The Economic Botany Collection is an important research resource because of its extraordinary breadth, and the copious documentation associated with many specimens. Research use has changed through time, with increasing emphasis on anthropology and history. This page covers some areas of current research into the Collection; see here for relevant publications from past research.
In addition to plant artefacts, the Collection contains many plant parts too large to be housed in the Kew Herbarium’s pressed plant or seed collections. Some plant parts are vouchered by pressed plant specimens in the Herbarium, such as conifer cones collected by Sir Joseph Hooker on his American journey. The Collection holds about 40 type specimens from various genera including Caesalpinia and Pandanus. An important group of palm specimens collected by Alfred Russell Wallace has recently been published by Bill Baker. 750 pot pourri specimens, deriving from identification work carried out at Kew, are a recent addition to the Collection.
William and Joseph Hooker encouraged plant collectors to collect both herbarium specimens and artefacts for Kew; it is therefore always worth checking the Collection if surveying the collecting activities of botanists associated with Kew.
History of Medicine
The period 1840-1930 saw a transformation in the supply and use of plant drugs which is exceptionally well documented by the c. 15,000 medicinal plant specimens in the Collection. During this time pharmacognosy - the study of plant drugs - made huge advances in botanical identification and standardisation, and supply was transformed by the development of large pharmaceutical maunfacturers such as Howard & Sons. The cornerstone of Kew’s holdings in this field are the 19th century plant drugs transferred from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Museum (RPSGB), many of which were donated by leading pharmacologists, and which are very well documented.
The plant specimens are complemented by Kew’s comprehensive library holdings of herbals and pharmacopeias, and subject files from the RPSBG and former Kew Museums, now held in the Jodrell Library.
History of plants and the British Empire
The collections cover most plants traded in the 19th century, and has long series of specimens from plants transplanted in this period, including quinine, tea, coffee, chocolate, jute and rubber.
In many respects the history of Kew is a microcosm of the history of the British Empire. Many of Kew’s activities were carried out with reference to the central administration of empire, and integrated study of Kew’s archives and specimens offers many insights into the motivations and processes involved - often more complex than usually assumed. Richard Drayton’s classic book Nature’s government suggests many starting points for research in this area.
History of Science and Exploration
The Hooker’s wide-ranging contacts ensured that most of the serious scientific expeditions of the second half of the 19th century contributed material to the Collection, from sources as diverse as Richard Spruce’s journeys up the Amazon (1849-1864), David Livingstone’s Zambesi expedition of 1858-1864, and the Challenger expedition 1872-1876. The artefacts collected provide insights into the conduct and purpose of the journeys, as well as into encounters with the lives of indigenous peoples.
Arts & Crafts
The Collection contains both the raw materials of art - particularly paper, wood, fibre and pigments - and many exquisite craft works that are works of art in their own right. Some, such as containers made of baskets or gourds, are beautiful in their simplicity; others, such as lacquer, are made by complex processes. A strength of the Collection is its emphasis on utility; many of the artefacts were made for daily life and are poorly represented in High Art collections.
Kew holds about 400 plant specimens from ancient Egypt - one of the most comprehensive collections outside Egypt itself - mainly deriving from Sir William Flinders Petrie’s excavations. In the last decade the Collection has found a new use as a source of material for analytical projects on ancient residues and DNA. For example, in recent work the British Museum has used pine resin samples to identify the adhesives in Mayan mosaics, and DNA from historic wheat and barley specimens is helping unravel the early history of agriculture.
A striking feature of the old Kew Museums was their value-free treatment of plant materials from around the world; the novel technologies of the 19th century, such as vulcanised rubber, were displayed alongside artefacts from indigenous peoples. As a result, Kew has rich holdings of plant artefacts from Australasia, North America and South America, often made of fragile materials.
How to use our services
The Collection is available to researchers, both through pre-arranged visits and remotely, by email and digital photograph. In the first case, please write to us by post or email (Contact details). It is important that you tell us something about your project so that we can give you the best advice. If you have some botanical expertise, the summary database at ePIC can be helpful, but this can only be searched by botanical name.
We welcome to collaboration with individuals or researchers; this can enable greater input of Kew resources into a project. We strongly encourage researchers to contact us as early as possible - ideally before submitting a proposal - so that assistance, co-authorship and funding can be discussed. Our active participation in a project can strengthen a proposal and lead to richer research outcomes.