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Museum No. 1

King George IV proposed a museum be built at Kew around 1820, but it took the efforts of Director Sir William Jackson Hooker to realise this ambition.

Historical information

Hooker donated 200 drawings, plus his collection of textiles, drugs, gums, dyes and timbers, and used these as the foundations for a Museum of Economic Botany. Located in the Georgian brick building that is now the School of Horticulture, it was the first of its kind in the country. It opened to the public in 1848. Its collections were later supplemented by exhibits from the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris Exhibition of 1855.

The Economic Botany Museum has done more to popularise … knowledge of the vegetable creation than all the palms, the gorgeous water-lilies, the elegant ferns, etc. … which grace the tropical houses of these noble gardens.

William Jackson Hooker, 1853

With space soon at a premium, Decimus Burton was commissioned to design a purpose-built building to house the museum. Located on the eastern side of the Palm House pond, this building became known as Museum No 1, while the former building became known as Museum No 2.

The new museum opened in 1857, with objects classified under the taxonomic groupings of Dicotyledons and Gymnosperms displayed in glazed mahogany cabinets on three floors. Outside, a canoe made of paper birch by Canadian Indians floated on the pond. Items classified as Monocotyledons and Cryptograms were displayed in the old building

Restoration and conservation

By 1987, the museum building was in a poor state of repair and closed to the public. It reopened in 1998. Part of Kew’s Content & Learning department is now based upstairs in Museum No 1.

Things to look out for

Kew’s economic botany collections now number some 83,000 specimens. A selection of these continues to be exhibited in Museum No 1 under the title of Plants and People. Items are displayed in cabinets under themes such as ‘Healing plants’, ‘Sugar and spice’, ‘Plants for energy’ and ‘To dye for’.

Exhibits include a portion of a wreath made of the blue waterlily (Nymphaea caerulea), from the coffin of the Egyptian Pharoah Rameses II (c. 1200–1100 BC); apparatus for smoking opium from Hong Kong donated in 1881; a collection of elephants fashioned from different Sri Lankan woods; and a set of rubber dentures.

Musical instruments in the collection include nutshell whistles made from the black walnut (Juglans nigra), a wind instrument made from the bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), and a lute made from timbers felled at Kew during the great storm of 1987 (Sophora japonica and Maclura pomifera). You can hear some instruments being played via one of the interactive posts in the museum.

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