The mobile museum: economic botany in circulation

Lead Research Organisation: Royal Holloway, University of London
Department Name: Geography

Abstract

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 grew at such a rate that additional museum buildings were added in 1857, 1863, and 1910, the whole complex playing an important role in the production and dissemination of botanical knowledge during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today Kew's Economic Botany Collection consists of over 90,000 objects, housed not in a museum but in a purpose-built research store. It is the diversity of this collection, especially its juxtaposition of botanical specimens, plant derivatives, indigenous artefacts and industrially-produced objects, which makes it truly unique: for example, seeds of the Brassica nigra from Ethiopia are found alongside objects as diverse as a cassava sieve made by the Ingariko people of Amazonia, and walking-sticks produced in the City of London. Transcending the purely botanical or the purely cultural, this is best described as a 'biocultural' collection, and it is of growing interest to a wide range of disciplines from ethnobotany to design history, as well as to diverse communities and museum curators around the world.

Why and how did objects enter and leave this collection, and why does this matter? This project seeks to examine the circulation of objects into and out of the Kew museums over the period between 1847 and 1987. For the founders of such museums, the mere accumulation of objects was not an end in itself: their collections were designed to be useful, scientifically, pedadogically and commercially. If museums were to contribute to the making of new knowledge, whether in natural history, anthropology or design education, this would be accomplished not simply through the acquisition of specimens or artefacts, but through their circulation either as physical objects or in other forms. Conceptualising museums in terms of the mobility of their collections requires re-thinking the way they have functioned historically and what can be done with their collections today.

In this context, the value of Kew's Economic Botany Collection to researchers is substantially enhanced by the unusually extensive documentation of the movement of objects through the collection. Two archival series stand out: the Museum's accession registers (or 'Entry Books') recording acquisitions from 1847 to the present, and its de-accession registers (or 'Exit Books') recording outgoing objects from 1881 to the present. Augmented by other archival resources, notably Kew Directors' correspondence, these two series provide fundamental data for the study of national and transnational circulation of plant materials of economic and ethnobotanical interest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This project will use this unique archival record to map the circulation of biocultural objects into and out of Kew, at international and national scales. At the international scale, the research will identify the principal networks of exchange, focusing especially on links with museums in Australia, the United States and Europe. At the national scale, the research will consider Kew's place in a wider network of natural history and ethnographic museums, and will examine its role in providing specimens and artefacts to schools in the wider context of contemporary nature study. A series of focused object studies will trace the trajectories of objects through both national and international networks of exchange. Finally, the project will provide online access to an enhanced database of the Economic Botany Collection, including outgoing objects for the first time. This will be of lasting value to researchers, museum practitioners, source communities and educators worldwide.

Planned Impact

The project is designed to be of lasting value to the following users and beneficiaries: (1) collections managers and heritage professionals, (2) museum curators and exhibitions staff, (3) enthusiast historians and botanists, (4) representatives of source communities, (5) educators, including museum learning departments and school-teachers, and (6) pupils and students.

1. Collections managers and heritage professionals. The enhanced database, to include de-accessions for the first time, will enable museum professionals to search for crucial provenance information about objects in their own collections. This will enable significant enrichment of knowledge and interpretation of the contents of other collections. Given the diverse nature and global scope of recipient collections, this benefit will be available to professionals in a diverse range of institutions, including many natural history museums and ethnographic museums around the world.

2. Museum curators and exhibitions staff. The project will enable curators to develop new ways of engaging with biocultural objects which are often little known and little understood, especially when objects originally donated to one institution and today found in another. By re-connecting these objects with crucial information concerning their provenance, and by highlighting their role in global patterns of migration, empire and commodity circulation, the project seeks to inspire new ways of using and displaying them in museum settings.

3. Enthusiast historians and botanists. The project will build on Kew's strong track record of public engagement with these groups, through guided tours of the Economic Botany Collection, public showcases and talks, blogs and web posts, accessible publications and other printed resources.

4. Representatives of source communities. There is growing interest amongst source communities worldwide in culturally significant objects made from plant materials artefacts found within biocultural collections such as those at Kew. We will make information of interest to source communities available via an easily accessible online database, and we will work with overseas partner museums, especially in Australia, which have well-established protocols for engagement with source communities.

5. Educators, including museum learning departments and school-teachers. The project will promote new approaches to biocultural collections through UK museum learning departments, and will provide new educational resources for use by teachers at KS1-KS2 level, including lesson plans, visual images and archival resources for use in the classroom. Educators will also be invited to participate in collections tours, and to make use of accessible printed resources about the collections.

