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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.

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Putting the Economic Botany Collection online

By: Mark Nesbitt - 16 May 2012
Regular readers will have noticed a long pause since my last blog post. That's because we've been working hard on getting the Economic Botany Collection online.
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Updating the existing database

Unlike many other collections, we didn't have to start cataloguing from scratch. We are fortunate in that the Collection was databased in the mid-1980s, when the 70,000 specimens were moved from the original museum buildings into a purpose-built store.

Cataloguing in the 1990s

Cataloguing in the Economic Botany Collection in the 1980s. Note the 'microcomputer' - now a museum piece in its own right.

However, access to the database has been either via a rather clunky internal interface, or Kew's externally available electronic Plant Information Centre (ePIC) which only allows searches by botanical name. Researchers have had to email me to ask what we have, and I've had to send back long lists of specimens for people to look through.


Screenshot of the old catalogue 

The old 'Red Pepper' interface of the 1990s. We still use it to manage the Collection, but most searches are quicker and easier with the new web interface.

Moving from old to new

In 2011 Chris Hopkins, a sharp-eyed programmer in Kew's IT department, realised that the database could easily be put online using similar programming carried out for other Kew databases. In fact, it proved to be not quite so easy. One hurdle was that the Collection uses Dick Brummitt's well-known botanical classification, published in 1992. However, Kew's Herbarium (in common with many others) has recently switched to the DNA-based APG classification, with major changes to some plant families. The database now matches genera to both family schemes, so that it is compatible with the other Kew databases. It's also been possible to enhance the search process using standardised terms such as use and geographical area, which were not easy to use before.


Screenshot of Economic Botany Collection online database

How to search the database

We've created two ways of searching. The simple interface, above, searches all the text in the database. It works well for collector surnames, botanical names (family, genus, species) and country names. There's also an advanced search screen, which allows the use of standardised terms for use, plant part, geography and specimen type (e.g. wood, archaeology). By combining search terms, sophisticated searches can be done. Detailed results can be downloaded as text and spreadsheet files.

The database now covers 85,000 specimens. We have digital images for about 2000, and these have been placed online as part of the database. For the first time, it's easy to find out if a specimen photograph is available, a facility that will be popular with publishers as well as researchers. 

A good thing?

There's been lots of debate about museum databases (for example, on the Museum Computing Group email list, and this useful review by Barbara Lejeune). Some have argued that databases should not go online until they are perfected. Instead, we have decided to make the database available now, and to tidy up the data as time allows, on the grounds that something that is good (but not perfect) and available is better than something that is not available. The impact of online databases on enquiries has also been much debated. My hope is that more researchers will find material of interest in the collection via the database. That may well translate into more emails and visits, but researchers can do the searches themselves, and will have a much better idea of what they want to see.

Only a few ethnobotanical collections are online. Apart from Kew, I'm only aware of the Field Museum, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, and the Edward Palmer Collections at the Smithsonian. Let's hope that more go online soon, raising the exciting possibility of a single search interface for them all.

- Mark -

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An ethnobotanical new year

By: Mark Nesbitt - 25 Oct 2011
This autumn Kew welcomed the 14th intake of students into the joint University of Kent/Kew MSc in Ethnobotany.  In a packed two days the students were introduced to Kew's collections, had an intensive day of plant-collecting, and heard this year's Distinguished Ethnobotanist lecture.
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Every autumn Kew welcome's a new group of Ethnobotany Masters students. They'll spend October-March based at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, followed by a summer of fieldwork and dissertation-writing. But for eight days they come to Kew, where we fit in 15 seminars covering key plant families and selected elements of ethnobotany. Quite a few of the students come up on other days to use Kew's Library or to explore the Gardens, and one or two will do their summer project here. For 2011-12 we have nine students starting the course from seven different countries (Belgium, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Oman, USA, UK). The international reach of the MSc is not surprising as nowhere else offers such a one-year programme in ethnobotany. It is very intensive and covers a lot of ground.

Off to a good start

We can't always guarantee sunshine for visitors, but were lucky this time. My tour of the Gardens didn't get far beyond the Grass Garden, where the tropical cereals are still looking good. They've been chosen to illustrate some ethnobotanical themes, including the biology of domestication, the importance of crop diversity, and the role of local crops (such as teff) in what can be very local foodways, so we had a lot to discuss. But we also had time for the now traditional photograph of the group in front of Thorneycroft's statue of The Sower.

The student group in the Grass Garden

The student group in the Grass Garden

Each year we tweak the course according to last year's student feedback. Collecting plant specimens is absolutely central to ethnobotany, so we expanded this to a full day. In the morning my colleagues in the Herbarium showed good and bad specimens, and covered difficult plants such as palms. These need special techniques because of their large size. In the afternoon, the students practiced their skills on plants in a behind-the-scenes part of the Gardens.

