Kew's Museum of Economic Botany - now the Economic Botany Collection - was the first in the world when founded in 1847. The potential of plants as medicines and materials caught the Victorian imagination, and within a few years literally hundreds of such museums of useful plants were established, in locations as diverse as Liverpool and Bogor, Berlin and Chicago. When natural materials went out of fashion in the 1950s, many such collections were mothballed. It's just in the last decade that the importance of such collections has again become obvious, whether as repositories of traditional knowledge, sources for the history of empire, or as a resource for modern eco-entrepreneurs.
Curators of economic botany collections
Left to right: Mark Nesbitt (Kew), Ariane Factor (Glasnevin), Bruce Hoffman (Leiden), Stephanie Zabel (Harvard), Gerard Thijsse (Leiden)
A recent meeting at Kew gave me the welcome opportunity to discuss the nitty-gritty of economic botany collections with curators from three other important collections; the Harvard University Herbaria, the National Herbarium of the Netherlands in Leiden, and the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, Ireland. Over the course of four eleven-hour days we worked through a packed programme, covering all aspects of collections care, databasing and documentation, users and (of course) fund-raising. I think we'll all be tweaking our cataloguing systems as a result of this meeting, and have all come away with fresh ideas about how to promote our collections to users. It's nice to be able to talk details of database standards without worrying about anyone being bored.
Cinchona barks at Leiden (Courtesy: Bruce Hoffman)
It became clear during the week that our collections have different strengths. Leiden has thousands of specimens of raw materials from the Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (Royal Tropical Institute) and the Delft University of Technology that document Dutch trade and empire. These cinchona barks (the source of quinine) are from the huge plantations in the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.
Bulrush rug at Glasnevin (Courtesy: Ariane Factor)
The Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, in northern Dublin, have a very varied collection that reminds me of Kew's: worldwide in scope, and rich in indigenous artefacts. This bulrush rug is made from Typha latifolia. Ariane Factor is assessing the collection and updating its database as a volunteer.
Harvard is fortunate to have the rich teaching collection of Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001), the founding father of modern ethnobotany. However, the roots of the Harvard collection lie in a large batch of specimens sent by Sir William Hooker from Kew in 1858. Thanks to the sharp eye of Stephanie Zabel, we discovered that Harvard too holds a previously unknown set of the mysterious Japanese panels now on display in London.
Painted wood panel from Japan, Harvard University Herbaria
(Courtesy: Stephanie Zabel)
We ended our week by thinking about how to expand our collaboration. Judging by this week, the time is right for a wider meeting of European curators. This would link up well with Jan Salick's Workshop on Biocultural Collections, taking place at the Society for Economic Botany's conference at Missouri Botanical Garden. A single searchable database for the world's Economic Botany collections would also be a boon to researchers, and will surely lead to the discovery of more cross-connections, such as the Japanese panels.
One question we didn't resolve is of terminology. Is economic botany too old-fashioned a term? Should we rebrand as biocultural or ethnobotanical collections? At Kew we probably won't change, in memory of Sir William Hooker's Museum of Economic Botany of 1847.
- Mark -