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Behind the scenes at Kew's Archives

Betty Atkins
12 August 2013
History student Betty Atkins writes about her experiences during a two week internship with the Archives department here at Kew, and what she has learned from her first hand encounter with historical documents.

A historian in Kew's Archives

After what can only be described as a jam-packed fortnight here at Kew Archives, it is time for me to collect my things, put away the archival tape and melinex, and be on my way. As a History student about to enter my final year at the University of Westminster, I was extremely lucky to land a two week placement with the archives team, based in the brilliantly named, ‘Herbarium’ building.

Despite my complete lack of botanical knowledge, not being able to distinguish a dull flower from a pretty weed, I was pleasantly surprised to see just how my course and internship at Kew complemented each other. From the first-hand accounts of exported rubber plants to plantations of imperial Burma in the “1836-1847 Outwards index” (in which I spent many hours deciphering nineteenth century handwriting), to documents relating to the infamous ‘Tanganyika groundnut scheme’ of 1949 (to all intents and purposes, my dissertation topic), the links between my knowledge as a historian and the material at Kew grew.

To put it more clearly, all of the documents I saw represented ‘real life’ historical signposts, of the kind which I had spent the last year of my degree researching. As you can imagine, first hand, physical, 1800s material equalled one very happy historian.

Photograph of repackaged archive file

A file of Frederick Sander correspondence carefully repackaged into an archive folder 


However, working at the archives has not all been ‘Darwin letters’ here, extravagant ‘19th century illustrations’ there! During my time at Kew I have witnessed just how much commitment, perseverance and - dare I say it - patience, is demanded of the archival team and volunteers in keeping history alive.

An example is the ‘Repackaging Project' which I was lucky enough to experience for myself. Though most definitely time-consuming, this project became one of my most memorable experiences during my time at Kew. Why, you may ask? Because I was fortunate enough to repackage a folder named ‘Offences committed at Kew Gardens’, in which I discovered many bizarre and unusual crimes.

The affair of the white balloon

The best by far was the incident with the white balloon. This dastardly crime concerned an unknown character, fashioning a white balloon 225ft above ground to the top of one of the garden houses, with an attached flag with the words, ‘Give them a go’ atop a picture of a carrot. Give what a go? The mystery still remains. Though it would seem quite a fitting display during Kew’s current ‘IncrEdibles’ festival, during the late 1800s it did nothing but enrage the gardeners who spent several days attempting to retrieve said balloon from the top of the building.

Lessons learned

My internship, although brief, has most certainly given a new meaning to my area of study and made me realise that not all history is buried in the past, but is very much alive and kicking in archives like Kew. Whether it be weird and wacky stories like the white balloon, or historical pillars that have shaped the world as we know it today, I have found a new appreciation for my course and subject area.

As for the archives team and all the staff at the Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives, I wish you the best of luck and hope to see you some time in the future. Maybe as an archivist myself...

The entrance to the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives building

The entrance to the Herbarium, Library, Art & Archives building on Kew Green

 - Betty -


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