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.
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 -
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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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One of the most colourful elements of Kew’s Economic Botany Collection is the tapa cloth. We care for at least 60 pieces from across the Pacific, made by pounding inner bark from the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) and other trees.
Tapa cloth in Kew's Economic Botany Collection
These plain, off-white fragments from Pitcairn Island appear subdued by comparison. However, I’ve long been aware of their historical link to the Bounty mutiny, one of the best-known and most controversial episodes in British history. In 1789 Captain William Bligh left Tahiti with more than 1000 breadfruit plants, bound for the Caribbean as a new food source for the slave plantations. Three weeks later Fletcher Christian, George Stewart, Peter Heywood and other crew mutinied, setting Bligh and eighteen men adrift in the ship's launch. Today many descendants of the mutineers live on Pitcairn Island and Norfolk Island.
Many of the mutineers had Tahitian partners, often the daughters of Tahitian Chiefs. The Polynesian heritage of the Bounty descendants can be traced directly to these women, but has been little explored. Pauline Reynolds, a descendant of Fletcher Christian and resident of Norfolk Island, is tracing the material culture of the Bounty women in European museums on a Churchill Fellowship. She kindly spent a day at Kew sharing her insights into the collections. Pauline’s visit shows how reconnecting with source communities can deepen understanding of the human stories behind our specimens.
Pauline Reynolds is researching tapa cloth in Kew's Economic Botany Collection
The largest piece, seen in the middle of the table, was of special significance to Pauline as it was made by Mauatua (wife of Christian Fletcher) her 5x great grandmother. She pointed out its extraordinarily thin and even texture, typical of the finest tapa cloth from very experienced makers. The piece seen on the left of the table was made by Peggy, daughter of George Stewart and is a little thicker; that on the right was made by Mauatua, and Teraura, wife of Ned Young. Pauline explained that the very plainness of these pieces is an indication of their quality: decoration would take away from appreciation of the work.
One odd feature of the tapa is that it has been cut into small pieces. In Polynesian cultures it would be very unusual to cut a large sheet into small pieces. Pauline immediately recognised that the donor’s name might be a clue. The tapa cloths were given to Kew in 1858 by Frances Heywood, who turns out to be the widow of Peter Heywood, a mutineer who was pardoned and went on to have a successful naval career.
“The women also manufacture tappa or native cloth, from the bark of the "Anti" or paper-mulberry, which is rolled up, and soaked in water, and then beaten out with wooden mallets, and spread forth to dry. The author has in his possession a piece of beautifully wrought white tappa, given him by Mrs. Heywood… it was made by the wife of Fletcher Christian [Mauatua], from the bark of the paper-mulberry-tree. The piece from which this portion was taken, was entrusted by her, when at a very advanced age, to Captain Jenkin Jones, when he visited the island, in her Majesty's ship Curacoa, in 1841; he having been desired to give it to Peter’s wife.”
I find it extraordinary - and moving - that the bonds of friendship between Mauatua and Frances Heywood, connected only by their love of two Bounty mutineers, should hold so strong over 50 years and 9000 miles.
Three years before her death in 1861, Frances Heywood evidently cut up and distributed pieces of the tapa cloths among her friends – and Kew. Perhaps more pieces are to be found elsewhere?
- Mark -
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Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) was one of the great figures of the Age of Enlightenment, rising to become President of the Royal College of Physicians, and the Royal Society, and building the founding collections of the British Museum and Natural History Museum. His 350th birthday on 16 April saw lots of events at these institutions. Although Kew came into being as a botanic garden in 1759, six years after Sloane died, we too have been able to help out with the celebrations.
Sir Hans Sloane and Jamaica
We have lent some fascinating objects to the exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians: Sir Hans Sloane: Discovery, travels and chocolate. The exhibition focuses on Sloane's stay in Jamaica from 1687-89. As revealed by Lisa Jardine, in an entertaining talk that opened the exhibition, Sloane's motives for going to Jamaica were as much monetary as scientific. Nonetheless, despite the dangerous conditions on the slavery-ridden island, he was able to travel, and to record much about the island's natural history and the customs of the African slaves working on the sugar plantations.
This work was to find fruit in a marvellous six volume herbarium, which has been digitised by the Natural History Museum, and in the massive two-volume work A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, &c. Of the last of those ISLANDS (1707 & 1725). Sadly the book has never been reprinted or digitised, but both volumes can be seen at the exhibition.
Thanks in large part to Emily Brennan's conservation of the 19th century bonnet in Kew's collection, described in an earlier blog post, our collection of Jamaican lace-bark (from the Lagetta lagetto tree) is becoming well-known. We have lent the Royal College a delicate lace-bark collar (image below left), and a branch that graphically demonstrates how the inner bark can be teased out into pure lace (below right).
We couldn't avoid some chocolate - Sloane did much to promote its medicinal properties - and have sent several specimens, including this plaster model of a cacao pod and (in image below) some cocoa butter that has survived 100 years in the Economic Botany Collection very well.