Students collecting plants

Students collecting plants

Learning from the experts

The evening of the first day is always the date of the Kew-Kent Distinguished Ethnobotanist public lecture, given this year by Will McClatchey from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (a growing powerhouse in the world of plant science). Will is well-known for his fieldwork in the Pacific, and as an advocate for modern ethnobotanical techniques of the kind taught on the Kent MSc. He presented a bold series of experiments designed to investigate the formation and transmission of indigenous knowledge in the Solomon Islands, Thailand and on his home territory of Texas, a reminder that ethnobotany is not always about the tropics or "the other". It was an inspiring talk that attracted a large audience.

We make good use of the Economic Botany Collection in teaching the Kew module. It's a great opportunity to show the links between plant biology and human use, and to discuss some of the underlying issues of plant conservation, indigenous knowledge and global trade. For their next visit the students will be learning about modern ethnobotany at Kew, the history of economic botany and the role of ethnobotanical collections, international treaties and legislation, and another new module this year, mycology.

- Mark -


Related links

MSc in Ethnobotany, University of Kent

Economic Botany Collection

Will McClatchey's web site

Science events at Kew

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Conservators care for tapa cloth at Kew

By: Daniel Barter & Cristina Liria - 15 Aug 2011
Two conservation students from Camberwell College of Arts have spent three weeks surveying barkcloth specimens from the Pacific.
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We are BA students on the undergraduate conservation degree at Camberwell College of Arts. As part of our course, students spend three-week placements in a wide range of historic collections, ranging from St Paul's Cathedral to the Royal Collection. These give us a chance to apply our skills to real-life collections, resulting in experience for us, and useful work carried out for curators. Past students have worked on Kew's collections of paper and Egyptian archaeology.


Daniel and Christina looking at tapa cloth

Cristina Rico Liria and Daniel Barter working in the Collection store (Photo: Daniel Barter).

During our time at Kew we have undertaken a survey of the tapa cloth in the Economic Botany Collection. Tapa is the term usually used for barkcloth from the Pacific Islands where its manufacture is an ancient craft which has been practised for thousands of years, and was once widespread. Tapa is made from the inner bark of several trees, mainly paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), which is coppiced as a sustainable source of bark (PDF). Kew's collection was formed between 1840 and 1900 and is unusually wide-ranging in geographical origin.

Barkcloth from Indonesia
Barkcloth from Ceram, Indonesia, collected by Henry Ogg Forbes in 1883. One of several barkcloths from Indonesia, made from a jackfruit species (Artocarpus). We idenified this as a conservation priority because of the fragile tassels. (Photo: Daniel Barter).

Our survey found 51 objects, most being tapa cloth garments, blankets or room dividers. A few items of the collection however were part of the tapa cloth manufacturing process, such as heavy wooden beaters. The aim of the survey was to assess the condition of the collection. We drew up a "condition form", describing the stability, condition, potential treatment and packaging of each specimen, as well as a photographing everything. This information will then be used to inform decisions on prioritising object treatment and packaging. Some pieces have already been conserved by other students, so this was also a good opportunity to see different treatments and methods of packing.

Tapa poncho from Samoa

Tapa tiputa or poncho from Samoa. Collected by Captain Home of HMS North Star, on its trip to New Zealand and the Pacific in 1846. The shiny glaze is probably from the sap of Bischofia javanica (o’a), a naturally brown resin that acts as waterproofing. Conserved by Judith Hubbard at the Textile Conservation Centre in 2008. EBC 42861. (Photo: TCC).

We have both found this a very beneficial experience. It has enabled us to become involved in the inner workings of an impressive collection, and has increased our knowledge of tapa cloth and how to perform collection surveys. We were also able to repack quite a few pieces into larger boxes, a cheap and easy form of preventative conservation.

We are very grateful to Kew for giving us this opportunity and we hope to be conserving and preserving objects from their collection very soon.


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Tags: of use | unusual

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The mysterious hanging diagrams of Museum No. 2

By: Caroline Cornish - 09 Aug 2011
One of Kew's PhD students investigates the beautiful posters that once hung in Kew's museums.
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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).

Museum No. 2 in 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).

Museum No. 2 in about 1960

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 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.

Open House London poster

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.

Palm case in 1902

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 -


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A Journey to the 'Land of Many Waters'

By: Sara Albuquerque - 15 Jun 2011
Sara Albuquerque updates us on her journey to Guyana, in the footsteps of Sir Everard im Thurm.
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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).


Map                      Sara and the Iwokrama rainforest
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

Family producing cassava flour in Annai. Grated cassava is packed into the long basketry tube (matapi) as part of a detoxification process.


Viola Allicock manufacturing a cotton hammock             Bottles containing balatá 
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.

On the way to Kabakaburi, via the Pomeroon river         Veronica demonstrating a quake at Kabakaburi.
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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About Mark Nesbitt

Mark Nesbitt showing students Kew's collections

(Photo by London College of Fashion students)

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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