Library, Art and Archives blog
Welcome to Kew's Library Art and Archives blog. Here you will find information about Kew's collections, services and fascinating work which is taking place within the section and also meet the Library, Art and Archive staff who will provide regular updates with news from projects they are involved in, treasures they have discovered and exciting new developments planned for the future. Donate now - Help Kew look after its art and heritage
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Hello, I’m Marc Muller, this year’s graduate trainee for the library at Kew. I started back in September last year and every day there are more interesting books being delivered, waiting to be catalogued and put onto the system. Although this is my first time working at Kew, I had previously volunteered at the British Library, helping to catalogue canal plans and maps for the digital mapping department. After that I ran quality assurance on websites gathered for the UK web archive assessing and reporting any errors I found. These activities established my interest in information retrieval, preservation and distribution and gave me a good foundation on which to build up my skills at Kew. The library here is a world-leading example example of these three activities in the context of its specialisms in botanical knowledge and history.
The new books display in the library reading room
I am in charge of the regular display of new books in our reading room which allows us to show off the variety and depth of the information that we hold in the library. I work with the other members of the team to catalogue new books and this has helped me further develop my knowledge of the key cataloguing standards including AACR2 and MARC21 that I first learnt about at the British Library. I work on small projects, help other members of the library team with their tasks, and assist on the reading room enquiry desk as a resource retrieval officer, locating particular items for users. Recently I completed a reorganisation of the nursery catalogue lists, creating public and staff lists which can now be easily accessed and displayed.
One of the new books I recently catalogued: La flora des Alpes-Maritimes et de la Principaute de Monaco
My time at the library so far has been brilliant for a number of reasons. I find the wonderful depth and breadth of botanical knowledge, from Soviet-era floras to monographs of medicinal plants, really fascinating. These books show how strong the library's ties are around the world. The scope of the botanical knowledge within the collections both past and present also illustrates Kew's efforts to conserve and preserve increasingly endangered plants and ecosystems worldwide, and the importance of this work. Items come from a variety of sources. For example, as well as those purchased by the Acquisitions Librarian, many are donated by a wide range of philanthropic, scientific and private individuals. I particularly enjoy searching the library stacks and stores for recent or historical texts and assisting readers by either providing them with new information or helping to clarify their ideas.
Lastly, I also very much enjoy working with the staff here who I find both friendly and engaging, and who frequently share new ideas with me on further developing the library services. I look forward to updating everyone about my continuing time here at Kew.
- Marc -
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With Orchids at Kew in full swing at Kew Gardens it seems fitting to draw attention to one of my ongoing projects. In the Archives, as I have been repackaging a collection of letters sent to the orchidologist, Frederick Sander, considered to be ‘the Orchid King’ of the late 19th and early 20th century.
This collection is being treated to a bit of much needed T.L.C. to make it accessible to current users and also to preserve it for our future generations. Whilst re-housing the letters in archival standard materials, I am also producing an index to the letters making them more accessible to researchers. As I repackage the collection I am learning more about the 'Orchid King' and his loyal legion of collectors.
Portrait of Frederick Sander held in the Kew Gardens Illustrations collection. RBG Kew.
Engaging an army of plant collectors all over the world, Sander filled his greenhouses with enormous shipments of orchids. Frequented by kings and nobles, he could even count the Pope as one of his many loyal customers.
Orchids on display in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. RBG Kew.
Plant hunting - a risky business
But at what cost did Sander amass these valuable orchids? Plant hunting proved to be a very hazardous game to be involved in. The letters sent to Sander from his ‘travellers’ shed light on the dangerous practice.
After visiting Kew and mapping the route taken by previous collectors in his search for an elusive orchid, Sander sent the German plant collector, William Micholitz, on a hunt to the remote island of New Guinea. Here Micholitz was horrified by the ritual sacrifices of the native tribes. Fearing for his life, Micholitz collected all that he could before his retreat only for the ship carrying the plants to catch fire. Sanders simple reply? Return and recollect.
On his reluctant return, this time accompanied by an armed guard, Micholitz now found the jungles to be empty of the precious orchid. Searching for an alternative location, in the letter below Micholitz recounts his joy when he eventually stumbles upon the sought after flower, growing amongst human remains.
Extract from letter sent from Micholitz to Sander, dated 1891. Archive reference: Letters to Sander volume 11 folio 120. RBG Kew.
The extract above reads: “I forgot my troubles when I saw the first on bare limestone between a great number of human skulls and bones. The natives do not bury their dead, but put them in a kind of coffin then place them on these solitary rocks when they stand along the shore...however, you need not be afraid I shall send you no bones or skulls with them”
Specimens collected on behalf of Sander are today held in the Herbarium collections at Kew, and his name is attached to many beautiful orchids. This important collection is now being repackaged meaning these fascinating letters will be available for researchers to view in our reading room.
