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Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives

The present Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives are housed in the much expanded Hunter House, a grade II listed building, located just outside Kew's Main Gate.

Herbarium

Historical information

Hunter House was used as a residence by the Duke of Cumberland until he became King of Hanover in 1837. His visits then became  less frequent until his death in 1851. Two years later, Kew’s embryonic Herbarium (dried collections of preserved specimens documenting plants and fungi) was located in the building. Early donations included the herbaria of botanists George Bentham and the Reverend William A Bromfield; Kew director Professor Sir William Jackson Hooker’s herbarium was added after his death in 1865. In 1877, as the collection expanded, a new wing was added to the building.

Space continued to be a problem, as Director Professor Sir William Thistleton-Dyer explained to the Office of Works in 1899. “I cannot control the expansion of Kew Herbarium because I cannot control the expansion of the Empire. The scientific investigation of new territories follows their accretion”. Three further wings were added between 1902 and 1968, with further expansion into the quadrangle in 1988. In 2007, Kew commissioned Edward Cullinan architects to build a new building to house part of the Herbarium and Library as the collections continue to grow by some 35,000 specimens per annum.

Collections

Kew’s Herbarium, part of which began moving into the climate-controlled facilities of the new wing in 2010, houses over seven million dried and pressed plant specimens, including 350,000 ‘types’ (the original material upon which descriptions of new plants are based). These are supported by the ‘carpological collections’, boxes containing plant parts that are too bulky to be pressed and attached to sheets of paper. There are also 70,000 specimens of fleshy fruits and delicate flowers preserved in jars in the ‘Spirit Collection’. The Spirit Collections are stored in ‘Kew Mix’, a cocktail of alcohol, formaldehyde, glycerol and water.

 Arranged in a systematic order with specimens of closely related families, genera and species placed near to one other in the Herbarium, the collections are constantly being added to and updated as new species are discovered and previously unknown relationships uncovered. The collections are the basis for Kew’s global conservation work and many of it’s scientific publications. To facilitate advances in our botanical knowledge, Kew lends out specimens to botanists around the world and receives loans of material from other herbaria. When dried plant material enters the building, it is first frozen for three days at –40°C to ensure no insect pests that might damage the collections survive.

Library, Art and Archives

Historical information

Early acquisitions included 600 books bequeathed by Isle of Wight-based botanist Reverend William A Bromfield and 1,200 texts donated by botanist George Bentham. From the 1850s the Treasury allowed Kew to spend £100 a year on books. After Hooker died in 1865, Kew bought Hooker’s library and correspondence for £1,000 in 1866.

The Bentham-Moxon Trust, established with monies donated by George Bentham in 1884 plus ML and AE Moxon in 1931, enabled Kew to buy more valuable volumes, including Edouard Morren’s Bromeliaceae drawings, Fuch’s De historia stirpium (1551) and the Tankerville collection of flower drawings including some by GD Ehret and Margaret Meen. Today the library is one of the most important botanical reference collections in the world, containing 310,000 books, periodicals and pamphlets; 7 million sheets of letters and private papers, 200,000 plant drawings, watercolours and prints; and 205,000 photographs of Kew, people and plants. Over 90 languages are represented.

What the library offers

The main subjects covered are taxonomy and systematics but there is also material on specialized horticulture, horticultural history and management. A collection on botanic gardens and garden history includes seed lists from botanic gardens and nursery catalogues from commercial growers. There are specialist sections covering palms, monocots, ferns, grasses and orchids, plus maps and travel literature related to botanical expeditions. The separate Jodrell Library holds books and periodicals on plant anatomy, genetics, biochemistry, economic botany, ethnobotany, medicinal plants and mycology. Material relating to seeds and plant physiology is held in the Millennium Seed Bank Library at Wakehurst Place.

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