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.
I’m trying to understand how Kew's Museum of Economic Botany tackled the issue of learning: what messages was it communicating, to what kinds of visitor, and what resources were used? Knowing details such as the visual aids used, would help to build up a more complete picture of the museums’ mission of ‘instruction’.
If you look at old photographs of the former Museum No. 2 (now the School of Horticulture), you’ll see a series of large, framed, botanical diagrams suspended from the balcony (below, about 1900).
Historical photograph of Museum No. 2 (1900s)
They were still in place in the 1960s when the museum was closed to the public (below).
Botanical diagrams suspended from the balcony in Museum No. 2 (1960s)
By the 1980s, however, when the building was being used as a collections store, they had disappeared from view (below, about 1985).
Museum No. 2 (1980s)
For my PhD research into the history of the Kew museums, I’ve been trying to track these pictures down. They are no longer in Kew's Economic Botany Collection (the sucessor to the Museums), or collections of illustrations, but it’s possible they were transferred elsewhere during the move of the museum collection to the Banks Building in the late 1980s.
So, my question is: does anyone recognise the author or illustrator of these quite distinctive diagrams? In fact I’d be keen to hear from anyone who knows anything at all about them, or the use of such posters more generally in botanical education. Please do get in touch (via my university web page) if you can shed any light on the likely solutions to these botanical mysteries.
London Open House
One reason Museum No. 2 is on my mind is that I'm working with the Curator of the Economic Botany Collection, Mark Nesbitt, to re-open the building for Open House London. In 2011 this is on the weekend of 17-18 September, when hundreds of buildings that are usually private are opened to the public, free-of-charge.
Visit Open House at Kew Gardens 2011
We think Museum No. 2 will be quite special. It's the first time it has been open to the public since 1960. Its current use as Kew's School of Horticulture has not disturbed the display cases and interior designed by Decimus Burton in 1846-47. We'll be using enlarged photos (including this one, below, from a recently discovered cache in Leiden) and posters to take visitors back into the 19th century. We'll also be reinstalling lots of artefacts from the Economic Botany Collection, including a special display to mark the centenary of the death of one of Kew's great directors, Sir Joseph Hooker.
Historical photograph of Museum No. 2 (1900s)
Do come and visit, if you can. Details are on Kew's web site, and at Open House London. Admission is free (but only via the Jodrell Gate PDF) , first come, first served, but but we (and all the Kew volunteers who are helping on the day) will do our best to keep queues as short as possible.
To see the posters in more detail, please examine the higher resolution images available at Kew on Flickr.
- Caroline -
- Open House London at Kew
- Economic Botany Collection
- More about Caroline's research
- Historical geography at Royal Holloway
2 comments on 'The mysterious hanging diagrams of Museum No. 2'
I’ve written before about my doctoral research into the polymath, botanist and explorer Everard im Thurn (1852-1932). In the autumn of 2010 I finally had the chance to visit some of the indigenous communities in Guyana, where im Thurn worked just over a century ago. My aim was to see the objects I have been studying at Kew and other institutions, such as hammocks, baskets and fans, being used in their Amerindian human and landscape context.
Guyana means ‘Land of Many Waters’ in a native Amerindian language and the reason for this name became clear to me as I travelled the numerous rivers, creeks and streams that flow throughout its length and breadth. My travels into the interior made good use of these rivers, combining travel by boat with bus, car, small plane, and foot. I started my travels with Makusi communities around Iwokama, in the rainforest (see map).
Left: villages visited during my journey. Sara and the Iwokrama rainforest: view from the summit of Turtle Mountain (300 meters).
I spent four days in the rainforest getting to know the plant species, such as the magnificant mora tree (Mora excelsa Benth.), of which im Thurn sent “two magnificant squared trunks” to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886. Then I went to the savanna villages of Surama and Annai, where much of the material culture seen by im Thurn is still part of daily life.
Family producing cassava flour in Annai. Grated cassava is packed into the long basketry tube (matapi) as part of a detoxification process.