- Elisabeth -
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I have recently completed conservation of a collection of 15 pastel and chalk drawings on paper, depicting portraits of notable botanists of the 19th century. These are part of the Illustrations collections at Kew, originally from the Joseph Hooker collection and are by the Scottish artist Daniel Macnee (1806-1882).
The portraits were found housed in an open box and were stacked on top of each other, interleaved with tissue paper (figure 1). Without proper mounting they could not be viewed by researchers or go on display. Each portrait was severely discoloured, the paper was very brittle and the pastel was gradually being rubbed away.
Figure 1: The portraits before treatment, housed in a box and interleaved with tissue paper
Two of the portraits were still attached to a wooden frame and had severe tears across the entire centre of the paper support (figure 2).
Figure 2: Portrait of Asa Gray, before treatment
The paper is pulled around a wooden frame, leaving it vulnerable to damage such as the tears shown. The paper is also severely darkened probably due to prolonged light exposure.
Five of the portraits had been previously ‘conserved’ and dry mounted with a heat set film. These had also been heavily re-touched with white chalk to disguise the discoloration of the paper (figure 3).
Figure 3: Portrait of Allan Cunningham, before treatment
The paper has been previously dry mounted with a heat set tissue and the background has been re-touched with white chalk, to disguise the darkening of the paper. These attempts at conservation were probably carried out in the 1970s.
Pastel, chalk and charcoal are very difficult to handle and store, as they only sit on the surface of the paper and are very easily detached if moved or touched. The aim of the treatment was to re-house the pastel drawings to make them more accessible and prevent further deterioration.
The majority of the portraits were stuck to a poor quality board which was very acidic and had contributed to the deterioration of the paper. The board was removed from all of the portraits using a scalpel to pare it away from the back of the paper (figure 4).
Figure 4: Removal of the acidic backing board by gradually paring away with a scalpel.
Many of the papers were also torn along the edges and some had large tears across the whole image. These were repaired with small strips of Japanese paper and a paste made from wheat starch (figure 5).
Figure 5: Portrait of Thomas Drummond, verso, showing the repairs to the tears with strips of Japanese paper along the edges. The discoloration of the paper around the edges shows where a wooden frame would once have been in contact. Another drawing was also uncovered on the verso.
The portraits were then hinged into deep window mounts to prevent anything coming into contact with the surface and stored in an archival Solander box.
Figure 6: Portrait of Thomas Drummond, before and after treatment
This was a very challenging project due to the very brittle supports and the fragile media. The portraits are now housed safely and securely in archival quality mounts and can be easily accessed and displayed.
Three of the portraits have been framed and are now on display in the Wolfson Rare Books Room window in the library Reading Room, along with some related items from the illustrations collection.
- Emma -
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Toward the end of 2012 the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation Team completed the digitisation of the Asia correspondence: 26 volumes of letters sent from all over Asia to the Kew from the 1830s to the 1920s. This phase of the project produced a grand total of 22,508 digital images - a significant achievement for the team. To date, three quarters of those images are available online. The remainder are still in the process of being quality controlled, but should be available to view in a few months!
Bunting made from pictures of some of our Asia correspondents to celebrate the successful completion of the Asia project!
Exploring North America
But the work doesn't stop with Asia! We have already embarked upon our next venture: digitising the North America correspondence. The first volume of North American letters - dated 1832 to 1834 - has provided us with a number of interesting characters who wrote to Sir William Jackson Hooker (Kew's first Director) while he was Professor of Botany at the University of Glasgow. Some are written by men who became famous for their attempts to chart the Northwest Passage: William Edward Parry, George Back and Frederick William Beechey.
Drummond and Douglas
There are also poignant letters from Thomas Drummond and David Douglas, two Scottish botanists who endured numerous hardships in their quest to map and collect the flora and fauna from opposite ends of North America: Drummond in the Eastern and Southern States; Douglas in the Pacific Northwest.