6. Pupils and students. School pupils will benefit from the provision of educational resources to educators in museums and schools. Direct engagement with pupils at primary school level will be achieved through a project to reconstruct two school museums based on our research on Kew's role in the promotion of object-based study in the classroom a century ago. Students at University level will also benefit from a placement scheme managed jointly by the PI and CI enabling them to gain work experience within the Economic Botany Collection at Kew.

Some of the impact described above, will be achieved by the organisation of educational and public engagement activity within the lifetime of the project. Further impact over a longer period will be generated by the dissemination of knowledge through the significantly enhanced collection database that will be freely accessible to all users of the web. Given the nature of the resource and the international scope of the project, the geographical range of the impact is expected to be global.
 
Description In the first two years of the project, we have undertaken digitisation, transcription and analysis of some key archival resources enabling us to understand the movement of objects into and out of the Kew Economic Botany Collection from its foundation in 1847 to the present. We have identified key phases in the history of accessions to Kew's Museum of Economic Botany, with a heyday in the era of high empire (1870s-1910s) but also a continuing role for much of the twentieth century; the genuinely global extent of the range of material acquired by the Museum over this period; the role of metropolitan and colonial governments and botanic gardens around the world in supplying material to the collection; the diversity of types of object - including plant materials, ethnographic artefacts and manufactured objects - in the collection; the significance of an active programme of dispersal, especially to schools and other museums, over the history of the collection; and the need for further study of the ways in which collections and museums were connected through mechanisms of exchange during this period. A number of papers have been submitted for publication in academic journals.
Exploitation Route Working Papers, published papers, supplementary data and digitised material have been made available for others to use in research and teaching.

Museum professionals participating in workshops, seminars and collections visits organised by the Mobile Museum Project at Kew, and at events in the UK, USA and Australia, have learned more about the history and potential uses of their own collections.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/geography/research/mobile-museum/home.aspx
 
Description In the first two years of the project (2017 and 2018) we have undertaken activity which designed to enrich understanding of biocultural collections amongst a range of actual and potential users; to enable heritage professionals, collection managers and curators to develop new ways of engaging with their collections; and to promote new approaches to the educational uses of these collections). Relevant activities to date include establishing a website, developing communications (via social media and a blog), networking with museum professionals, organising a national workshop for curators of economic botany collections from national and regional museums, producing resources and publicity, conducting seminars and workshops in the UK and overseas, and initiating a significant strand of schools-related engagement activity which will culminate in two primary school exhibitions in 2019. Engagement activity to date in the UK, USA and Australia has led to enhanced awareness and understanding of museum economic botany collections, the history of transfers between these institutions and Kew, and the potential uses of economic botany collections today.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

 
Description Adelaide Botanic Gardens 
Organisation Adelaide Botanic Garden
PI Contribution supply of research data from project; invitation to project workshop.
Collaborator Contribution supply of research data to project; hosting archive visit.
Impact see project website, publications
Start Year 2017
 
Description Berlin Botanical Museum 
Organisation Free University of Berlin
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution supply of research data from project; invitation to project workshop.
Collaborator Contribution supply of research data to project
Impact see project website, publications.
Start Year 2017
 
Description British Museum 
Organisation British Museum
Department Department of Africas, Oceania & Amercias
PI Contribution Supply of data from research project; invitations to participate in project workshops.
Collaborator Contribution Supply of collections data to research project.
Impact see project website; publications.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Harvard University Herbaria 
Organisation Harvard University
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Supply of data from research project; invitations to participate in project workshop.
Collaborator Contribution Supply of data to research project; hosting archival visit.
Impact see publications and website.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Pitt Rivers Museum 
Organisation University of Oxford
Department Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Supply of data from research project; invitations to participate in project workshops.
Collaborator Contribution Supply of data to research project.
Impact see publications and website.
Start Year 2017
 
