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Reliving Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany

Caroline Cornish
13 May 2010
Blog team: 
Kew's Economic Botany collection was originally housed in four buildings scattered across the Gardens. What survives of these, and what do they tell us about visitor experiences in the past? A doctoral student  from Royal Holloway, University of London, went exploring...

I recently spent a fascinating morning at Kew investigating the buildings which made up the former Museum of Economic Botany at Kew. As a PhD student at Royal Holloway, I’m researching the history of this intriguing institution and I’m keen to find out where its collections came from and how they ended up at Kew. I’m planning on following the ‘lives’ of a range of objects in the collection and reconstructing their ‘biographies’.

As a historical geographer I’m especially interested in the effect of place and space on how scientific knowledge is produced. Much of my time is spent with old documents in Kew’s Library and Archives, and at the National Archives just down the road, so this was a welcome chance to enjoy a sunny (if brisk) morning walking in the Gardens.

Kew’s museum buildings

With that in mind, and accompanied by Collections Manager Dr. Mark Nesbitt and my PhD supervisor Professor Felix Driver, I set out to recapture a sense of what visitors must have experienced when they toured the museums. Kew fans may know that there were once four buildings:

Museum No. 1, which occupied a purpose-built museum opposite the Palm House. Despite its name, this was the second museum building, opening in 1857. The building now houses the Schools education programmes (and some adult education courses – a chance to enjoy the fabulous views over the Palm House Pond), but the ground floor retains some of the original cabinets, and now houses the Plants+People exhibition, open every day to visitors to the Gardens.

Museum No. 1, seen in the late 19th century. The model indigo factory in the nearest case is still on display.

Museum No. 2, a converted fruit store which opened to the public in 1847. The building now houses the School of Horticulture. The interior is not open to visitors, but the unassuming exterior will be familiar to anyone who has been to the adjacent Davies Alpine House.

Museum No. 3 was the Timber Museum, housed from 1863 to 1953 in William Chambers’s Orangery. Many Kew visitors will now know this as a café.

Museum No. 4, the Museum of British Forestry, opened in 1910 in Cambridge Cottage. This later became the Kew Gardens Gallery, but is now mainly used for functions. Members of Kew will know these elegant rooms from their monthly coffee mornings.

The Orangery and Museum No. 2 closed in the 1950s, but the other museums were open until the early 1980s. By 1988 all the collections were renamed the Economic Botany Collection and were moved to a purpose-built research store in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are now accessible by appointment.

Our tour


Two views of Museum No. 2, seen in the late 19th century (top) and today (bottom).

Arriving at 8am ahead of the crowds, and armed with old photographs and plans of the museums, we were able to see areas not normally accessible to the public and make a wealth of discoveries. Particularly exciting was the former Museum No. 2 - now the School of Horticulture. Most of the original wall display cabinets are still in place, some with the numbering which visitors could refer to in their guide books to learn more about the exhibits. Many people comment on the resemblance of this museum to the wonderful Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in its architecture and displays, but the Kew museum preceded it by some 37 years!

Museum No. 1 feels much more like a purpose-built museum, with long rows of large windows to give ample light. In the upstairs galleries (now used for teaching) one can get a sense of just how large these galleries were. We spent a lot of time looking at the indigo factory model, recently moved back onto public display in the Plants+People exhibit. Even in the old museum buildings there were always problems housing large exhibits, and it is notable that this model appears in old photos in both the Orangery and in Museum No. 1.

We ended our tour with coffee and cake in the Orangery. Now light and spacious, some imagination is needed to envisage its time as a museum (see image below), crowded with giant wood specimens, and with two galleries (since removed) installed on the walls.

The Orangery as a wood museum

The history of Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany and its successor, the Economic Botany Collection, shed much light on Kew’s links to the British Empire and to the networks of science, education and government during a key period in British history. I’m looking forward to finding out more about it and its rich heritage.

Myself and Mark would like to hear from anyone with memories of working in or visiting the old museum buildings at Kew, before they closed in the 1980s. You can reach us via the Economic Botany Collection at Kew by emailing


18 May 2010
The interior of Museum No. 2 also reminds me of the natural history galleries at the Horniman Museum, with the balcony and wall cabinets, even if the overall architecture is rather different. It's worth pointing out that some samples of wood can be seen in the Marianne North Gallery - I've often wondered if these came from the wood museum collection?

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