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  • Position: Research Fellow Botany, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
    Field: Botany.

    Dr Patrick Brownsey’s areas of interest include plants, ferns, biosystematics and taxonomy. He became interested in biosystematics while at the University of Leeds, England, during the 1960s. He credits this interest to his Botany Professor, Irene Manton, who was a truly inspirational teacher. His interest in ferns was more incidental. Ferns were the subject matter that Irene Manton and her colleagues at Leeds were working on, so when Patrick came to do his PhD, he worked on ferns too.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Out in the field

    Te Papa builds and maintains its plant collections by a continuing programme of fieldwork throughout the country. Fieldwork is part of Dr Patrick Brownsey's role and involves collecting, documenting and identifying plant specimens from a particular area.

    Subsequently, he had the opportunity to come to New Zealand where he found himself in a country that was full of ferns! There were far more ferns here than in England, and it’s here that Patrick became interested in ferns for their own sake. Patrick worked at Te Papa for 46 years. He enjoyed the diversity of his role and considered it a dream job.

    The role of a botany curator

    Dr Patrick Brownsey is the Senior Curator Natural Environment at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. Patrick explains what his job involves.

    Select here to view video transcript and copyright information.

    Being a curator in a museum is a dream job because it’s really a vocation rather than a job you go into for the money.

    Nature of science

    Scientists’ personal interests can influence the questions they investigate. Patrick’s interest in ferns has carried on from early research as a student to his job as a senior curator in a national museum.

    A major part of Patrick’s role was looking after the collections of reference plants. He was also involved with research to find out new things about plants, to look for new species, to work out the relationships with other species and with other countries’ flora. He got to go out and work in the field from time to time.

    Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato

    Looking after plant collections

    Te Papa maintains a plant collection, or herbarium, of almost 250,000 dried specimens. The oldest New Zealand specimens (seen in this image) are those collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander during James Cook’s first voyage in 1769.

    There are also outreach aspects of the job that were very rewarding. A proportion of his time was spent developing exhibitions, and then there is a whole range of teaching and talks to different people. He gave talks to a wide range of groups, including school groups, university groups and community groups as well as to national and international conferences. Meeting a very wide range of people and talking about ferns to them was always enjoyable for Patrick!

    Patrick worked with Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research on an online eFlora of New Zealand, see

    In 2017 Patrick became the second New Zealander to receive the Nancy T. Burbidge Medal. It is the highest award of the Australasian Systematic Botany Society. First presented in 2001, it was established as a way for the Society to honour those who have made a longstanding and significant contribution to Australasian systematic botany. Patrick won the New Zealand Medal of Philatelic Excellence in October 2023, the highest award by the Royal Philatelic Society of New Zealand.

    In November 2023 Patrick sadly passed away. During his time at Te Papa he collected an impressive 11,640 plant specimens, comprising 1,658 different species, ranking as the third most prolific botanical collector among Te Papa's collection.

    Related content

    If you are interesting in finding about more about a career in botany, see our article Botany and botanists.

    Useful link

    Listen to Patrick's 2017 Tennant Lecture, at Otago University: A social history of the fern in New Zealand.

    He was one of the authors of New Zealand Ferns and Allied Plants, a comprehensive guide to the ferns of Aotearoa, published in 1989.

    See this blog tribute to him on the Te Papa website, it is very clear from this how valued he was.

    This article is based on information current in 2010 and updated in 2023.

      Published 20 October 2010, Updated 9 November 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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