Dr Caroline Cornish

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Thesis title: Curating science in an age of empire: the Kew Museum of Economic Botany

 

The Kew Museum of Economic Botany was founded in 1847 by the first director of Kew, William Jackson Hooker, as ‘a deposit for all kinds of useful and curious Vegetable Products’.[1] Hooker defined audiences for the Museum as, ‘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’, [2] with the object of instructing British manufacturers on the wealth of plant raw materials and their uses throughout, and indeed, beyond, the British Empire.  To expand the Kew collections, Hooker revived and augmented the acquisitionary networks established by Sir Joseph Banks in the preceding century, and in doing so, reinstated Kew as a botanical  ‘centre of calculation’.  Networks of empire, diplomacy, science, commerce, exploration, and exhibition were developed with such success that, by 1910 there were four separate museum buildings with holdings of botanical specimens, ethnographic artefacts, and archaeological objects.

It is the aim of the project to investigate the spaces and practices of the Museum, and through this process to gain a greater understanding of the development of the field of economic botany in the nineteenth century. In doing so, the Museum will be assessed as a site for the production and circulation of scientific knowledge.  However, it is understood that knowledge production extends beyond that ‘transmitted’ by museum labels, displays, and publications, to the hermeneutic process by which audiences make meaning.  It is also acknowledged that the museum exists in a number of forms beyond the fabric of its buildings, and so a further aim will be to examine the networks through which the collection was produced, exchanged, and consumed.

 

[1] Hooker, W.J., 1855, 3. Museum of Economic Botany or A popular guide to the useful and remarkable vegetable products of the Museum of the Royal Gardens of Kew.  London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans.

[2] Hooker, W.J., 1855, 3 op.cit.

 

Research conducted in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Kew Economic Botany Collection website: http://www.kew.org/collections/ecbot/index.html

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