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
Did you find what you were looking for?
Imagine a jumbled collection of books, pamphlets, photographs, letters and notebooks. What would you do with the collection? How would you know what treasures of information were contained in it? How would you organise it and allow others to explore it? These issues are taken on and solved by archivists as they catalogue collections within their archive, and I am here to tell you about my experiences of cataloguing one of the newest collections in the Archives at Kew.
A large proportion of the lifetime’s work of the grassland ecologist Reginald Rose-Innes arrived in 7 large boxes in late 2009. Delving into the boxes I was struck by the variety and richness of the material, and realised I had set myself quite a challenge for my first cataloguing project!
Before I could organise or catalogue the collection I needed to know what was there; initially I put together a list of all the items in the boxes and discovered they contained around 170 items! I was then able to establish an arrangement for the collection. I divided the material into four main series; those being personal papers and correspondence, research notebooks, printed material including reports and off-prints, and photographs - and I organised each series and further sub-series chronologically. I then wrote the catalogue entries which meant identifying dates, titles and a concise description of each item. This was the most time consuming part of the project but also the most enjoyable. Looking at each letter, notebook or photograph in turn allowed me a huge insight into the career and personal life of Rose-Innes.
Photograph of Reginald Rose-Innes (Reg is on the left)
Once I had catalogued the collection I was able to complete its physical arrangement. I numbered each item to allow for easy identification in the future, and carefully removed metal fastenings. I then repackaged papers into archival quality folders, and photographs into melinex sleeves, and finally placed the collection in acid free boxes. These measures will prolong the life of the collection and allow others to discover it for many years to come.
A selection of the papers from the collection.
Cataloguing a collection in this way allows researchers a brief glimpse into the vast quantity of information contained within it and provides clues as to which items may be of most interest to them. The material in this collection will not only hold interest for those carrying out grassland research but also others with interests in history, geography and anthropology.
I hugely enjoyed cataloguing the Rose-Innes collection; I discovered a down-to-earth individual who was passionate about his field of work, and held great admiration for those who inspired him and his colleagues. Throughout the project Reginald’s sense of humour brought his papers to life, and I end with a snippet from one of his letters -
‘We partook of hot coffee, which was good and boiled beans seasoned with garlic – which were frightful. “Them beans is good food” said Gilbert – “stick to your ribs”. I swallowed mightily and said I’d never tasted better.’
- Hannah -
The Rose-Innes catalogue exists in Calm, which we hope will be available on the web by 2011. In the meantime paper copies of the catalogue list, which includes a brief biography, are available by request. Visitors are welcome to book an appointment to view the items from the collection in our Reading Room.
5 comments on 'Making order out of chaos - Cataloguing the Rose-Innes papers'
There’s more to a Marianne North painting than a pretty plant!
I am part of the team working to conserve the Marianne North paintings and through a series of posts we hope to share some of the incredible things we are finding during this project. Our team is working hard to meet the target to restore all 832 paintings in just two years. As you can imagine this is extremely sensitive work which involves a steady hand and lots of concentration. We are all paper conservators and our varied interests and backgrounds have really helped the team work well together - from photographers, art historians and artists to a mathematician!
The Marianne North project is an incredible opportunity for any conservator as it is unusual to be able to work on one artist’s collection continually, so this is a real treat for us and chance to learn so much about one person, the collection and how it was created.
Paintings by Marianne North - North American Carnivorous Plants; Foliage, Flowers and Fruit of Sacred Lotus in Java; Foliage and Flowers of a Tropical American Shrub and Honeysuckers
All the paintings are examined, photographed and recorded – possibly the most important part of preservation. Our treatment records will provide future data for conservators and curators with information about the methods and chemical treatments we have used and why we have used them. This information can be used to help maintain the historical and cultural value of the collection.
Beginning the conservation
The paintings that are being conserved are oil paint on a pre-prepared paper, the majority of which were adhered to a poor quality mount board which aimed to prevent the paper from sagging in the frames. The boards and the adhesive used have degraded in time and become acidic, which ultimately puts the paintings at risk. The majority of our time is spent removing these boards which we pare down with scalpels – a very labour intensive task working layer by layer, from the back of the board to the back of the paper and can take between one and four hours per painting.
A selecion of conservation tools Removal of old backing board
Each of us see the treatment of a painting through to completion and are often working on five or six different paintings at any one time. This means that we can vary our work load. Paring down more than one large painting a day is really hard work on our wrists and hands, so it is really important that we can break up repetitive movements with other treatments like surface cleaning, pH testing or documentation. We use an alkali solution to raise the pH of the paper to neutral, attach new archival quality boards and clean them. All paintings will go back into their original frames which have been cleaned and restored.
The Marianne North Conservation team give free informal talks on the project, Marianne North and their hidden finds once a month in the Marianne North Gallery. You can find out more about these events on Kew's what's on pages.
- Helen -
- Learn more about the Marianne North paintings conservation
- Find out more about the Marianne North Gallery
- Discover how you can play a part in safeguarding the future of each Marianne North painting.
- Read about Marianne North and her links with Kew
0 comments on 'Welcome to the Marianne North Conservation Studio'
My name is Caroline and I work one day a week with the Directors' Correspondence digitisation team at Kew. Digitising the letters is fascinating and intriguing: no two letters are the same and every botanist has a different story to tell. They often had to leave their loved ones behind and contend with natural disasters, political unrest and hostility from the native population. If this wasn't enough to struggle with, infection and disease were also constant dangers, as highlighted through the experiences of one botanist stationed in Dominica.
We work with the original letters to summarise them and make them available online.
Suffering from 'ground itch'
George A. Ramage (1864-1933) collected plants for the West Indian Commission to Dominica. It is from here that he corresponded with Kew and, in a letter sent in August 1888 (DC Vol. 212, f.419-420), he complains of becoming afflicted with 'ground itch', which has prevented him travelling to St. Lucia.
Ground itch affects the feet and is characterised by blister-like eruptions and severe itching caused by the entry of hookworm larvae into the skin. Ramage complains of both legs and feet ballooning to twice their size and leaking 'watery serum'. Ramage did not, however, do himself any favours when plant collecting, which left him vulnerable to infection.
A letter written on 17 June 1889 (DC Vol. 212 f.429-431) details Ramage's expenses whilst in Dominica and he is keen to stress that he saved money wherever he could: he 'used neither alcohol or tobacco' and 'went into the forest barefooted'. Whilst he must be commended for being thrifty, had he worn shoes, he would have certainly avoided the undesirable consequences of ground itch.
The infection was cured when a local doctor supplied a lotion of acetate of lead, which is no longer used in the modern age due to its high levels of toxicity. Not only did Ramage have to contend with infection, but also with the possibility of being poisoned by his treatment!
More problems in St. Lucia
Ramage did however, make it to St. Lucia, but his problems did not end there, as he records in a letter to Kew on 6th December 1888 (DC Vol. 212, f.421) that he was struck down with a fever and had to be carried in a hammock through the 'swampy abandoned cane land'. In a letter dated 23 January 1889 (DC Vol. 212, f.424), Ramage apologises for his poor collection of plants as he has been unable to undertake any forest collecting for two months because of fever and dysentery.
Unfortunately, it all proves too much for Ramage, as he concedes he is no longer fit for forest collecting. He is pleased to hear someone has been sent to replace him, however, not before he has finished collecting in Dominica and St. Lucia. Ramage explains that he enjoys the tropical climate but that he would like to find 'some less trying occupation'.
Ramage finds love
Eighteen months later, in a letter written on 10 September 1890 (DC Vol. 212, f.371), Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls writes that Ramage seems settled and is going to apply for the post of Curator at the Botanical Station. Nicholls attributes this change in Ramage to his recent nuptials as he writes 'his recent marriage to a person old enough to be his mother has strangely enough improved him vastly'!
Extract of a letter from Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls to Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, 10 Sep 1890 commenting on Ramage's new wife (DC Vol. 212, f.371).
Ramage's example highlights the stark reality facing many botanists who collected overseas: whilst the tropical climate was favourable, the threat of disease and infection was never far away and could ultimately end a man's career, if not his life. Thankfully however, Ramage seems to have achieved his happy ending.
- Caroline -
- See images of herbarium specimens collected by George A. Ramage on Kew's Herbarium Catalogue
- Find out what else our correspondents sent to Kew whilst on their travels.
- For more specific information on Kew's archive holdings visit the Archive's webpages.
- JSTOR subscribers can view the Directors' Correspondence from Africa and Latin America on the GPI website.
- Search the Natural History Museum's online library catalogue for Ramage's watercolour drawings.
4 comments on 'Misfortune in paradise'
For those of you that are familiar with how archives work, you will be aware that collections are constantly growing, as new documents and items come in. As well as being a place to store records from the past, new records and other items appropriate for archival collection are also constantly being produced. You never know, that e-mail that you sent the other day might just end up in an archive in the future!
Part of the Monica Cole collection
How items arrive in the archive
Here at Kew there are several ways that items come into our archival collections. We have a records management programme which ensures that once working papers are no longer of current business use, they are transferred into the Archives if they are of historical interest. This process enables us to capture key Kew records for prosperity, including the details of our new buildings, lists of Kew staff and scientific research.
In addition to these official Kew records we also collect papers related to botany in general, such as the papers of eminent botanists. We are fortunate in that the majority of these documents are donated to us either by the botanists themselves, or by their families. Occasionally papers also come up for sale at auction or via rare book sellers. In these cases we sometimes have to raise funds to enable us to bid for them.
