Economic Botany blog
Follow Mark's blog and discover Kew's historic plant artefact collection. This fascinating global collection includes around 85,000 artefacts including herbal medicines, food and fibres. The collection illustrates the extent of human use of plants around the world and the huge variety of objects range from paper to weapons and clothing to medicines.
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; 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.
‘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".
‘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 -
- Blog post: "Reliving Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany"
- Article: "Thinking about museums and photographs"
- Economic Botany Collection main page
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Alfred Russel Wallace is very much on our minds at Kew at the moment, and not just because the centenary of his death is being marked this year. We’ve recently completed a project to conserve a set of remarkable palm specimens sent to Kew’s first great Victorian Director, William Jackson Hooker, in 1848. They were collected by the young Wallace (with Henry Bates), during his formative South American expedition to the Amazon. They are all the more precious because almost all of Wallace's Amazon collections was destroyed when his ship caught fire on his homeward journey in 1852; only some drawings survived from his 'considerable collection of birds, insects, reptiles and fishes, and a large quantity of miscellaneous articles, consisting of about twenty cases and packages'.
Kew holds rather fewer specimens from Wallace’s more famous Malay Archipelago explorations, but among these is a box of small, starchy, wedge-shaped blocks – sago cakes collected in Ceram, an island in the Moluccas off west New Guinea. Sago is the staple source of carbohydrate for many lowlanders in New Guinea and the Moluccas. It is extracted as a starch flour from the trunk of the sago palm, Metroxylon sagu.
Sago washing in Ceram, wood engraving based on a drawing by Wallace (Fig. 31, The Malay Archipelago, 1869).
Wallace describes the process thus:
'[The pounded pith] is carried away (in baskets made of the sheathing bases of the leaves) to the nearest water, where a washing-machine is put up, which is composed almost entirely of the sago-tree itself. The large sheathing bases of the leaves form the troughs, and the fibrous covering from the leaf-stalks of the young cocoa-nut the strainer. Water is poured on the mass of pith, which is kneaded and pressed against the strainer till the starch is all dissolved and has passed through, when the fibrous refuse is thrown away, and a fresh basketful put in its place. The water charged with sago starch passes on to a trough, with a depression in the centre, where the sediment is deposited... When the trough is nearly full, the mass of starch, which has a slight reddish tinge, is made into cylinders of about thirty pounds' weight, and neatly covered with sago leaves, and in this state is sold as raw sago.'
Wallace’s description remains accurate to this day – sago is still made in this way in New Guinea and the Moluccas.
Sago cakes old...
Wallace’s sago cakes appear to have been made by forcing a sago paste into moulds, and then allowing them to bake or dry into hard blocks. He noted that 'Four cakes are said to serve as a day's food. The price is about 10 shillings per thousand'.
Sago cakes collected by Wallace in the Moluccas (now known as the Maluku Islands) and sent to Kew in 1858. EBC 35908
Wallace was a fan:
'The hot cakes are very nice with butter, and when made with the addition of a little sugar and grated cocoa-nut are quite a delicacy. They are soft, and something like corn-flour cakes, but have a slight characteristic flavor which is lost in the refined sago we use in this country. When not wanted for immediate use, they are dried for several days in the sun, and tied up in bundles of twenty. They will then keep for years; they are very hard, and very rough and dry; but the people are used to them from infancy, and little children may be seen gnawing at them as contentedly as ours with their bread and butter. If dipped in water and then toasted, they become almost as good as when fresh baked; and thus treated, they were my daily substitute for bread with my coffee.'
In January this year, I followed in Wallace’s footsteps with a team of Kew botanists visiting New Guinea on a plant collecting expedition. Our trip began in Manokwari (or Dorey, as Wallace knew it) opposite the idyllic Mansinam Island, where Wallace made his first landfall in New Guinea and was welcomed by two Germans missionaries (read all about it in Wallace's The Malay Archipelago). From Manokwari, we travelled to Sorong on the western tip of New Guinea, from where we would start our fieldwork. We spent hours in Sorong’s hectic market, provisioning our expedition from colourful stalls piled high with betel nut, fruit and veg, clothes and every conceivable form of hardware.
Sago cakes on sale in Sorong, 2013.
In the middle of all the action, I was distracted by a dingy stall, apparently unique in the wares it was selling – sago cakes, identical to those in the Economic Botany collections at Kew. It was if Wallace himself had only just stopped by to pick up a packet. It was a strange moment, of feeling unexpectedly close to this amazing man and of wonder that such a traditional product was still being manufactured in an identical way more than 150 years later. The cakes on the stall came in two different colours, white and pink, the latter possibly dyed. The pink ones, I was informed, were made of sago, whereas the white were of cassava. Kew’s sago cakes are white – are they then cassava, rather than sago cakes? We cannot answer that yet, but I can tell you that, unlike Wallace, Kew's palm team found that neither makes particularly good eating and that no amount of dunking in sweet, Indonesian tea made them any more palatable!
