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.
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 -
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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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Regular readers of Kew Blogs will be familiar with my colleagues’ travels to far-away countries such as Montserrat and Guyana. It seems a paradox that my own work, as curator of Kew’s wonderfully global Economic Botany Collection, rarely takes me far from Kew. 2010 has been a typical year, with trips to the Museum Ethnographers Group in Reading, a meeting on radiocarbon-dating in Oxford, and most recently the Textile Society in Leicester.
There’s a lot to be said for these smaller, cheaper meetings, both for the chance to learn from experts, and as an opportunity to network and encourage future collaborators and users of the Collection. Over the last year I have been seeing a lot of textile historians at Kew, so it was a pleasure to accept an invitation to give a talk at the Textile Society’s annual conference, on the theme of sustainable and renewable fibres.
Left: Isabella Whitworth showing orchil-dyed cloth
Middle: Diccon and Lesley Pullen, seen here with fabulous textiles from the Threads of Life project
Right: Jenny Balfour cloth showing her research notes and own dyed cloth
We started with a very varied day of talks, ranging from a study of the secondhand clothes trade in the 18th century, to the many complications of trying to define a true eco-textile today. Several speakers referred to Kew, including Isabella Whitworth who spoke about the hopelessly unsustainable lichen dye (orchil) trade of the 19th century. Thanks to Isabella’s intervention, we have recently been given a beautiful set of 18th century Canary Island dye lichens for the Collection. Leslie Pullen talked about the Threads of Life project, supporting textile crafts in Indonesia (with some help from Kew botanists on dye plants). Jenny Balfour-Paul, the great expert on indigo, illustrated her talk with quite a few Kew artefacts. She concluded that history was most worth doing when it had relevance to the present, elegantly illustrated by reference to the modern revival of natural indigo dyes.
Emily Brennan and I gave a joint talk on Jamaican lace-bark, setting it in the context of world barkcloths. Almost nothing is known about traditional harvesting of lace-bark – a real obstacle to reviving this historic Jamaican craft. Our survey of the great diversity of barkcloths used around the world suggests that most are harvested sustainably, either through regrowth of young stems and branches, or when patches of bark regrow on thick trunks. It's a strong hint that sustainable harvesting of lace-bark is possible.
Left: Emily discusses our lace-bark exhibit
Right: Matthew Horne and Emily Baines, with sacks of hemp, stinging nettle and flax fibre
Thanks to the conference host, De Montfort University, there was plenty of space for exhibitions (we showed some Kew specimens of lace-bark) and retail stalls. An unexpected snowfall led quite a few to miss Sunday’s coach tour, one highlight of which was a visit to a hemp and stinging-nettle processing plant on a local farm. Dr Matthew Horne, of De Montfort's impressive textile group, gave an excellent tour despite the bitter cold, and I was even more pleased to leave with samples of raw fibre for the Economic Botany Collection.
Many thanks to Janie Lightfoot, Brenda King and the Textile Society for the invitation and funding to attend the conference.
- Mark -
1 comment on 'Eco-fibres old and new'
For my doctoral research I have been studying the Latin American career of Everard Im Thurn, (1852 – 1932). He was a colonial administrator and polymath: equally capable as a botanist, anthropologist, curator, photographer and ornithologist. An important resource for my project is the artefacts collected by Im Thurn in British Guiana [now Guyana], kept in the Economic Botany Collection at Kew. The objects pictured below were both collected by Im Thurn:
A pot made of clay mixed with burned and powdered Kanto bark (Hirtella americana) by the Arawak Indians (EBC 37797)
A sample of Karamani gum, from the Symphonia globulifera tree, used for cementing arrow heads (EBC 66698)
In October 2010 I am going to Guyana to visit some of the communities (Arawak and Macushi in particular) where Everard Im Thurn collected some 120 years ago. I will also have the opportunity to visit the capital Georgetown and examine the way indigenous artefacts are part of the cultural life of Guyana today.
My main aim is to see how the objects such as necklaces, hammocks, fans and pottery have or have not changed in the intervening period. I wonder if the kinds of objects collected by Im Thurn are still being used by these communities, whether the same species of plants are being used to make the objects, is this knowledge of handcraft is still being passed down through the generations, and to what extent tourism is influencing these communities. Once I return, I will report some of my findings back to the blog.
My research project is funded by an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award and a studentship from the Portuguese foundation FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia), and co-supervised by Dr Luciana Martins (Birkbeck, University of London) and Christopher Mills (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew).
- Sara -
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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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