Description RHUL-Kew collaboration 
Organisation Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution (1) Co-partner on the AHRC Mobile Museum project with Kew - location of Principal Investigator, two Research Assistants; (2) other services relating to the grant (including hosting of project website); (2) Co-supervision of AHRC NPIF funded PhD students with Kew; (4) Support of undergraduate and postgraduate student placements and student visits to collections
Collaborator Contribution (1) Partner on the AHRC Mobile Museum project with Royal Holloway - location of Co-Investigator, project officer and schools project officer; (2) Co-supervision of AHRC NPIF funded PhD students with Royal Holloway; (3) Support of undergraduate and postgraduate student placements and student visits to collections; (4) Partner in TECHNE postgraduate training consortium
Impact Project collaboration: see project website, publications.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Conference Paper, Berlin 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Cconference paper on the use of economic botany specimens in schools, at International Standing Conference for the History of Education, Humboldt University, Berlin, August 2018, involving professional educators and postgraduates
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.ische.org
 
Description Conference Session, 17th ICHG, Warsaw (2018) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Convened conference session in 17th ICHG, Warsaw ('Biocultural Collections in Circulation: Kew and Beyond"), including paper and three other presentations. A well attended session including delegates from many different countries.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Conference presentation - Albany, Australia 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Plenary lecture: The Mobile Museum: botanical exchanges between the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Australia
Symposium: Collecting the West Histories of Natural History Collections & Collecting
University of Western Australia, Albany.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.collectingthewest.org/news/2018/11/6/histories-of-natural-history-collections-amp-collec...
 
Description Conference presentation, Limerick 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Conference paper on the history of school museums, at the History of Education Society conference, Limerick, November 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Interview for Melbourne public radio broadcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Extended Interview on 'The Conversation Hour,' ABC Radio Melbourne, 16 October 2018. Estimated audience 1.1million. This was followed up by a further interview in November 2018.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.abc.net.au/radio/melbourne/programs/theconversationhour/the-conversation-hour/10358262
 
Description Interview for local radio 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Radio interview, morning programme, ABC, Albany. 10 minutes. Audience in 1000s.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Interview for national radio 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Radio interview, Mark Nesbitt with Geraldine Doogue, for ABC Saturday Extra, 7 minutes. "The economic botany collection, a treasure trove rediscovered". Audience (Australian) approx. 400k.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/saturdayextra/economic-botany_mark-nesbitt/10496342
 
Description Invited lecture - Perth, Australia 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Title: The Mobile Museum: botanical exchanges between the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Australia
Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Western Australia, Perth
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://www.ias.uwa.edu.au/lectures/nesbitt
 
Description Mobile Museum Project workshop for UK museum curators and collections managers 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Mobile Museum Project workshop for museum curators and collections managers across the UK , held at Kew, May 2018. The workshop included sessions on the Mobile Museum project, on other projects linked to Kew's economic botany collection, and on the history of exchange between Kew and other museums and collections across the UK. There was also a tour of the Economic Botany Collection.

UK Museums and collections represented at the Workshop included Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Cambridge University Herbarium, Glasgow Museums, Horniman Museum, Kew, Manchester Museum, National Museum Wales, National Museums Liverpool, Natural History Museum, Pitt Rivers Museum, Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter, Science Museum, UCL and Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.

Outcomes included plans for further exchanges and workshops, requests for information and heightened awareness of the significance of links between UK collections, and a paper on regional museum collections of economic botany co-authored by a number of the participants (submitted for publication Jan 2019).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://intranet.royalholloway.ac.uk/geography/research/mobile-museum/news/news-articles/mobile-muse...
 
Description Museum event (Manchester) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Paper presentation to museum professionals at event designed to promote discussion of ways of reaching new audiences for museums and collections - "Unlocking the Vault: making the most of scientific collections at Manchester Museum" (June 2017)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Paper at British Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Talk to British Museum/Royal Anthropological Institute Meeting on Art, Materiality & Representation, in session on Collections as Currency ('Museum exchange and the role of the 'duplicate': Kew and the trade in biocultural objects'), 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://nomadit.co.uk/rai/events/rai2018/conferencesuite.php/panels/6146
 
Description Paper, British Society for the History of Science 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Talk to British Society for the History of Science, Annual Conference, York, July 2017 ('Plants across the Water: Kew, the Smithsonian, and Transatlantic Networks of Collecting in the Late Nineteenth Century')"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Poster presentation (Cambridge-NATSCA) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Poster presentation on the project at the Natural Sciences Collections Association annual conference (April 2017). Reached significant audiences in a core professional community.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.natsca.org/
 
Description Project Blog and website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Number of blogs: 10 blog posts (2017), 12 blog posts (2018)

Mobile Museum Project Website unique page views: 2017: 3,466 (2017), 4,297 (2018), mostly from external traffic

Mobile Museum Project Twitter feed includes discussion of blog posts as well as tweets.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL https://www.royalholloway.ac.uk/geography/research/mobile-museum/home.aspx
 
Description Project social media (twitter feed) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project has managed a twitter feed from February 2017 as a lively way of publicising project activities and engaging with a range of users in academic, museum, educational, volunteer and enthusiast communities. The role of twitter and other social media is underpinned by a project communications strategy strategy and a commitment to enhancing engagement with these diverse communities.

