Research in the Economic Botany Collection
My research interests are broad, but centre on interactions between humans and plants, past and present. My methodology is based on close study of ethnobotanical artefacts and use of archive and library texts, increasingly with fieldwork too. All my projects are in collaboration with a wide range of Kew colleagues and external researchers.
Current research based on the Economic Botany Collection falls into three themes:
Ethnobotany/economic botany collections:
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.
Our joint project Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place is based at the Centre for Textile Conservation at Glasgow University. It combines work in botany and materials science, research conservation, and museum anthropology, and is based on study of tapa collections at Kew, the Hunterian Museum, and the National Museum of Natural History.
Kew's barkcloth collections are worldwide and other work by Emily Brennan has focused on Jamaican lace-bark (Lagetta lagetto) and her recently completed PhD on Indonesian bark-cloth (Collaborative Doctoral Award with UCL). Our African collections remain to be investigated.
Website: Tapa: Situating Pacific Barkcloth in Time and Place Twitter: @UofG_Barkcloth Team: Frances Lennard | Andy Williams | Misa Tamura | Margaret Smith (all Centre for Textile Conservation, University of Glasgow) | Adrienne Kaeppler (Smithsonian)
I am working with Ruth Stungo, botanist and basketmaker, on a catalogue of Kew's baskets, taking a botanical perspective that focuses on the transformation of raw materials by processing and weaving technique to achieve the desired use. It is an innovative approach (heavily inspired by Peter Collingwood) and our first results are now in press. Thanks to Ruth, Kew has close contacts with the UK's basket-making community and the EBC has benefitted from recent gifts of baskets from Maurice Bichard, Felicity Wood and Kay Johnson.
Team: Ruth Stungo & many advisors among members of the Basketmakers Association
Nancy Casserley's Royal College of Art MA on the British reception of Japanese paper (washi), as viewed through the Parkes collection at Kew, has led to an exhibition, conference and book. Paper is very well represented at Kew as the 1840-60s were a period of paper shortage in Europe; in particular, the results of Thomas Routledge's experiments at the Ford paper mill are an unexplored resource. A new Partnership PhD through the TECHNE Doctoral Training Partnership is investigating the broad sweep of Kew's paper collections, and those at other museums in London and elsewhere.
Team: Francesca Kubicki (PhD student, TECHNE & Royal Holloway, University of London) | Felix Driver (C0-supervisor, Royal Holloway).
Vulcanised rubber was a new material when the EBC was founded, and Kew has important collections of raw materials and artefacts from Goodyear and Macintosh. These are being conserved on a rolling programme by students at UCL, and are an important resource for design history. A grant application to support a PhD project is currently in progress.
The EBC holds raw fibres, yarns and samples of cloth from about 300 species of plants. Pilot studies suggest these are are rich resource for studies both of textile technique, and of broader questions (highly relevant to today) regarding the adoption of novel fibres in the 19th century.
Adam Bowett's book Woods in British Furniture-making 1400 - 1900: An Illustrated Historical Dictionary is a great example of the use of the EBC to carry out a broad investigation of a category of material, setting it in the context of world history. I was able to resolve many botanical queries raised during Adam's project.
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:
Following recataloguing of Kew's cinchona barks (supported by the Wellcome Trust) it became clear that they represented a crucial episode in the characterisation and transplantation of South American cinchona, particularly through the work of John Eliot Howard. This collection is the focus of Kim Walker's work, a Partnership PhD through the TECHNE Doctoral Training Partnership. We are also carrying out a comparative study with colleagues at the equivalent Dutch collection in Leiden.
Team: Kim Walker (PhD student, Royal Holloway) | Felix Driver (Co-supervisor, Royal Holloway) | Nina Rønsted (Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen) | Gerard Thijsse & Tinde van Andel (Naturalis)
Chinese Materia Medica
Chris Leon is a leading expert on macro-morphological identification of source plants, medicinal trade items and detection of herbal substitutes and counterfeits in Chinese medicine. Her research outcomes contribute to herbal medicine quality control, patient safety, ‘good practice’ guidelines in TCM research and the sustainable use of wild species. An extensive network of collaborators includes staff at IMPLAD and Hong Kong Baptist University.
Team: Christine Leon
Medicinal plants in ancient Mesopotamia
In this pilot study, led by Barbara Boeck, I am collaborating with two Assyriologists and a Kew colleague to re-examine past identifications in ancient texts and propose new ones that better fit with current botanical and linguistic evidence.
Team: Barbara Boeck & Ignacio Márquez Rowe (CSIC -Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales) | Shahina Ghazanfar (Kew)
I have three aims for future work - and would be glad to hear from anyone interested in collaborating on these: