University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Cabinet of Natural History > Curating science in an age of empire: the Kew Museums of Economic Botany

Curating science in an age of empire: the Kew Museums of Economic Botany

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The first Kew Museum of Economic Botany was the idea of William Jackson Hooker and opened in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1847. Intended audiences were ‘not only… the scientific botanist, but… the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and cabinet-maker, and artisans of every description’. Its purpose was to inform British entrepreneurs of the wealth of plant raw materials available across the British Empire. To house the growing collections, a second museum opened in 1857, a Timber Museum in 1863, and a Museum of British Forestry in 1910. Having defined normative audiences, and modes of collecting, classification, and display in the Museums – in short, their specificity – this paper then introduces an object which appears problematic in the Kew context – a totem pole from British Columbia. The pole’s trajectory is traced from its original location on Haida Gwaii to its current one in the British Museum, and the knowledges produced around the pole in various spatial and institutional contexts are examined. This is situated within the broader field of totem pole discourse and display in the late nineteenth century, and within the culture of ‘salvage ethnography’ which inflected the exhibitionary culture of the period. At the Kew Museum, what emerges is the creation of a range of conflicting messages, due in no small part to the multiple and ambivalent interests held by those Kew actors who mobilised the acquisition of the pole.

Those interests were however not altogether inconsistent with the epistemology of economic botany as practised in the nineteenth century, and the paper concludes by defining the rationality which permitted botany to develop in new and intriguing ways across Victorian sites of display.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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