In 2017, there were 260 tweets (with 346,790 impressions, 4812 profile views and 125 mentions).
The top 2017 tweet (on a fern collected by Darwin) had 63 retweets, 152 likes, add a total of 11,910 impressions and 517 engagements.
At the end of 2017, the Mobile Museum twitter feed had 726 followers.

In 2018, there were 265 tweets (with 439,400 impressions, 5001 profile views and 401 mentions).
The top 2018 tweet (on a jar of Frankincense resin) had 45 retweets, 70 likes, add a total of 10,300 impressions and 293 engagements.
At the end of 2018, the Mobile Museum twitter feed had 1142 followers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL https://twitter.com/KewMobileMuseum?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.royalholloway.ac.u...
 
Description Public Lecture at Queensland Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk on Mobile Museum project, with special reference to object exchanges between Queensland Museum and Kew Gardens. Led to numerous questions and increased interest in related subject areas, esp. economic botany and history of collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.facebook.com/events/331064621001191/
 
Description Public Lecture. Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk on Mobile Museum project, with special reference to object exchanges between Kew Gardens and Australian Museums. Led to increased interest in related subject areas, esp. economic botany and history of collections, and further valuable research leads.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://wordvine.sydney.edu.au/files/2259/21900/
 
Description Public lecture, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Talk on Mobile Museum project, with special reference to object exchanges between Powerhouse Museum and Kew Gardens. Led to numerous questions from museum staff, artists and visiting public, and increased interest in related subject areas, esp. economic botany and history of collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Seminar Series, 'Collections in Circulation' (January-May 2018) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Seminar Series on "Collections in Circulation", Institute of Historical Research (London Group of Historical Geographers series), Jan-May 2018, with five events including speakers from the British Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum alongside University researchers. Very well attended series, including museum professionals and postgraduate students, as well as established researchers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk (Bucknell University students) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Presentation to 20 students from Bucknell University, Pennsylvania (October 2017)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk (Kew science) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk about the project to staff in Kew Science Directorate.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.kew.org/science/collections/economic-botany-collection
 
Description Talk at Harvard University Herbaria 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk on Mobile Museum project to Harvard library and archives staff, PhD students and visiting researchers, with special reference to object exchanges between Harvard and Kew Gardens. Led to increased interest in related subject areas, esp. economic botany and history of collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://huh.harvard.edu/event/huh-special-seminar-caroline-cornish
 
Description Talk at Philadelphia Independence Seaport Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Lunchtime Talk on Mobile Museum project for museum staff and volunteers, with special reference to object exchanges between Philadelphia Museum and Kew Gardens. Led to increased interest in related subject areas, esp. economic botany and history of collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk on Mobile Museum Project, London Museums of Health and Medicine Group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk on Mobile Museum project and collection tour for Members of the London Museums of Health and Medicine Group, 2018
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk, Festival at Cambridge University Botanic Garden to celebrate new design features 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact invited talk at three-day 'Sorted!' festival to launch a new design feature at Cambridge University Botanic Gardens. Attended by participants from across the UK. Led to numerous questions, subsequent contact and increased interest in related subject areas, esp. economic botany, garden design and history of collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.cambridgelivetrust.co.uk/tickets/events/sorted-science-and-art
 
Description Talk, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Staff Talk on Mobile Museum project, with special reference to object exchanges between Melbourne and Kew Gardens. Led to questions and increased interest in related subject areas, esp. economic botany and history of collections.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk, Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Adelaide Botanic Gardens 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Talk on Mobile Museum project to museum staff and volunteers, with special reference to object exchanges between Adelaide and Kew Gardens. Led to numerous questions and increased interest in related subject areas, esp. economic botany and history of collections. This was followed by an invitation to the Director of the Santos Museum of Economic Botany to participate in the Mobile Museum International Conference at Kew, May 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Workshop presentation - Madison 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Preseentation on Mobile Museum project: Biocultural Collections workshop, 4 June
Society for Economic Botany, Madison, Wisc.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018