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.
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 -
1 comment on 'Tapa cloth and the forgotten women of the Bounty mutiny'
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
3 comments on 'On the trail of the lace-bark tree of Jamaica'
I recently spent a fascinating morning at Kew investigating the buildings which made up the former Museum of Economic Botany at Kew. As a PhD student at Royal Holloway, I’m researching the history of this intriguing institution and I’m keen to find out where its collections came from and how they ended up at Kew. I’m planning on following the ‘lives’ of a range of objects in the collection and reconstructing their ‘biographies’.
As a historical geographer I’m especially interested in the effect of place and space on how scientific knowledge is produced. Much of my time is spent with old documents in Kew’s Library and Archives, and at the National Archives just down the road, so this was a welcome chance to enjoy a sunny (if brisk) morning walking in the Gardens.
Kew’s museum buildings
With that in mind, and accompanied by Collections Manager Dr. Mark Nesbitt and my PhD supervisor Professor Felix Driver, I set out to recapture a sense of what visitors must have experienced when they toured the museums. Kew fans may know that there were once four buildings:
Museum No. 1, which occupied a purpose-built museum opposite the Palm House. Despite its name, this was the second museum building, opening in 1857. The building now houses the Schools education programmes (and some adult education courses – a chance to enjoy the fabulous views over the Palm House Pond), but the ground floor retains some of the original cabinets, and now houses the Plants+People exhibition, open every day to visitors to the Gardens.
Museum No. 1, seen in the late 19th century. The model indigo factory in the nearest case is still on display.
Museum No. 2, a converted fruit store which opened to the public in 1847. The building now houses the School of Horticulture. The interior is not open to visitors, but the unassuming exterior will be familiar to anyone who has been to the adjacent Davies Alpine House.
Museum No. 4, the Museum of British Forestry, opened in 1910 in Cambridge Cottage. This later became the Kew Gardens Gallery, but is now mainly used for functions. Members of Kew will know these elegant rooms from their monthly coffee mornings.
The Orangery and Museum No. 2 closed in the 1950s, but the other museums were open until the early 1980s. By 1988 all the collections were renamed the Economic Botany Collection and were moved to a purpose-built research store in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are now accessible by appointment.
Two views of Museum No. 2, seen in the late 19th century (top) and today (bottom).
Arriving at 8am ahead of the crowds, and armed with old photographs and plans of the museums, we were able to see areas not normally accessible to the public and make a wealth of discoveries. Particularly exciting was the former Museum No. 2 - now the School of Horticulture. Most of the original wall display cabinets are still in place, some with the numbering which visitors could refer to in their guide books to learn more about the exhibits. Many people comment on the resemblance of this museum to the wonderful Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in its architecture and displays, but the Kew museum preceded it by some 37 years!
Museum No. 1 feels much more like a purpose-built museum, with long rows of large windows to give ample light. In the upstairs galleries (now used for teaching) one can get a sense of just how large these galleries were. We spent a lot of time looking at the indigo factory model, recently moved back onto public display in the Plants+People exhibit. Even in the old museum buildings there were always problems housing large exhibits, and it is notable that this model appears in old photos in both the Orangery and in Museum No. 1.
We ended our tour with coffee and cake in the Orangery. Now light and spacious, some imagination is needed to envisage its time as a museum (see image below), crowded with giant wood specimens, and with two galleries (since removed) installed on the walls.
The Orangery as a wood museum
The history of Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany and its successor, the Economic Botany Collection, shed much light on Kew’s links to the British Empire and to the networks of science, education and government during a key period in British history. I’m looking forward to finding out more about it and its rich heritage.
Myself and Mark would like to hear from anyone with memories of working in or visiting the old museum buildings at Kew, before they closed in the 1980s. You can reach us via the Economic Botany Collection at Kew by emailing email@example.com.
1 comment on 'Reliving Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany'
This year, we also have our own spring display of flowers and fruits in the Economic Botany Collection. This follows the return of our Japanese xylarium (that's an old term for a wood collection) from conservation.