Portraits of botanical collectors Thomas Drummond (left) and David Douglas (Source: Wikimedia commons)
Whilst both men had similar goals, the experiences they describe were very different, as illustrated in the following passages:
Drummond wrote from San Felipe de Austin, Texas, in August 1833, that "the weather is said to be warm beyond precedent this season but there is not such a thing as [a] thermometer in the town. I suppose however that the temperature is constantly between 90 & 100 [Fahrenheit]. At this very moment of writing the perspiration is running down my arms in torrents...notwithstanding I am all but naked." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.92]
Douglas noted, from the Columbia River in April 1833, that "This winter has been drier but much more severe than former seasons – The Columbia [River] was closed for the space of 4 weeks at the 'Menzies Island'...22˚ Farh. of freezing, cold for the shores of the Pacific." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.110]
Tragically, neither of these men returned home from their respective trips: Drummond died in Havana in 1835, possibly from septicaemia; Douglas was crushed by a bull after falling into a trapping pit in Hawaii in 1834. We hope to bring you more detailed stories about these men in future blogs.
A difficult country for women
Another interesting correspondent was Miss Mary Brenton of Newfoundland, daughter of a government official there. Brenton collected plants from St John's and the surrounding area.
19th Century Map of Newfoundland, with detail of St John's
In Brenton's letters to Hooker, she describes the frustrations she has encountered, as a woman, in trying to collect plants:
"...as the best flowering plants usually grow in swamps, it is difficult for a lady to reach them, and I can find but few persons who have enthusiasm sufficient to induce them to penetrate into a bog up to their knees in water in search of what they may not find after all." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.54]
"My walks are generally so limited having but a short time to scramble about on shore, as my father has leisure from his official duties to accompany me...the woods are too thick for a woman to penetrate through & the bogs & marshes too wet & deep." [Archive ref: DC 61 f.55]
The letters in the first of the North American volumes give a real sense of the pioneering spirit that prevailed in that country in the 1830s: a time when settlers were migrating to the Pacific northwest along the Oregon Trail; Andrew Jackson began his second term as President (30 years before Abraham Lincoln); Native Americans in the Southern States were being forced to move west; and Texas was still part of Mexico.
If you want to delve deeper into the lives of some of these fascinating and brave pioneers, watch this space – we can't wait to share our finds with you! Or you can keep up to date with our progress by following us on Twitter @KewDC.
- Helen -
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Hello, I’m Lorna Cahill, the new Assistant Archivist here in the Archives department of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I started last September but I’m happy to say the archives team has been so busy over the past few months that I have only now got the chance to introduce myself!
Lorna in the Archives
I have been a qualified archivist since June 2011 and have worked in a number of different archive services since I first became interested in archives over 4 years ago. I have also worked at the Natural History Museum, London where I catalogued correspondence to Walter Rothschild and his museum at Tring in Hertfordshire, which is now part of the NHM. RBG Kew and the NHM have a lot in common, so I’m working with similar collections – they both have a lot of Latin names written everywhere!
The Value of Volunteers
However, I am not quite brand new to Kew. My first experience of working in an archive was here at RBG Kew in 2008, when I began volunteering one day a week. Volunteering is very important to archive services, not only because volunteers can do incredibly valuable work, but also because for many people (including me) it is the best way to start their career in archives, decide if they’d like to continue, and then work towards qualification . It is apt that my current role here at Kew will now involve managing our volunteers - I can remember what makes a valuable and positive experience. Volunteers can be involved in many different aspects of archive work - and although it is important that a qualified archivist makes the important decisions about how archive material is catalogued and preserved - the tasks that volunteers can do frequently help active collections be accessed more quickly, easily and safely.
Peter Cowen, one of our current volunteers, has been creating a database of information within our Goods Inwards volumes, which record all plant and seed material that was sent to Kew Gardens and the Herbarium from 1793 to 1938. Many researchers are interested in the history of particular relationships between Kew and individuals and botanic gardens around the world. Peter’s work has made it much easier to find the relevant entries, without having to search through every page of every volume.
One of our Archives volunteers, Peter Cowen
Calling All Volunteers!
A new Archive volunteering project will kick off in the next few weeks, involving the preservation of early 20th century material. I will be looking for a group of volunteers who are interested in pursuing Archives as a career and need that first step in the process. Hopefully, they will experience the same thrill of first handling archive material that I felt four years ago! If you are interested in volunteering in the Archives, please contact me at email@example.com.
Volunteers are also important to RBG Kew as a whole, contributing to the science departments, horticulture and as guides to visitors to the Gardens. You can read about of some of the volunteers and their projects here. Anybody can make a difference here at Kew, and can gain as much from the experience as I have.
- Lorna -
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Keep up to date with events and news from Kew
Kew's Library, Art and Archives contains many millions of items within its collections. Find out about the diverse teams who look after these collections and make them accessible.
- Archives team
- Directors' Correspondence Digitisation team
- Exhibitions & Galleries team
- Library Information Services team
- Preservation team
‘If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world’: Dear Shirley, Many years back (in the 1990s) I had seen an exhibition of your painting collecti ... by: Ratna
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