“Abnormal apples” and “proliferous potatoes” – Uncovering the stories behind Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany Collection.

What is Economic botany?

Economic botany can, in a nutshell (excuse the pun), be described as the use of plants by people. This relationship spans thousands of years and includes both individuals and cultures – making this subject a rich and fascinating link between botany and anthropology. Economic botany collections can essentially be described using the term biocultural.

Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany.

The Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew holds around 100,000 objects from around the globe. Established as the Museum of Economic Botany by Kew’s first official Director, Sir William Jackson Hooker, in 1847, it was cited 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’.

Raw materials are housed in the Collection, alongside objects ranging from jewellery, musical instruments and an array of dyes and medicines. Many of these items were acquired by Kew during the peak of colonial expansion, with the majority dating from around 1847 to 1930. Kew staff are currently working with indigenous cultures and partner institutions to ensure that traditional crafts, such as the use and manufacture of Tapa (Pacific barkcloth), are being kept alive and in some cases revived in the communities where they first originated.

The Mobile Museum Project.

In parallel with this research and outreach, Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany has recently embarked on a project called The Mobile Museum: Economic Botany in Circulation. This is, in effect, where the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Library, Art & Archives and Biodiversity Heritage Library comes in.

As part of the Mobile Museum project, Kew is digitising and making available online through BHL the Collection’s “Entry and Exit books”. These huge tomes each consist of thousands of entries made by Kew staff over the years, listing every specimen either sent out from or sent in to the Museum of Economic Botany from 1847 right up to the present day. Each book is in the process of being scanned and uploaded to BHL, and the project team, including a number of dedicated volunteers, are working hard to transcribe each page so that there will be both a physical and digital record of these unique and invaluable logbooks. This data transcription is initially being entered into searchable Excel spreadsheets, which will then be transferred into an Access database and raw data files from this will be available to download from the project website.

The existing Kew Economic Botany Database will also be enhanced, with all objects located in other institutions being added. This will mean that interested parties will soon be able to search not just for objects currently in the collection, but also objects that were once at Kew and are now housed elsewhere.

The first of these books, which is now freely available on BHL, is entitled “Specimens Distributed” and spans from 1881 to 1901. It is a fascinating continuous record of specimens, materials and artefacts that were sent from Kew to over 1000 institutions worldwide, including other botanic gardens, schools and universities and local museums.


The first page of records for Specimens Distributed, which includes entries for “fossil leaves” and “petrified woods”

Specimens distributed.

The first thing that I noticed when researching this blog, as I skimmed through the hundreds of pages of handwritten entries, was just how many plant parts the Museum of Economic Botany held. On first thought, you may think of a few important parts of a plant that could be held in this sort of collection – bark, petals, seeds, stems or similar. But what struck me was the sheer scope of plants and all their various facets that were collected – resins, gums, fibers, bulbs, fruits, roots, pods, pulps, rubbers, even galls (a kind of benign growth on the external tissue of some plants, usually a reaction to parasites or bacteria).

As I browsed the book, I became engrossed in 6 pages in particular entitled November 14th 1887 – Sir James Paget, Royal College of Surgeons – A large collection of specimens of vegetable morphology.


Page 147 of Specimens Distributed, showing the beginning of the distribution list for Sir James Paget at the Royal College of Surgeons

Sir James Paget.

As I looked over these pages, I noticed that words such as “undeveloped”, “abnormal” and “malformation” were preceding plant names or plant parts. It occurred to me that the plants being described had possibly been collected due to their interesting morphological or biological anomalies – and they were being sent out, maybe for further investigation, to Sir James Paget at the Royal College of Surgeons. This name rang a vague bell, so I did a little research.

Sir James Paget is considered one of the most outstanding medical researchers of the 19th century and is known as the father of British pathology. He described diseases including Paget’s disease of the bone and Paget’s disease of the nipple, and throughout his career he stressed how vital science research was for medical practise.

Interestingly, Paget was a close friend of Charles Darwin, who helped his medical research by sharing thoughts and musings. Darwin also sent Paget books, including a book that he wrote on earthworms, prompting this response from Paget: “It seems to me the best that ever you have written in showing the splendid and great truths that may be found in common things”.


Sir James Paget, the father of British pathology (Credit: The Paget’s Association)

The next chapter.

As part of the Mobile Museum Project, Kew are also in the process of digitising the Museum of Economic Botany’s “School Letter Books”. These are logbooks containing hundreds of letters of correspondence between the Museum of Economic Botany and schools across the UK – the first book spanning from 1877 – 1894. These letters are mainly requests from teachers and lecturers who asked Kew for educational objects and samples, either to use as teaching aids or to help establish their own small collections.

The Economic Botany Collection at Kew has a rich and varied history that spans over three centuries. By making these unique books available online through BHL, we hope that more people can make use of the fascinating information held within them that has been so meticulously recorded throughout the years.


picture of a woman in a knitted hat standing outside in fall
Written by

Joanna Durant is the Metadata and Digitisation Officer for Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Library, Art & Archives. She is currently working on several projects within the organisation, including the digitisation of illustrations of Chinese plants and illustrations by women artists. Another aspect of her role involves digitising material for BHL, including the Mobile Museum logbooks and any scanning requests that come from individuals or institutions who would like Kew Library material made available online through BHL.