Left: Viola Allicock manufacturing a cotton hammock. Photo taken at Surama Village. Right: Bottles containing balatá, the rubber-like latex of Manilkara bidentata (A. DC.) A. Chev. Photo taken at Annai.
After another journey by boat, I reached the Arawak community of Kabakaburi near the coast.
Left: On the way to Kabakaburi, via the Pomeroon river. Right: Veronica demonstrating a quake at Kabakaburi.
At Kabakaburi Veronica showed me how to use a ‘quake’ (basket) to carry cassava. Much of the material culture at Kabakaburi was similar to that which I saw in the savannah, except that here pottery was more common.
In Georgetown I went to the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology where it is possible to see not only historical Amerindian objects but also more recent ones. At the National Museum I gave a talk about the life and work of im Thurn, and also about my findings during this trip.
During my trip I was surprised to see that, after more than one century, the objects im Thurn collected and described were still being made and used in Amerindian life. There is strong interest in the preservation of traditional knowledge and material culture among the Guyanese. Being in the interior of Guyana and seeing similar objects to the ones collected by im Thurn, more than one hundred years ago, I could realise these objects actually “have a life” outside the museum walls.
This trip was possible due to funding from the AHRC, and to help in Guyana from the Walter Roth Museum and many people I met throughout my travels.
- Sara -
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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 -
1 comment on 'Collecting curators'
Stored collections have recently been in the news, with the Museums Association arguing that museums should draw more on their stored and unseen collections for exhibitions. Kew, together with four partner museums, can claim to be ahead of the game in opening a collective exhibition of objects never exhibited before: First Time Out.
The idea behind the exhibition came from Lisa O’Sullivan of the Science Museum and George Loudon, Queen’s Trustee at Kew. It’s not just about dusting off unseen objects. After being shown for six weeks at its 'parent' museum, each object will set off on a journey around London, spending six weeks at each of the other museums. At each the objects will be reinterpreted by the curators at their temporary home. An aim of the project is thus to show how an object’s meaning varies according to its context.
Three Japanese wood panels from Kew (Image: RBG Kew)
For example, Kew’s object is three Japanese panels (the subject of a previous blog post), which we have interpreted through their importance for the history of botany; in contrast, the Wellcome Collection (which specialises in medical history) has interpreted the panels in the light of the medicinal qualities of the plants, and the Horniman Museum has focused on the tension between art and science. At the same time, all five objects are visually engaging and have interesting stories, so can be enjoyed in their own right. Sometimes visitors might be surprised by what they see: for example, a lemur skull (from the Natural History Museum) on display at Kew, usually thought of as the home of plants.
Lemur skull (Image: Natural History Museum)
First Time Out has been co-ordinated by the Wellcome Collection. Although always enjoyable, at times it has been a challenge, as even simple one-museum-to-one-museum loans can get bogged down in practicalities and paperwork. Although the number of objects is just five, the concept of the exhibition requires that 25 labels be produced (five for each partner), and that a complex timetable of object movements be worked out. It proved remarkably straightforward for all five museums to agree a single loan contract, and for conservators to work out ways of safely displaying objects in very varied showcases. A useful tool here has been Art Sorb, a silica material that absorbs and desorbs moisture so as to keep relative humidity stable inside display cases. If relative humidity changes too much, too quickly, it can make organic materials such as wood split and buckle.
The first object to be shown at Kew, the Japanese panels, has been on show at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery since 20 January, and has already attracted a surprising number of visitors who have made a special journey to see it. I was looking at the panels this morning with an artist who pointed out the amazing subtlety and beauty of their painting. I hope the project will interest both the general public and my museum colleagues, but am also finding it has made me look again at some of our stored collections.
People have been asking whether all five objects will be shown together at the end of the project. Sadly it’s not been possible to find the right exhibition space for this, so the press view was the only time this happened. However, there has been so much interest and enthusiasm generated by First Time Out, that it’s highly likely the project will be repeated, perhaps on a larger-scale and with a mass exhibit at the end.
