My research interests are broad, but centre on interactions between humans and plants, past and present. Most of my projects combine close study of ethnobotanical artefacts and use of archive and library texts, sometimes with fieldwork too. Almost all my projects are in collaboration with Kew colleagues and external researchers.
For major projects involving use of Kew collections and expertise, please contact us while the research proposal is still being formulated, so that Kew's involvement can be written into the project design and funding.
Current research based on the Economic Botany Collection falls into three themes:
Ethnobotany/economic botany collections: past, present, future
Working at Kew, it's impossible to ignore the past. The work of botanists over the last 200 years is visible in the materials, foods and medicines we consume today; in the physical environment of Kew's gardens and collections, and even (as Jim Endersby as persuasively shown) in our scientific methodologies. I am particularly interested in the Victorian period. The Economic Botany Collection (EBC) was founded in 1847 and is a rich resource for the study all these aspects, in combination with Kew's library, art and archive collections.
Recent work includes Caroline Cornish's PhD thesis on the history of the Kew Museums and the successor EBC, which has given us a far more nuanced understanding of the links between the museum and the changing context of empire and science. During Caroline's research, it became clear that the Kew Museums stimulated many such collections all over the world, and we are currently preparing a project proposal to investigate that further.
Two research projects currently in development concern individual explorers: Richard Spruce, who sent to Kew c. 300 ethnographic artefacts from the Rio Negro in the Amazon. William Milliken and I plan both to better document the Kew collections, and re-establish contact with the source communities. David Goyder is starting a similar project on the collections from David Livingstone's Zambezi Expedition. Everard im Thurn, British botanist and administrator in Guyana, was the subject of a PhD thesis by Sara Albuquerque. Alongside these major projects, it has been possible to develop a series of smaller studies, for example on Kew's links with Mexico and Japan (published), Jamaica (in press) and Australia (in progress).
Kew has recently joined UCL's Assembling Alternative Futures for Heritage project as a partner, and we look forward to the new perspectives this will bring to collections practice here.
In the era before oil, people relied on a wide range of natural products for making things. Some we still use - wood, wild rubber - others are forgotten or in decline, such as barkcloth and natural dyes. The EBC enables research into these uses on a global scale: how ere they distributed, what are the biological properties that underlie their use, and how do these uses change over the last 150 years.
I am currently developing research into five categories of material:
Plants were the main source of medicine from prehistory to the mid-20th century. The EBC contains about 25,000 materia medica: 5000 linked to Kew's own work, 10,000 from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, 5500 from the former Chelsea College of Pharmacy, and 4000 contemporary specimens from Christine Leon's Chinese medicines project. This is the largest collection of its kind in the UK, and offers a unique perspective on medical history based on actual specimens rather than pharmacopeias. As well as representing a separate data source, such specimens also allow for the recovery of ancient DNA and phytochemicals. Current projects on materia medica include: