Sun umbrella made from the bark of a species of Broussonetia


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

Collections management

The Economic Botany Collection is housed in a purpose-built, temperature-controlled store fitted with compactor units. We draw on collections management expertise from across Kew, including the spirit collection, Herbarium, and paper conservation studio, and from colleagues in universities and ethnographic museums. Many conservators have been generous in giving advice and practical assistance.

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. Each year some 15–20 objects are given interventive conservation treatment by conservation students. Students regularly carry out conservation surveys of a part of the Collection and then rehouse some objects.

Insect pests are monitored using insect traps. All new objects (except for fragile or liquid specimens) are frozen at -30°C for seven days to kill insects. A biscuit beetle (Stegobium species) infestation occurred in the 1990s and was treated by keeping the Collection store at 11°C for a decade; the problem now appears to be resolved.

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 Collections database.

Data standards

We use the following data standards for cataloguing:

  • Plant names: Vascular Plant Families and Genera for family and genus names, and various printed and online checklists for specific epiphets. Note that Kew's Herbarium is now organised according to the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group system of genera and families
  • Authors of plant names: IPNI Authors
  • Geography: TDWG World Geographical Scheme for Recording Plant Distributions
  • Uses: TDWG Economic Botany Data Collection Standard
  • ISO country names

Search Vascular Plant Families and Genera

Search for authors in IPNI

More about the World Geographical Scheme for Recording Plant Distributions

Economic Botany Data Standard

More about the Economic Botany Data Collection Standard

Please note that names of collectors and donors are incompletely standardised; searching by surname is most reliable.


Since 2004 the Economic Botany Collection has assisted Jan Salick at the Missouri Botanical Garden to organise the Biocultural Collections Working Group. The Group holds an annual meeting during one of the main ethnobotany conferences, with the opportunity to see behind-the-scenes in host museums and discuss current issues. A National Science Foundation-funded workshop has led to a major manual on the curation and use of ethnobiological collections — Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook (Kew Press, 2014).

Staff at the Economic Botany Collection maintain close links with similar collections in Paris, Berlin, Leiden, Harvard, New York, Chicago and elsewhere. In 2013 we ran a course for European curators, sponsored by SYNTHESYS (Synthesis of Systematic Resources), and similar courses are planned for Brazil, Portugal and elsewhere. We also give personalised tours and (where requested) training to other curators.

Loans and sampling

Loans to other museums allow us to reach wider and larger audiences. We do everything we can to facilitate loans to suitable venues, including often sharing packaging and couriering with other London-based lenders. There are minimum requirements for security and environmental control which limit loans to certain types of venue.

Destructive sampling of raw materials, for example for DNA or chemical characterisation, is permitted for projects that meet criteria for scientific impact and methodology. Where substantial assistance in choosing samples is given — usually the case — the relevant Kew staff member is usually a co-author on a resulting publication. Sampling of artefacts is only undertaken where it will result in substantially increased understanding of the object, for example through radiocarbon dating.

Economic Botany Data Standard

Find out more about the Economic Botany Data Collection Standard (Cook, 1995).