Wallacemania in 2013
The towering genius of Charles Darwin has tended to overshadow the work of other great Victorian naturalists such as Alfred Russel Wallace. Thanks to the energy and persuasive powers of George Beccaloni at the Natural History Museum, this is changing. The centenary of Wallace's death sees an extensive programme of events, including a major exhibition at the National Museum of Wales this autumn (to which Kew is lending three of the Amazon palms), lectures at the Natural History Museum, a symposium at the Royal Society, and a small exhibition in Kew's Library (featuring Wallace's sago cakes, to 20 May 2013). For a comprehensive overview, visit the Wallace 100 web site.
- Bill Baker -
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Among the many unexpected treasures in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection are 111 sheets and 17 objects made from Japanese paper (known in Japan as washi). These were collected between 1869-70 by Sir Harry Parkes, British Minister to Japan, at the request of William Gladstone, British Prime Minister. This was not a frivolous request: the advent of wider literacy had led to serious paper shortages in Europe, hence Kew's interest in papers from other regions.
Hair ornaments made from paper
Parkes sent the collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Word reached Kew of its arrival and the director, Sir Joseph Hooker, requested material for Kew. The three-dimensional objects – hats, clothes, boxes, a telescope – were exhibited in Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany, but the paper sheets were rolled into glass jars and remained invisible (and protected from light and pollution) for over a century.
The Parkes collection, now divided between Kew and the V&A, was rediscovered by the book designer Hans Schmoller. In the story well told in his handsome book Mr Gladstone’s washi (1984), Schmoller was visiting paper makers’ workshops in Japan and was shown a tattered photocopy of Parkes’s Report, printed by Parliament to accompany the paper samples. This led him to the portion preserved in the V&A stores, and then to Kew. The rediscovery of such a large and well-preserved collection of historical washi caused much excitement, and led to a major loan exhibition visiting Kyoto and Tokyo in 1994.
It has been my ambition to exhibit the papers in Britain since I first saw them a decade ago. As well as the fascinating story of their collecting, they are artefacts of great and subtle beauty. The karakami, thin paper used on sliding partitions, are decorated with natural pigments such as indigo blue, and materials such as mica. The gikakuji and kinkarakawakami (paper treated to look like leather) are sumptuous, with dark colours, high relief and gilding, and the objects such as hats and slippers are simply unexpected in western culture. All these repay hours of close viewing.
Paper hat from the Parkes collection
A series of three fortunate events has led to this hoped for exhibition. Firstly, Nancy Casserley, a History of Design MA student at the Royal College of Art, completed a brilliant dissertation on the reception (lukewarm!) accorded to washi in Britain. As part of her project, the papers were photographed and fully catalogued for the first time. Next, the “Washi: The Soul of Japan committee”, based in Kyoto, issued a 12 volume set of 800 Japanese papers representing the current state of paper making in Japan (which we have just acquired for the Kew Library). This comes at a timely moment when hand paper making is both highly valued in Japan, but under threat from modernisation. The third happy event was that a good friend, at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures in Norwich, became aware of both collections, and saw how 19th and 21st century washi side-by-side could make a fascinating exhibition. Through support from the Sainsbury Institute, Norwich University of the Arts (NUA) and many Japanese colleagues and institutions, the exhibition Washi: the Art of Japanese Paper has come to be, and will run at The Gallery at NUA from 12 March – 20 April 2013.
Recent paper from the "Washi: Soul of Japan" collection
What's on in Norwich
Exhibiting coloured papers presents some challenges, particularly as they are very sensitive to light. Over 100 pieces of washi are on show, and this exhibition is unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. I would warmly urge readers to make the journey to Norwich. There is a lot to see, as the International Association of Hand Papermakers and Paper Artists (IAPMA) has also organised three exhibitions of paper art, inspired by washi, held in nearby galleries at the same time, the "Art and Soul of Paper". There is also an extensive programme of talks and workshops on washi old and new, including an all-day conference and private view of the exhibitions on Saturday 16 March. Nancy Casserley is curator of the exhibition and author of the associated book to be published by Kew, Washi: the Art of Japanese Paper, which will be launched in London on 19 March – a highly satisfactory outcome from a MA dissertation!
- Mark -
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Working in wax
Kew's Economic Botany Collection recently hosted two visitors from the Victoria & Albert Museum – Amy Mechowski, assistant curator of sculpture, and Fiona Jordan, ceramics and glass conservator. Their visit was a reminder of the breadth of the Collection, which contains much to interest the art historian.
