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History of CHAH

Early days of CHAH – recollections of Barbara Briggs

photo: Barbara Briggs 1989
Barbara Briggs

The group that became CHAH first met in 1972. An initiative of Nancy Burbidge and Hansjoerg Eichler was to invite representatives of each State herbarium to Canberra (CANB) to discuss matters of common interest. I think that Hansjoerg had by then been appointed to follow Nancy as head of CANB on her retirement, but had not yet taken up that position; he moved to Canberra in 1973. I think that Nancy chaired the meeting, with Hansjoerg at her side and also taking a major role. David Symon came from Adelaide, perhaps invited by Hansjoerg, but was asked to wait outside since some representatives (especially from BRI) strongly argued that the meeting should be limited to the government herbaria. Eventually David was invited in, as an observer, being informed that the university herbaria, such as the Waite Institute Herbarium which he represented, would not be included in future. At that time there was considerable general tension between government and university herbaria, with some government herbarium heads believing that the university herbaria were poorly run and that academics did not understand systematics, while university botanists generally regarded herbarium staff as very low-grade scientists.

The invitations to that first meeting had been sent to heads of organisations. This was a few months after I had been appointed as Deputy Chief Botanist at NSW and the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Lawrie Johnson, asked me to represent NSW at the first and subsequent meetings. In other cases the head of a botanic garden that included a herbarium attended. Thus Noel Lothian, rather than John Jessop, represented AD for several meetings. Several meetings later, CHAH found a way to specify that it wished a working taxonomist to be the representative, since some of the botanic garden directors were too far removed from the activities of the herbaria.

Nancy Burbidge (CANB), Hansjoerg Eichler (AD, soon to be CANB), Selwyn Everist (BRI), David Symon (ADW) and myself (NSW) were at the initial meeting. I think that Bob Royce (PERTH) may have been there, I cannot remember whether the others were Winifred Curtis (HO) and R. (Dick?) Prescott (MEL). Also was Noel Lothian there as well from AD? I attended at least 20 meetings over following years, which is probably a record only challenged by Jim Ross (MEL).

That initial gathering decided that there were sufficient common interests and concerns to warrant regular meetings. I think that the second meeting was at BRI, invited and chaired by Selwyn Everist. An excursion to Bribie (?) Island was arranged to follow the meeting and excursions followed most meetings from then on.

At first the group was called a committee and I think John Green (PERTH) suggested its present name and acronym. The use of Head' was chosen to avoid administrative 'Directors' who were not active botanists.

In the early days interstate travel for many botanists required ministerial approval. Lack of funds or approval (or perhaps interest) caused some institutions to fail to attend on occasion. CHAH became quite vocal in writing to relevant Department heads or ministers to express regret that our deliberations had been affected by the lack of representation. This was generally done with the support of the missing representative. CHAH also made many submissions in support of organisations that were suffering financial cuts or in great need of new buildings.

Gradually CHAH became more inclusive and developed links beyond its immediate membership. A representative from LAE was the first, then from the New Zealand herbaria. We were invited to have an observer at the Council of Heads of Faunal Collections, and this became reciprocal. On occasion (but perhaps not regularly) we were also invited as observer to the Council of Australian Museum Directors. A representative from ABRS attended at least part of the meeting, and one from the university herbaria was added. A role in choosing the Australian Botanical Liaison Officer became one of CHAH's activities.

Early CHAH meetings were often characterised by much enthusiasm for cooperative activities expressed at meetings, but often very slow progress when the representatives returned to the demands of their own organisations. Minutes of meetings were sometimes produced only just before (or even half way through) the meeting of the following year. Without minutes, decisions for action usually languished. Some meetings were tape recorded to assist the minute-taker, but that was generally found to be unnecessary. Early meetings were always chaired by the head of the host organisation, with annual moves of location and chair.

For some years before HISCOM was formed, matters of computerisation and data bases came to overwhelm CHAH, becoming the main business of meetings. The formation of HISCOM, largely an initiative of Alan Brooks and David Bedford at NSW, was a very positive step since the discussions were then in the hands of those better informed than some of us herbarium heads.

The Australian Systematic Botany Society was established in 1973, so ASBS and CHAH are of similar age. Both were established in an environment where botanists in different centres had little knowledge of their colleagues elsewhere in Australia. CHAH and ASBS have fostered greatly increased cooperation among the organisations and members of the Australian systematic community.

Barbara Briggs, August 2003