Jack Hawkes papers, including photos from the plant collecting expedition to Peru in 1939
A snapshot of our accessions in 2009
In 2009 we accessioned 23 collections into our Kew official papers, 35 new collections into our personal papers, several hundred registered files and hundreds of items of ephemera into our Kewensia collection. The official papers included 155 Kew posters, oral history recordings, maps and postcards. Last year was also a particularly good one for the donation of personal papers. Here's a list of some of the highlights:
- around 100 collecting notebooks of Professor Jack Hawkes (1915-2007) and images from his plant collecting expeditions to Latin America and the Far East,
- 25 boxes of papers of Gerald Wickens (1927-) the baobab tree expert,
- 23 files of Frank Pagnamenta’s (1909-2009) research on the aiton family,
- 20 new boxes of Monica Cole (1922-1994) papers (to add to the 164 boxes that we already hold),
- the Cumberlege Thai Orchid Archive (1959-1965),
- 12 boxes of the papers and books of Reginald Rose-Innes (1915-), the eminent grassland ecologist.
Members of the Archives team will be blogging about some of the more fascinating aspects of these collections shortly.
Help Kew's archive grow
At the end of each year we submit details of our archive accessions to the National Register of Archives. You can browse the NRA website to find out more about our recent acquisitions.
We are always interested to hear from people who might be willing to donate original material such as letters, diaries and collecting notebooks related to botany or the history of the Gardens. If you think that you may have something like this, please do get in touch and help our archives grow!
- Kiri -
If you would like to donate something to the Archives, please contact Kiri at email@example.com
- See our website for further details on the Archives and how to view them
- Read about records management in the public sector
- Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog - 'Hawkes papers find a home away from home'
0 comments on 'Growing our Collections - Archive accessions at Kew'
Our Assistant Archivist Michèle recently blogged about love in the archives to coincide with Valentine's Day. This got the Director's Correspondence team talking about the theme in our collection. However, it was not love we ended up noting, but the loneliness experienced by some botanical collectors as they ventured into sparsely populated and inaccessible areas in South America, the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean in search of plant wonders. During their travels they often ventured truly off the beaten track.
In the 19th century, botanical stations were established on many of the West Indies islands. A significant proportion of our correspondence concerns these outposts, which functioned variously as plant nurseries, experimental plots, exchange posts and educational tools. When seeking new employees, the Directors of these stations or the local Government would write to senior staff at Kew for advice listing the sort of qualities they desired in an employee. Many such letters express the desirability of a married man!
In 1890 William Fawcett, Director of Public Gardens and Plantations in Jamaica, writing to Daniel Morris then Assistant Director of Kew, remarks upon the loneliness of the Cinchona botanic station. He already had to repost one gentleman owing to isolation and was now looking to employ a man who has 'plenty of occupation of his own in the evenings' (DC 210, f.255).
Robert Hermann Schomburgk (1804 - 1865) was an explorer and naturalist celebrated for his surveying work especially in British Guiana . He was knighted by Queen Victoria and worked in various official capacities, including a posting as the British consul to Santo Domingo.
From there we have a detailed and moving letter from Schomburgk in 1850 to William Jackson Hooker, then Director of Kew (DC 70, f.290). He feels that he now stands 'alone growing old, and have no person with whom to exchange my ideas, whom[?] to cherish'. He has frequently thought that he 'threw one chance away, and this was when you [Hooker] put the two Misses W. under my protection: the elder of whom, I thought pretty and most amiable'.
Unfortunately we do not know the 'Miss W.' to whom Schomburgk refers and he never married. In the same letter Schomburgk remarks that 'these are petty confessions and nothing to do with science at all – nor do I know how they flew into my pen'. However, his confessions offer a candid opinion amongst a collection often formal in tone.
In spite of their often isolated situations and the great distances that separated correspondents from loved ones in Europe it is frequently apparent in the correspondence that it was the love and enthusiasm for their work which spurred gentlemen like Schomburgk on. Colonel Richard Clement Moody, Lieutenant Governor of the Falkland Islands in the 1840s writes to William Jackson Hooker on many occasions mentioning tussock grass. Moody chastises himself for dwelling on the subject but notes that his 'heart is always full when he thinks of it' (DC 70, f.205).
Doubtless the communication with colleagues and friends afforded by steam packets travelling regularly across the Atlantic was also vital in helping overcome isolation. Correspondents eagerly awaited the latest news and publications and just like today, the latest gossip!
- Find out what else our correspondents sent to Kew whilst on their travels.
- Explore Kew's work in the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean
- For more specific information on Kew's archive holdings visit the Archive webpages.
- JSTOR subscribers can view the Directors' Correspondence from Africa and Latin America on the GPI website.
- See our catalogues on The National Archives website
0 comments on 'Latin American lonely hearts'
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
The beginnings of Missouri Botanical Garden: Thank you for your comment John. Before writing the blog I read a little about Henry Shaw's early li ... by: directors' correspondence team
The beginnings of Missouri Botanical Garden: Your piece omits to mention that Henry Shaw was born in Sheffield, England. It is interesting to spe ... by: John Edmondson
The beginnings of Missouri Botanical Garden: Thanks for commenting, Victoria. Missouri Botanical Garden is indeed an inspiring and admirable plac ... by: directors' correspondence team
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