Like many natural history museums, Kew has many botanical models. Unlike the famous glass Blaschka models at Harvard University, ours are made of wax or plaster. They were made for display in the Kew Museum of Economic Botany, as visual aids in the days before colour photography or interactive displays. They must have introduced a welcome note of colour to the sooty gloom of a Victorian winter.
Among the collections are 25 wax models of orchids, which were moved to the Herbarium following the closure of the old museum building. They have recently been conserved by Annette Townsend and Vicky Purewal at the National Museum of Wales, an exceptionally delicate task, and are looking superb. They were commissioned by Kew in 1905 from Mrs Edith Delta Blackman (1866-1941), at a cost of around four pounds and four shillings each.
Wax model of Vanda coerulea, blue vanda, recently conserved at the National Museum of Wales. Note the subtlety of the detailed colours and markings.
Objets d'Art 2006/37.2 (Photo: Amy Mechowski)
We have many models in the Economic Botany Collection, including wax models of plant embryos, made by the Ziegler studio in the 1860s, 200 plaster apples and pears from New Zealand, and a splendid set of six models of fruits and flowers, commissioned from Mrs Mintorn in 1899 at a cost of £17.
Mintorn wax model of peaches, made by Mrs Mintorn in 1899.
EBC 69752 (Photo: Andrew McRobb)
The Mintorn models are strikingly realistic, even down to the fuzz on the peaches, and surface marks on the apples.
Mintorn wax model of apples, made by Mrs Mintorn in 1899.
EBC 69754 (Photo: Amy Mechowski)
Rafflesia arnoldii – the 'corpse flower'
After examining these models, we walked over to the Plants+People exhibition in Museum No. 1. Here two models are on display, a Mintorn model of hops, and this magnificent life-size model of Rafflesia arnoldii, a rare plant of the rainforests of Sumatra. This is the largest individual flower of any plant, and is known for emitting the smell of tainted beef, which attracts its pollinators.
Wax model of Rafflesia, on public display in the Plants+People exhibition at Kew.
(Photo: Amy Mechowski)
The plant was introduced to western botanists by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and Joseph Arnold, whose Malay servant found it growing near the Manna River on 19 May, 1818. Named by Robert Brown after Raffles and Arnold, the plant caused a sensation in the botanical salons of Europe. Three life-size wax models, each about 3 feet across, were made in 1825 for Raffles, the Linnean Society, and the Royal Horticultural Society. The model shown above was acquired from the Royal Horticultural Society by Kew in 1855, and is believed to be the only one that survives.
With the aid of a torch, we took a close look at all the models, confirming that several of the Mintorn models, and the Rafflesia, are in need of conservation. Typical symptoms are cracked or broken-off wax, and ties cutting into the wax.
Wax on display
So why were we visited by the V&A? Amy Mechowski has just curated a small (but fascinating) display in the V&A's Sculpture Gallery (room 111), tracing the development of women sculptors in Britain. Wax plays an important part in this story, as modelling in wax was seen as a suitable occupation for ladies.
The contents of a wax modelling kit made by Mintorn.
Part of the Victoria & Albert Museum display Waxing and Waning: 19th-century women sculptors and wax modelling. V&A W.185 to AAA-1923 (Photo: Amy Mechowski)
Wax was also an affordable material. The exhibition includes wax flowers, a complete kit for making flowers, and beautiful examples of portraits, and arts and craft work. We had hoped to lend some of the Mintorn flowers to the exhibition, but they would not have fitted within the shallow cabinets.
Wax flowers were not just an object of hobby and display; they were also an important industry. Queen Victoria loved wax flowers, and 10,000 wax roses were made for her wedding in 1840. However, I suspect that few wax flowers have survived in museums: as well as being very fragile, they would have been deeply out of fashion for much of the 20th century. One of the virtues of Kew's collections is that they have resisted some of the turns of fashion of the last century, and are therefore rich in this kind of object.
One of the great joys of curating such a diverse collection is that every visitor knows more about their specialism than I do, and thus one learns from every visitor. This well-spent morning left me with two objectives. The first, drawing on Fiona's observations of our models' condition, is to think about raising funds so they can have the same conservation treatment as the wax orchids. The second, drawing on Amy's art historical comments, is to find a postgraduate student (or several) of the history of science, or design, or museums, to work on our models. This is still a largely untilled field, and thus a good one for aspiring scholars.
Noltie, H.J. (2009) Raffles' Ark Redrawn. London: British Library. (on the wax model of Rafflesia)
Lechtreck, H.-J. (2003). A history of some fruit models in wax and other materials: scientific teaching aids and courtly table decorations. Archives of Natural History 30: 299-316.
Shteir, A.B. (2007) Fac-Similes of Nature: Victorian Wax Flower Modelling. Victorian Literature and Culture 35: 649–661.
