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Mobile Museum: economic botany in circulation

Exploring the mobility of biocultural collections.

Project details

Project Department: 

Objectives and outputs

Please visit our main project page on the Royal Holloway website

Project team

Mobile Museum project: a collaboration between Kew and Royal Holloway, University of London

The Mobile Museum project will examine the circulation of objects into and out of the Kew Museum between 1847 and the end of the 20th century. Museum collections founded at this time were designed to be useful – scientifically, pedagogically, and commercially.  They made valuable contributions to the creation of new knowledge both by acquiring and displaying specimens and artefacts, and re-circulating them.

Considering museums in terms of their collections’ mobility requires re-thinking the way they have functioned historically and what can be done with these collections.

Kew’s Economic Botany Collection is supported by an unusually extensive set of documents recording the movement of objects through the collection. By examining these and other archives, it will be possible to digitally record specimen and artefact transfers and to place these objects in new locations, with new contexts, histories and significance.

Alongside research in Kew’s collections, the project will work with many of the museums worldwide to which biocultural specimens were sent. The differing trajectories of duplicate objects will tell their own stories; we will also be able to re-contextualise them by sharing the results of archival research. The project will also work with two primary schools to recreate – in modern terms – the school museums of economic botany that were immensely popular in the early 20th century.


The project aims to:

  • Use archives at Kew and elsewhere to map for the first time, the circulation of biocultural specimens and objects in and out of the Economic Botany Collection at Kew (nationally and internationally) creating a unique research resource.
  • Provide the first historical study of the role of Kew in supporting and promoting the use of plant specimens and artefacts in school education.
  • Research detailed case studies of the trajectories of objects through national and international networks of exchange.
  • Add value to biocultural collections in many parts of the world by undertaking the first systematic research on the provenance of materials dispersed by the Kew Museum.
  • Share the results of the research with other academic researchers, museum professionals, source communities and educators.


  • An enhanced economic botany database, unlocking for the first time information on the provenance of objects transferred from Kew.
  • Research publications of interest to a variety of disciplines, including a monograph and research papers.
  • Education resources for teachers at KS1-KS2 level and a reconstruction of a school museum in local schools.
  • Workshops for specialist researchers and collection managers from the UK and overseas.
  • A project website to share resources and news with a variety of users and beneficiaries. 


Economic botany at Kew – background

The Museum of Economic Botany at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was originally established in 1847 as a public repository for 'all kinds of useful and curious Vegetable Products, which neither the living plants of the Garden nor the specimens in the Herbarium could exhibit'.

Reflecting Kew's global networks of science, empire and commerce, the collection expanded rapidly in the 19th and 20th centuries, playing an important role in the construction of botanical knowledge.  

Today Kew's Economic Botany Collection consists of over 95,000 objects, housed in a purpose-built research store. The diversity of this collection makes it truly unique: for example, seeds of Brassica nigra from Ethiopia are found alongside a cassava sieve made by the Ingarikó people of Amazonia, and walking-sticks produced in the City of London.

Transcending the purely botanical or the purely cultural, it is best described as a 'biocultural' collection, and it is of growing interest to scholars and researchers in a wide range of disciplines from ethnobotany to design history, as well as to diverse communities and museum curators worldwide.  

More information about the Economic Botany collection at Kew

Partners and collaborators


  • Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
  • British Museum


  • Harvard University Herbaria


  • Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden


  • Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide 


  • Cornish, C. (in press). Botany behind glass: the vegetable kingdom on display at Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany. In: B. Lightman and C. Berkowitz (eds), Temples of Miscellany: Displays and Collections in Nineteenth Century Anglo-American Science. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Nesbitt, M. & Cornish, C. (2016). Seeds of industry and empire: economic botany collections between nature and culture. Journal of Museum Ethnography 29 53–70.
  • Salick, J., Konchar, K. & Nesbitt, M. (2014). Curating biocultural collections: a handbook. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  • Driver, F. & Ashmore, S. (2010). The mobile museum: collecting and circulating Indian textiles in Victorian Britain. Victorian Studies 52 (3) 353–385.