Economic Botany Collection
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Economic Botany Collection

Kew's Economic Botany Collection illustrates the extent of human use of plants around the world. 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. 

About Kew's Economic Botany Collection

Kew's 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, Canadian Aboriginal artefacts, cinchona, gourds, Japanese lacquerware, New Guinea artefacts, paper, Richard Spruce (Amazonia), Royal Pharmaceutical Society Collection, South Asian lacquerware and the wood collection (xylarium).

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.

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.

Search Kew's Economic Botany Collection database, including Taxonomic Databases for Plant Sciences (TDWG) Regions and Uses

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.

Contact the Economic Botany Collection

Team Leader: Dr Mark Nesbitt
Collections Assistant: Frances Cook

Economic Botany Collection
Herbarium
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 
Richmond
Surrey TW9 3AB
UK

Email: ecbot@kew.org

Bottle gourd

Explore the collection

Kew's 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.
Colorimeter reading of dyed cloth

Research resources

The Economic Botany Collection is an important research resource because of its extraordinary breadth, and the copious documentation associated with many specimens
Sun umbrella made from the bark of a species of Broussonetia

Curation

Ethnobotanical specimens are highly varied in shape, size and composition, and present many curation challenges.