Victoria & Albert Museum display (to 9 March 2013) Waxing and Waning: 19th-century women sculptors and wax modelling
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Among the 85,000 specimens in the Economic Botany Collection are over 30,000 woods. This is the largest wood collection in Britain (what would be called a xylotheque in continental Europe), and is heavily used by Kew's wood anatomist, Dr Peter Gasson, and many visitors to the wood anatomy laboratory. Biochemists are also increasingly interested in the chemicals inside wood. Sometimes these two approaches come together, as in a recent project to find biochemical and anatomical markers for Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) so that international trade can be monitored.
It's also become clear that the wood samples are also a tremendous historical resource. Adam Bowett is a well-known expert on antique furniture, and on the mahogany trade. From 2007 to 2009, with a grant from the British Academy, Adam broadened his research to look at the use of all woods by furniture makers in Britain, up to 1900. He has used a wide range of sources, including customs records, workshop inventories, furniture itself, and the Kew woods. The project has thrown up some real challenges, because wood traders and furniture makers have always used common names. The same wood can have more than one name, and one name can apply to several different woods. The project has involved matching up common names to unambiguous botanical (Latin) names, using careful microscopic analysis of furniture woods. There are countless examples of furniture woods identified on the basis of their superficial appearance, that turn out to be something very different when properly identified.
Adam spent many hours browsing the Victorian woods at Kew. Many of these were sent to London for international exhibitions, so they give an insight into which woods were entering trade. They also bear both the common name and the botanical name, so the two can be matched up. There are any number of fascinating woods discussed in the book: snakewood, she-oak, mountain cabbage, lacewood and many more. 149 Kew wood samples have been photographed for the book, which also features hundreds of pieces of furniture.
Travelling desk made in Sydney, Australia, in 1805. Commissioned by the botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer, for his brother Franz. It is constructed of Eucalyptus, veneered in she-oak. She-oak (Casuarina sp.) is entirely unrelated to the true oak (Quercus spp.), but is so-named because the prominent medullary rays recall the figure of European oak. (Ref: EBC 37818)
A compelling story
Woods in British furniture-making 1400-1900 is much more readable than one might expect of such a massive book. That's because the story of wood is interwoven with Britain's colourful history as a maritime nation. As Britain's colonies expanded, new woods became available, such as mahogany from Jamaica, but the timber trade was always at the mercy of war and deforestation. As one wood disappeared, it would be replaced by others until much of the world's forests were devastated. It is a compelling story, told with an eye for interesting details. This is not a cheap book, but is exceptional value for its size (huge), pictures (full-colour throughout), and handsome design.
Ebony (Diospyros ebenum) ink stand from Sri Lanka, sent to the Paris Exhibition of 1855. EBC 37739.
Adam is not the only historian to have used the woods collection; Caroline Cornish has used the woods – especially those from India – as the basis of her PhD thesis on the history of the Kew museums. All this work has opened my eyes to the interest of what was a backwater of the collection – one of the great benefits of hosting visiting researchers.
Wood has been very much in the news at Kew, with David Nash's massive sculptures present in the Gardens for much of 2012-13. There are two talks on wood, to mark the exhibition. Peter Gasson will talk about trees and wood anatomy on 22 November 2012, and I will be giving a talk about wooden objects in the Economic Botany Collection on 22 January 2013. Although it is not a Kew event, I am also looking forward to the Wizardry in Wood event, to be held at Carpenters' Hall, 17-20 October 2012. Some of the older exhibits there look very much like what we have at Kew.
- Details of the book Woods in British Furniture-Making 1400-1900
- Talk on Indian woods and Kew, by Caroline Cornish
- Talks at Kew
- Online catalogue for the Economic Botany Collection
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About Mark Nesbitt
Mark Nesbitt is curator of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew. After studying agricultural botany at Reading University, Mark moved onto the archaeology of plants via a doctorate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. After 15 years of research in the Near East, he joined Kew in 1999 as a specialist in useful plants both past and present.
At the core of Mark's work is caring for the Collection: adding new specimens (about 800 a year), monitoring environmental conditions, lending to exhibitions, upgrading the Collection database and rehousing specimens. Mark hosts around 500 visitors each year, from many different disciplines, organises conservation, teaching and research projects with collaborators, and carries out research into the history of plant fibres, medicine and colonial botany. A team of 5-6 volunteers, placement students and interns play a vital role in keeping everything going.
Mark's aims are both to ensure the Collection is cared for to modern museum standards, and to help the fascinating stories told by its 85,000 artefacts reach the widest possible audience.
Old photographs, new knowledge: Fascinating photos, thanks for sharing :). by: Emma
On Wallace and sago cakes: Tony - thanks for your comments. The youtube clip is wonderful. It is great to see the manufacturing ... by: Bill Baker
On Wallace and sago cakes: Thank you for the blog and the remarkable photo of Wallace's cakes! As one of my jobs as Asia-Pacifi ... by: Tony Whitten
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