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Old photographs, new knowledge

Caroline Cornish
25 April 2013
Blog team: 
Caroline Cornish, who has recently finished her PhD thesis on the history of Kew's Museum of Economic Botany, describes an exciting discovery of old photographs in the Netherlands.

When William Hooker set up Kew's Museum of Economic Botany (what we would call useful plants) in 1847, he described the ideal display as:

"the raw material (and, to a certain extent, also the manufactured or prepared article... correctly named, and accompanied by some account of its origin, history, native country, etc., either attached to the specimens or recorded in a popular catalogue."

What did these displays actually look like? Kew's Illustrations collection has several wide-angle views giving a good impression of the overall layout, but revealing little useful detail as to the contents of individual cases.


Museum No. 2 in the late 19th century
Museum No. 2; late 19th century (photograph by E. J. Wallis)

However, this was to change with the donation in 2011 of a series of photographs from the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre at Leiden in the Netherlands, courtesy of Gerard Thijsse. The five photographs were taken by botanist Johannes Paulus Lotsy (1867-1931) on a visit to Kew in 1902 and indicate not only Lotsy’s interest in particular species of palms and other plants, but also quite clearly the methods used to display them in Kew’s museums.


Museum No. 2; 1902; photograph by Johannes Lotsy
‘Economic Museum Hortus Kew. Fam: Palmae. Maximiliana regia (Demerara) Maripa Palm’; Museum No. 2; 1902 (photograph by Johannes Lotsy)

Of particular value was an image taken in Museum No. 2 of Case 67, dedicated to the maripa palm. Here for the first time we had a close-up of a display in the old museums. By cross-referencing it with the entry in the Kew guide-book, we were able to find out more. The case was dominated by the male and female spadices of the palm now known as Attalea maripa, sent by colonial resident E. G, Boughton from Demerara in 1848. Further information was given through the use of photographs in the case; these were sent from British Guyana by Everard im Thurn in 1885. And at the back of the case is a botanical illustration taken from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, in which Joseph Hooker renamed the species Scheelea kewensis. Fruits of the palm were displayed in jars adjacent to the photographs. And on the shelf beneath the ‘raw material’ were examples of the ‘manufactured or prepared article’ – a blank length of palm wood, and immediately below it, the finished goods – a walking stick and sunshade handle donated by leading manufacturer Henry Howell & Co. in 1888.

As Hooker had argued, the information assembled in the museums was of interest, not only to the "scientific botanist", but also to "the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and cabinet-maker, and artisans of every description".


Case in Kew Museum
‘Fam: Gnetaceae. Welwitschia mirabilis’; Museum No. 1; 1902; (Johannes Lotsy)

This year Leiden have sent three further photographs taken by Lotsy on the same visit, this time all of the intriguing Welwitschia mirabilis which was then on display in Museum No. 1. In particular, this one gives a real sense of the experience of being in the Museum, peering into the glass case whilst the portrait busts of John Henslow and William Hooker stare back from behind the exhibit.

We would love to hear from anyone who is aware of other photographs, films or illustrations of the interior of the Kew Museums (Economic Botany Collection contact details). Such images help us understand the Museum from the visitor’s point of view, information which is often lacking when conducting historical studies of museums and similar sites. And, needless to say, any images featuring actual visitors would be a real breakthrough.

Many evocative pictures from Kew's photograph collections can be seen in a recently published book, The Story of Kew Gardens in Photographs.

- Caroline -

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