essay entitled ‘recollections of Ilfracombe’, the author George Eliot described her fascination for the intricate algae forms, noting ‘these tide-pools made me quite in love with sea-weeds’. Nevertheless, many raised an eyebrow at the sight of women wandering alone on the edges of the beach, an occurrence at odds with the Victorian expectation that middle-class women should always go about accompanied, in order protect their modesty.

      Griffiths, however, was not entirely alone in her efforts to collect and preserve seaweed specimens across the Devon and Cornish coast. At her side was Mary Wyatt, owner of a pressed plant shop in Torquay. Wyatt had originally worked as a servant in the Griffiths household, before developing a close friendship with Griffiths and setting up a business independently. Together, they scoured the coast, searching for specimens, and Wyatt eventually published the results of their findings in Algae Danmonienses, a multi-volume compilation consisting of specimens from Devon and Cornwall. Their work, in other words, was an active collaboration, as they scrambled across rocky shores in cumbersome skirts, compared notes and exchanged specimens in real time.

      This intimate collecting history rewards further consideration. At first glance, the story perhaps appears unremarkable. Two female friends working together does not immediately suggest romantic involvement, an idea particularly at odds with our received notions of the Victorian period. If we press further, however, it becomes evident that the early Victorian period had a number of such close companionships, framed around the common activity of collecting. In her book, Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes, Lisa Moore has drawn attention to the popularity of such activities, suggesting that they were a way of celebrating partnership and companionship amongst women. Might these ‘friends’, and their activities, actually evidence a form of intimacy that contemporary viewers would call queer? Whilst words like ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ did not then exist in the way that we use them today, they can still be helpful terms for understanding a longer history of same-sex desire. Moore argues that the ordering of natural history in a domestic setting, like the arranging of algae within a scrapbook, was one way of expressing love for women, and one that has often been overlooked.

      To understand the history of queer identity, therefore, we might need to reconsider how we look for evidence of same-sex relationships. The story of Griffiths and Wyatt roaming the coasts and working together, in fact, might be a tale belonging to LBTQIA history.

      To read more of Frankie Dytor’s blog post please visit the Out and About: Queering the Museum project website https://outandabout.exeter.ac.uk/2021/04/28/amelia-grifffiths-seaweed-collection/

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