The five objects and curators together for the press view
First Time Out can be enjoyed at any of the five partner museums until 20 August 2011. To see which object is where on any given date, please visit the individual museum web sites (see Related links). For those unable to visit London, the objects and their varying interpretations can also be viewed on the museum websites.
- Mark -
1 comment on 'Introducing First Time Out'
A lender or borrower be...
Lending objects to other museums is a great way of reaching wider audiences, as well as subtly increasing the botanical content of exhibitions. Museums don't usually charge to lend objects - in fact it's a true partnership, with both the borrowing and lending museums investing a lot of time in choosing, documenting and packaging objects. However the borrower does pay for transport, and any special mounts or display cases that are needed.
2011 is going to see some important loans from the Economic Botany Collection, to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich (Basketry: Making Human Nature, opens 8 February 2011), on palms at the Botanical Garden in Berlin (Die Welt der Palmen, opens 20 May 2011), and to the innovative First Time Out exhibition created by five London museums (of which more in a later post, opens 20 January 2011).
Scarified capsules of opium poppy, one of the items on loan to the exhibition, from the India Museum (pre-1885). The latex, which oozes out of the longitudinal cuts, contains morphine. EBC 41265.
We have lent an important group of specimens to the Wellcome Collection's current exhibition High Society, which explores the culture, history and regulation of mind-altering drugs and is open until 27 February 2011. In preparing the loan, I was lucky to have help from a placement student from UCL's MA in Artefact Studies. Esmee van der Heijden did a great job of photographing, measuring and describing in minute detail all the artefacts that have gone on loan. The meticulous preparation of condition reports before and after a loan enables us to assess appropriate packing for transport, and to record any changes that occur during exhibition.
The most important artefact in the loan is a snuff set collected by Richard Spruce in 1855, at the Cataracts of Maypures in Venezuala. Many tribes in South America make a hallucinogenic snuff from the seeds of Anadenanthera peregrina var. peregrina, a tree of savannas and plains. The ground-up seeds contain tryptamines that induce shamanic visions, such as flying, death and rebirth, and transformations into animals. Synthetic analogues of tryptamine have potential as so-called designer drugs, and as a result all tryptamines are Class A drugs and strictly controlled in the United Kingdom.
Snuff set collected by Richard Spruce in 1855
The roasted seeds (seen here in their pods) are ground on the mortar and pestle (A). The ground snuff (niopo) is kept in a tiger's bone (B), closed at one end with pitch, and at the other with a cork. The instrument for taking the snuff (C) is made of birds' bones. Two tubes end upwards in little black balls which are applied to the nostrils, while the single tube on which they unite at the lower end is dipped into the snuff.
The botanist Richard Spruce (1817-93) was one of the great plant collectors. He collected thousands of herbarium specimens and 300 artefacts during 15 years in the Amazon. This snuff set is usually on display in the Plants + People exhibition at Kew Gardens, and is one of our featured objects on the BBC History of the World website. Spruce's encounters with psychoactive plants also led him to investigate ayahuasca (prepared from the bark of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi) and coca (Erythroxylum coca).
Our loan to the exhibition includes some Banisteriopsis bark; a pituri bag from Australia, used for transporting the nicotine-rich powder of Duboisia hopwoodii; the scarified capsules of opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), kava roots (Piper methysticum) from Fiji, and stems of peyote (Lophophora williamsii) from Mexico.
Visit the show
The High Society exhibition has brought together a remarkable range of drug-related objects and is well worth a visit. The Wellcome Collection is just opposite Euston station, in central London, and admission is free. In line with previous exhibitions there, interpretation is quite light touch, so be sure to pick up the A4 booklet which has the interpretation labels. There are lots of events (and a book) associated with the exhibition, including a tour focusing on the botany of psychoactive drugs, which I'll be giving on the evening of 20 January 2011.
- Mark -
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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.
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