The panels in our collection are an intriguing combination of Japanese art and craft and a western approach to plant anatomy and botanical names. It includes 26 wooden panels, each made from the wood and bark of a different tree species and painted with the foliage, fruits and flowers of that species. The example below is made of pear wood (Pyrus communis).
The history and condition of our Japanese panels
Most items in Kew's Economic Botany Collection are very well documented, but so far we have not been able to find out exactly when these panels arrived at Kew. From talking to some longer serving members of staff at Kew, we know that the panels were in the collection by 1970. I think it was most likely that they arrived at Kew shortly after the second world war, when the Economic Botany Collection was less well-documented.
When they arrived, the Japanese panels were covered in a thick layer of grey dust. This suggested to me that they had been stored at an inner-city location, perhaps a university, before they arrived at Kew. The panels were also very shaky, perhaps because they were made from fresh and unseasoned wood. The image below depicts the condition of two of our panels, before conservation:
- pear (compare to the 'after' picture above)
- chinese soapberry (Sapindus mukorossi) - notice the splits in the wood and how the bark has fallen off part of the panel.
Thanks to a generous donor, each panel in Kew's collection was sent away to receive vital conservation work. There are only a few workshops in the UK with the skills and tools needed to handle the mix of wood, paper and paint that makes up these historical artefacts. We sent our panels to Plowden & Smithbased in Wandsworth. This company is well-known for the restoration work they did at Windsor Castle, following the fire of 1992.
The process of conservation
To remove the unsightly splits in the wood, the panels were taken apart and rebuilt using brass screws that will not corrode. The wide slots used for the screws, allow for the natural movement of the wood over time. The tempera paint proved too fragile to clean, but the wood grain and paper labels were cleaned with smoke sponges.
The photos below show the back of the soapberry panel after repair, and the front, after cleaning. We considered replacing the missing bark with a coloured wash, but decided this would be too great an intervention for such a historic object.
A new lease of life
Following conservation, our Japanese panels glow with colour. They are also in a good enough condition to study and carry out further research. Thanks to research by Walter Lack and Hideaki Ohba (PDF), we know for instance that the panels were made for Chikusai Kata, an illustrator at the botanic garden in Tokyo in 1874. But we still don't know how they came to Britain.
There are two other collections of Japanese panels like ours. The first of these includes 152 panels and is located at the Botanical Museum in Berlin. The second is a set of 10 panels owned by a private collector in Britain. Because all three sets contain duplicate species, it is not likely that they were part of one set, that was later broken up.
There is also an untold story about the place of the panels in the establishment of western botany in Japan around the 1870s. This crucial historical period saw the opening up of links between Japan and the West after nearly three centuries of self-imposed isolation. Japanese scientists were quick to engage with western botany, as developed at institutions like Kew.
- Mark Nesbitt -
- Read more about our Japanese panels in Kew Magazine - Download the PDF
- View all 26 panels at Kew on Flickr
- Explore Kew's work in South East Asia and Indochina
- Article - Die Xylothek des Chikusai Kato (The xylotheque of Chikusai Kato), by Lack, H. W. & Ohba, H (1998), Willdenowia 28: 263-7 - German language article (PDF)
- Article - Plant Illustration on Wood Blocks – A Magnificent Japanese Xylotheque of the Early Meiji Period, by H. W. Lack (2004), Curtis's Botanical Magazine 16(2): 124-34 - Subscription required (PDF)
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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.
Summer cereals at Kew: I like this article and the pictures that accompany it because I am from the West Coast of the U.S. ... by: Christabel Behr
Tapa cloth and the forgotten women of the Bounty mutiny: Hello Pauline, your article on the tapa cloth is most interesting. Somewhere stored in my old home a ... by: Karl Lorbach
Summer cereals at Kew: I love the cereal garden at this time of year: looks beautiful, sounds beautiful and best of all is ... by: Laura Harrison
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