Economic Botany Collection

Our Economic Botany Collection illustrates the extent of human use of plants around the world and also includes 500 specimens of fungi. The huge variety of objects includes artefacts made from plants as well as raw plant materials, such as wood samples. Uses range from food, medicine and utensils, to social activities and clothing.

Economic Botany Collection jars

The Economic Botany Collection explained

Our Economic Botany Collection contains an extraordinary range of artefacts that demonstrate some of the vital uses of plants. For example, as food and drink; medicines and poisons; clothing and ornament; and as fuels, papers, toys, and musical instruments.

The collection holds around 100,000 objects. These include raw plant materials and artefacts representing all aspects of craft and daily life worldwide, including medicines, textiles, basketry, dyes, gums and resins, foods, and woods. All plant uses and most parts of the world are represented, with an emphasis on the former British Empire. Most specimens date to the period 1847 to 1930, but about 2,000 specimens are still added each year.

Key collections include: Ancient Egyptian artefacts, bark cloth, basketry, botanical jewellery, cinchona, gourds, Japanese and south Asian lacquerware, paper, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Collection of medicines, Chinese traditional medicines, and the Amazonian collections of Richard Spruce. The Collection also includes 40,000 specimens of wood.

The Economic Botany Collection is an important research resource because of its extraordinary breadth, and the copious documentation associated with many specimens. Research use has changed through time, with increasing emphasis on anthropology and history.

History of the collection

Sir William Hooker, the first official Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, opened the Museum of Economic Botany in 1847. While the majority of the objects were acquired during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the collection continues to grow today and now holds over 100,000 specimens.

Economic Botany Collection gourd specimens
Economic Botany Collection gourd specimens, RBG Kew

Areas of current research

Current research using the Economic Botany Collection includes: botany, history of medicine, history of plants and the British Empire, history of science and exploration, arts and crafts, archaeology and anthropology.

Examples include:

  • Technical and historical studies of Pacific barkcloth (tapa), in collaboration with the University of Glasgow and the Smithsonian Institution. The results of this work are useful both to the many museums holding tapa cloth, and to Pacific islanders seeking to re-establish traditional crafts.
  • The Mobile Museum project, in collaboration with Royal Holloway, University of London, is examining Kew’s role in circulating economic botany objects and knowledge worldwide in the 19th century.
  • Richard Spruce’s ethnobotanical collections from the Amazon are being re-examined in collaboration with scientists and indigenous peoples in Brazil.
  • The collection has been used as a source of material for analytical projects on ancient residues and DNA. For example, the British Museum has used pine resin samples to identify the adhesives in Mayan mosaics, and DNA from historic wheat and barley specimens is helping unravel the early history of agriculture.

Research resources

The Economic Botany Collection Database holds records of all specimens in the collection. The database can be searched by many categories, including plant name, country, region, plant part and uses. Specimen labels, Museum Entry Books, collection files and Kew’s main Archives are all important additional sources of information.

 

Curation

The Economic Botany Collection is housed in a purpose-built, temperature-controlled store fitted with compactor units.

Ethnobotanical specimens are highly varied in shape, size and composition, and present many curation challenges. We draw on expertise from across Kew, including the Spirit Collection, Herbarium, and paper conservation studio, and from colleagues in universities and ethnographic museums.

The Economic Botany Collection is maintained at 16°C and 50 percent humidity. Loose substances are kept in sealed glass jars; other specimens are kept in acid-free glass boxes. Wood specimens are kept on open shelves. Some larger objects are in polythene bags; these are gradually being transferred to boxes. Rubber artefacts are kept in anoxic microenvironments.

The collection is organised by plant family (Bentham & Hooker system) then alphabetically by genus and species. Objects are also divided by type (woods, liquids, for example) and size. Objects can be found by browsing shelves or by using the Economic Botany Collection Database.

Researcher taking specimen out of Herbarium cupboard

Access our Collections

Find out how to arrange visit or access the online database. Please note visits to the Economic Botany Collection are for academic researchers or specially organised group visits only.

Find out how to access the Collection

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