Face of the LIB: Marie Herberstein

“I really, really enjoy working with people and with change.”

Marie Herberstein took over the management of the Center for Taxonomy and Morphology at the LIB in April. Copyright: Marie Herberstein


Marie Herberstein is looking for a different perspective, a fresh look at fixed structures, the creative side of change. The spider researcher has been observing what is happening at the LIB in Hamburg from the other side of the world. On April 15, the Australian with Austrian roots took over the leadership of the Center for Taxonomy and Morphology at the LIB. In a very short space of time, she has had many conversations to gain an overview of where the research museum can benefit from her experience in its process of change.

What led you to biology?

I always knew that I wanted to do something with biology, even as a young child, as a pupil and then as a student. It was very clear that I would study biology, but I didn’t know what I would do with it. But then a research project in my third year determined my path. It was about studying spiders and looking at what they catch in their webs and what flies around them. After this project, I had so many questions. So, it was very clear that I would continue my research, do a Master’s degree and then a dissertation.

What would you have become if biology hadn’t worked out?

I would have become a tea taster. I imagine it would be great to live on a tea plantation and taste my way through the tea every day.

What drives you as a researcher?

Creativity – and the spiders. I find research incredibly creative. The many questions that need to be answered, the presentation of data and results in research. Observations get the creativity going and you ask yourself questions. Why does this thing look like this now? Why does it behave like this? And then there’s the methodology, which is also incredibly creative.

What does nature mean to you personally, and do you have a favorite place?

I like looking at landscapes, even if they have been culturally shaped for thousands of years, like the vineyards along the Danube or Moselle, which were already cultivated by the Romans. Of course, I also like untouched countryside, but I also find urban nature very interesting. I generally like being in the mountains and by the water.

What is the biggest challenge for you in the field of environmental protection?

I think, in general, it’s the tension between the quality of life we want as humans and how this quality of life affects other organisms. Finding the right point where we say: Okay, yes, we are happy, we can live like this and at the same time reduce our impact on the environment – and we agree on that. And then there is the personal decision that I make every day. How many resources do I personally use? Some things are simple. I don’t have a car. I cycle and take the train. Flying is a difficult decision. I have family in Australia. I also do research in Australia. I try to lead a plastic-free life. And that’s where it comes down to: how much effort do I personally want to make to find things that aren’t in plastic?

How do you envisage the LIB centres working together in the future?

It is particularly important to me that we know about each other. Because I think we can support each other really well. It makes more sense for things to come together and for us to work together on a project.

What does the Centre for Taxonomy and Morphology (ztm) stand for to you?

For me, the ztm stands for basic research and it is a centre that encompasses the collection – the historical collections that we use as references for the recent collections and the newly acquired ones that also come in through biomonitoring.

What do you see in the collections?

With the museum collections, we have exactly the time window of the past 200 to 300 years in which humans began to have a real influence on nature. We can say, okay, but 150 years ago, it looked like this and now it looks like that, what will it look like in 150 years – so we can use the collections as a time window for future predictions.

So far, the collection has mainly been approached from a taxonomic perspective. But I believe that there are other dimensions to the collection that we can also incorporate, espeically in the course of the move to the new museum. The fact that we have many individuals of a species in a collection and can look at how different these individuals look – in other words, what the variation within a species is. This aspect of the collection has not yet been explored as much.

What opportunities does the move of the collections to the new museum, the Evolutioneum, offer?

This new building gives us the opportunity to think about how we now want to present our collection internationally, for what purposes and why we want to digitize certain objects. Who are the users? I think this opens up a great window for us to be really creative.

The new building allows us to think about what the collection of the future should look like and how we want to open it up. We have to touch every specimen and collection item for the move and, for example, pack a million spiders in five years. And if you then build in creativity in this phase and don’t just pack and unpack everything, but think about what it should look like, how we want to design it – then it becomes exciting. My role is to support this creativity beyond pure logistics and to take everyone along in this process. Our Center of Taxonomy and Morphology has undergone many changes. However, the changes will not stop, we have to accept them and strengthen ourselves in this process.

What could a creative further development of the collections look like?

I can imagine a virtual collection that is accessible, that is aesthetic and that has something playful about it, where you can enter via an avatar, open a drawer, perhaps push a specimen jar to the side and discover other specimens of beetles, butterflies, birds and much more.

What is the most important thing for you in this new position? What motivated you to accept this position?

Two things: on the one hand, I really, really enjoy working with people and I like working with change. I’m looking forward to the opportunity of strengthening CTM members in their collaboration and to work out the positive aspects. On the other hand, I also really enjoy research. I am a behavioural ecologist and have had little to do with collections so far. In the near future, I would like to turn my research in such a way that I participate more in the collection. I would like to combine aspects of behavioural research with morphology and also use the time window that the collections open up to understand how ecosystems change and what will happen in the future. We are now submitting a proposal with the University of Hamburg on this topic.

What do you want people to associate with the LIB in ten years’ time?

Accessibility for everyone. The LIB is an institution, a platform that offers information openly to everyone and to which many people can contribute. We have a lot in our collections that has been collected in other countries. How can we make this accessible virtually so that anyone and everyone can view it from anywhere? I would also like us to establish the museum as a scientific institution in the city, as a place where we celebrate science and link up with cultural events in the city. The museum should become part of the city’s culture and its pulse – as is already the case with the Long Night of Museums.


Prof. Dr. Marie Herberstein grew up in Styria, Austria, before emigrating to Australia as a schoolgirl with her parents and three brothers. After studying biology in Sydney, she returned to Austria for her dissertation on canopy spiders. As an Erwin Schrödinger Fellow, she first worked at Melbourne University, Australia and then for 23 years at Macquarie University in Sydney, where she took on various management roles in addition to research and teaching: as Head of Department, Chair of the Academic Senate, Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs and finally as Dean of Studies. Since April 15 of this year, she has headed the Centre for Taxonomy and Morphology at the LIB.


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