A collection of Oldenburg's specimens laid out on the table

A Lost Arctic Legacy: Uncovering the collections of Margaret Oldenburg

Recently, botanist Paul Sokoloff from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa visited the Bell’s Herbarium to learn more about a mysterious collection of Arctic specimens collected by Margaret Oldenburg

Published09/13/2022 , by Emily Dzieweczynski

Not only can herbaria teach us about how plants have existed and changed over time, they can also be treasure troves of historical stories about people. At the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) in Ottawa, a botanist named Paul Sokoloff studies Arctic flora using the museum’s extensive collections of specimens. In these collections, Sokoloff became curious about one of the collectors whose 1940s and 50s-era specimens were recently added to the CMN collection from a backlog—Margaret Oldenburg.

Margaret Oldenburg and Ernst Abbe on Blenky Island (Photo by Len De Blocq)

Margaret Oldenburg and Ernst Abbe on Blenky Island (Photo by Len De Blocq)

Since collecting specimens in the Arctic is a feat—now, but even more so in the 1940s and 50s—there were few collectors who braved this challenge. So when Sokoloff was identifying several thousands of specimens that Oldenburg collected across the Canadian Arctic, he wanted to know more about her story. It turns out that Oldenburg was a self-taught botanist who worked in the University of Minnesota’s Libraries. After she retired, she began taking self-funded trips to collect specimens in the Arctic Circle, with the encouragement of the Head of the University’s Department of Botany at the time, Ernst Abbe.

Oldenburg deposited over 5,000 botanical specimens in the Canadian Museum of Nature. While Sokoloff knew that the University of Minnesota had an herbarium, he wasn’t sure how many of Oldenburg’s specimens might be there—but had a suspicion that there may be quite a few. Sokoloff reached out to Bell Herbarium Collections Manager Timothy Whitfield to organize a trip to explore the Bell’s collections. Originally scheduled for April 2020, the trip was postponed until just recently, at the beginning of September 2022.

Paul Sokoloff and Timothy Whitfield in the Bell Herbarium

Paul Sokoloff (left) and Timothy Whitfield (right) in the Bell Herbarium

Timothy Whitfield and Paul Sokoloff looking over Margaret Oldenburg's records

Timothy Whitfield and Paul Sokoloff looking over Margaret Oldenburg’s records

Sokoloff suspected that there would be a lot of specimens, because, by this point, he was well aware of Oldenburg’s adventurous nature. What he found, however, was over 1,200 specimens in the cabinets of the Bell Museum Herbarium! In addition, Whitfield uncovered meticulous journals and notes—preserved with the care and systematic organization of a librarian. 

A collection of images of Oldenburg's specimens

Some of Oldenburg’s collected specimens and records found in the Bell’s Herbarium

A cabinet with over 1,200 of Oldenburg's specimens in the Bell's Herbarium

A cabinet with over 1,200 of Oldenburg’s specimens in the Bell’s Herbarium

As Sokoloff parsed through Oldenburg’s many specimens, he verified each identification. Sometimes, because we have learned more about plants and their relationships to each other, specimens become reclassified and their labels need to change. Other times, Oldenburg’s original identifications ring true and Sokoloff gave them the seal of approval. After this, Rebekah Mohn, a PhD student at the University of Minnesota working with Dr. Ya Yang, entered each of these specimens into the Bell Museum’s Minnesota Biodiversity Atlas with a picture and identification number so that they can be accessed by researchers around the world. 

Rebekah Mohn photographing Oldenburg's specimens

Rebekah Mohn photographing Oldenburg’s specimens

Rebekah Mohn cataloging Oldenburg's specimens

Rebekah Mohn cataloging Oldenburg’s specimens

All these remnants of Oldenburg’s life speak to how truly prolific she was as a botanist. Her adventurous nature led her to over 10 years of self-funded research, as she traveled the Arctic Circle by train, plane, boat, and foot to document the Arctic’s plant diversity. She was a keen photographer and made a direct effort to acknowledge the contributions of Inuit and First Nations collectors who helped with her work. While her collections at the Bell Museum have long been available in the cabinets, botanists like Sokoloff are now better able to understand the biodiversity of the Arctic during Oldeburg’s time by comparing with the material at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

A plane on Victoria Island

One of Oldenburg’s images from Victoria Island

In addition to examining and sorting Oldenburg’s collections, Sokoloff hopes to write a collaborative paper about her botanical legacy. Oldenburg’s contributions on Arctic botany are only beginning to be understood. Today, her collections are being used to support the work of modern-day scientists. Scientists working to understand the Arctic—an area of the world that has felt some of the most dire impacts of climate change—rely on the records of diverse plant species from across time to track environmental changes.