Curating Biocultural Collections in the 21st century

Biocultural collections are a vital tool for research into human uses of the plant and animal worlds – the field known as ethnobiology. Mark Nesbitt, Curator of Kew’s own Economic Botany Collection, tells us about a major new Kew publication on the uses and care of such collections.

RBG Kew / F.Cook

The study of how humans manage and use the natural environment is increasingly recognised as both highly important and urgent. Natural resources, whether farmed or gathered from the wild, are among the most important ecosystem services, whether in the form of food, materials or medicines. Plants and animals also play a vital role in sustaining human culture, for example in their use in traditional diet, crafts and rituals.

Biocultural collections at Kew

Biocultural collections – so-called because they span biology and human culture – are not new. Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany (now Economic Botany Collection) was founded in 1847, predating the establishment of Kew’s herbarium by six years. The Museum aimed to display all uses of all plants, from all cultures. Such Victorian collections were formed with explicitly commercial and imperial aims. Today, aligned with the practice of modern ethnobiology, they support work on biodiversity conservation, sustainable development, and the preservation and revival of traditional cultures.

Kew’s Economic Botany Collection (EBC) is the largest of its kind, containing 95,000 specimens of raw materials and artefacts made from plants. It is also one of very few such collections with continuous growth since the 19th century; today we are adding some 2,000 specimens each year. Users are as diverse as the specimens, and include historians of botany, empire and medicine, archaeologists and art historians, designers and craftworkers, anthropologists and indigenous peoples, and of course botanists.

The EBC is heavily used by Kew’s wood anatomists and biochemists, and advances in DNA extraction make it an important genetic resource. As well as supporting research into biodiversity and conservation, ethnobotanical specimens have great public appeal and are used in interpretation across the Gardens.

Why are biocultural collections important?

Collections of specimens are at the centre of ethnobiological research. As in the closely related research areas of systematics and ecology (in the sciences) and anthropology (in the social sciences), specimens are both the vouchers for the identification to species, and also embody a great deal of further data: the place and date and habitat of the collection locality, the size of the organism, its DNA and chemistry, and so on.

Biocultural collections are a gateway to diverse avenues of research and investigation. For example, a research group including chemists at Kew has analysed Aristolochia indica roots from Kew’s crude drug collection, finding sufficient toxins present to suggest that this herbal medicine, widely used in Bangladesh, presents a danger to health (Michl et al., 2013). In another project, wood anatomists at Kew used wood specimens to create and test identification criteria for Brazilian Rosewood (Dalbergia nigra), an endangered hardwood that is often smuggled yet is hard to identify (Gasson et al., 2010). Kew’s extensive holdings of Jamaican lace-bark (Lagetta lagetto) artefacts were an important resource in tracing the history of this remarkable wild textile plant, threatened by past over-harvesting and contemporary deforestation (Brennan et al., 2013).

Improving standards of curation

Over the last decade Jan Salick, of Missouri Botanical Garden, has been prominent in making the case for biocultural collections, through a series of annual workshops, identifying biocultural collections (many neglected or too little known) and building recognition for their relevance to modern science. Such interdisciplinary collections sometimes ‘fall down the cracks’, not fitting conventional disciplinary boundaries. A further challenge is the highly diverse nature of biocultural collections, which can range from the ethnobotanical specimens, such as baskets and herbal medicines of the kind found in Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany, to seeds, books and manuscripts, DNA and more. Where, for example, cultural artefacts are curated in a natural history institution, collection staff may not be aware of appropriate practices developed in anthropology museums.

A successful grant proposal to the National Science Foundation in the United States enabled Jan to gather together an international team of fifty authors to tackle this problem. The resulting book, Curating Biocultural Collections: a Handbook, has been edited by Jan, Katie Konchar and myself, with much input from colleagues worldwide. We hope that it will both act as a guide to curators but also, crucially, alert ethnobiologists to the full range of specimens that can be collected during fieldwork.

What does the book cover?

As one might expect in a curation manual, just over half of Curating Biocultural Collections concerns making and caring for collections. What may surprise is the breadth of collection types covered: ethnographic, herbarium, ethnobotanical products, palaeoethnobotany and zooarchaeology, DNA, seeds and other plant propagules, woods, living plants, books and archives, photographs and audio-visual resources. For each of these, subject specialist authors tailor standard curation techniques to the special demands of biocultural collections. There are some important and still developing subject areas, including ethics, treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, and database standards, for which it is always not possible to give straightforward “do or don’t” advice. For these important subjects, thematic chapters set out clear, pragmatic options.

In keeping with the direction of current ethnobiological research, there is a strong emphasis on community collections, in other words, those owned and managed by indigenous peoples. These range from tribal gardens, in which plant knowledge is passed between generations, to local seedbanks and heritage seed libraries from which local people withdraw seed, repaying it after harvest time.

The rest of the book covers uses of biocultural collections, through wide-ranging literature reviews, arguing that the best case for biocultural collections is made through their active use and presenting indigenous perspectives on biocultural collections. These make an eloquent case that curators must take into account the unhappy history of European encounters with indigenous peoples in the management and display of collections.

The future of biocultural collections

Working on this book has left me optimistic about the future. A large number of old-established collections went into decline in the 1950s, reflecting reduced interest in natural products. Many of these are seeing a revival, as reflected in the beautifully refurbished Museum of Economic Botany in Adelaide’s Botanic Garden. It is also becoming far easier to disseminate specimens of all kinds by digital means. Most exciting, new collections are being formed by ethnobiologists in locations as diverse as Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul and Naples. I hope that Curating Biocultural Collections will play a major role in supporting these encouraging developments.


Brennan, E., Harris, L. A. & Nesbitt, M. (2013). Jamaican lace-bark: its history and uncertain future. Textile History 44: 235-253.

Gasson, P., Miller, R., Stekel, D. J., Whinder, F. & Zieminska K (2010). Wood identification of Dalbergia nigra (CITES Appendix I) using quantitative wood anatomy, principal components analysis and naïve Bayes classification. Annals of Botany 105: 45–56. Available online

Michl, J., Jennings, H. M., Kite, G. C., Ingrouille, M. J., Simmonds, M. S. & Heinrich, M. (2013). Is aristolochic acid nephropathy a widespread problem in developing countries?: A case study of Aristolochia indica L. in Bangladesh using an ethnobotanical–phytochemical approach. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 149: 235-244. Available online

Salick, J.,  Konchar, K. & Nesbitt, M. (2014). Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 406pp. Buy online