This ingenious wooden lock is a rare example of black Jamaican woodwork to survive from the 19th century. It was exhibited at the Indian and Colonial exhibition of 1886, described as "identical with the wooden locks of the ancient Egyptians".
A small piece of Sloane at Kew
Although the Economic Botany Collection was founded in 1847, some earlier specimens have found their way to Kew. Three of Sir Hans Sloane's wood specimens were transferred to Kew from the Natural History Museum in 1983. Here is specimen 12507, a very heavy and very beautiful block of wood from an ebony tree (Diospyros sp.). It would be nice to think this is from one of the ebony species native to the Caribbean and collected by Sloane in Jamaica, but it is more likely to be one of the far more common Indian species.
Find out more about Sloane
There are still some events to catch in 2010. The exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians runs until 24 December 2010, with a rich programme of chocolate-themed events. That includes a talk that I am co-presenting on Monday 15 November 2010, at the Royal College's building in Regent's Park: Sloane at home and in Jamaica: an evening of talks with the British Museum and Kew.
- Find out more about my talk.
- Bookings: email: email@example.com, tel: 020 3075 1430
- Other Sloane events are taking place at the Old Operating Theatre, Chelsea Physic Garden, and St Olave's church in the City of London.
- Mark -
2 comments on 'Kew helps celebrate the 350th birthday of Sir Hans Sloane'
Emily: I came across lace-bark for the first time in 2008 and since then it has become more and more a part of my life. The journey started when I conserved a Jamaican lace-bark bonnet for Kew’s Economic Botany Collection as part of my studies at Camberwell College of Arts. When conserving an object it is vital to understand its story. I found scattered references to lace-bark in books from the time of Sir Hans Sloane in the late 17th century to the 1950s, and Kew has an excellent collection of lace-bark objects dating between 1850 and 1950. After 1950 the use of lace-bark seems to have declined, or stopped altogether. It seemed that the only way to find out more about this intriguing and mysterious fibre was to go to its country of origin.
The Jamaican lace-bark bonnet from the Economic Botany Collection that I conserved (seen after treatment)
I felt that it was important to carry out the project in collaboration with Jamaican researchers. Lace-bark seemed to contain an amalgamation of British and African cultural influences. Out of these influences, there has bloomed something distinctly Jamaican. I was very lucky to find Lori-Ann Harris, Assistant Botanist at the Institute of Jamaica, Kingston to work with me on the project; we made a great team and she was vital to its success.
From left to right: Lori-Ann Harris; myself; Tracy Commock, Director of the Natural History Museum of Jamaica, Institute of Jamaica in the garden at the Institute (downtown Kingston, Jamaica).
I received funding from The Pasold Research Fund, the P&L Trust (Llandinam) and the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers who all made the project possible. The guidance and encouragement of Mark Nesbitt at the Economic Botany Collection was also fundamental.
For the first two weeks of the trip things were slow. It became apparent that lace-bark was nowhere near as well known as I had anticipated it to be. We also found that areas where the tree grew were not necessarily areas where lace-bark objects were made. The archives of the national newspaper led us to attempts to revive the craft of lace-bark in the 1980s and gave vital clues as to where to go. It also became clear that there might be issues of sustainability, with the trees noted as becoming scarce.
Lori-Ann: Before this project, I had not heard of or seen the lace-bark tree (Lagetta lagetto). This seemed to be the trend even in areas where the tree was known to grow. This was interesting as many people use other barks in similar ways.
Emily: Despite this we managed to find a family that had harvested lace-bark over three generations until the craft had died out in the 1980s. This was much later than we had expected. This family were invaluable as it seemed that they were the key suppliers of the raw material during an attempted resurgence of the craft. This craft resurgence apparently stopped or failed due to a combination of political upheaval and the devastation caused by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988.
Demonstrating lace-bark processing in the parish of Trelawny, Jamaica
Lori-Ann: It was amazing to feel, touch and see lace-bark first hand. There seemed to be numerous possibilities regarding the use of this plant.
Emily: Memories of the craft in Jamaica were disappearing quickly. We found out key information on the harvesting of the material, surrounding economy, roles associated with various material processes and other history of the craft during the twentieth century. The information found will now be published and kept for future generations, whatever the future of the material may be.
Lori-Ann: In the last days of our research, Emily gave a talk on lace-bark to the Natural History Society of Jamaica. Emily’s presentation was well received and sparked lively debate and numerous questions and suggestions were forthcoming. I am pleased with the renewed interest generated, and I look forward to seeing more research done in the way of reviving sustainable use of this fantastic natural material. Perhaps the craft may be revived, and if so, Lagetta lagetto may have an exciting future here in Jamaica.
-Emily and Lori-Ann-
Emily and Mark will be giving a talk on lace-bark at the Textile Society conference on sustainable textiles in Leicester, 26-28 November 2010.
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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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