Monday, 19 September 2011

Useful plants on display, for the day, or two


Sorry Mark. Mark Nesbitt is the Curator of the Economic Botany Museum. He mentioned to me yesterday that it would be helpful if I blogged on their open day last night to draw even bigger crowds today.

(Instead I saw Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy at the Curzon Theatre in Richmond. It was a beautifully crafted and acted film if a little familiar and at times feeling almost like a send up of a spy film with all those well known/worn names - Control, Carla, Circus...I almost expected Kaos to rate a mention.)

But back to economic botany. The open days, part of Open London and now finished (sorry Mark again, but you over rate the impact of my blog I assure you), were in what we prosaically call Museum Number Two. I now have my office in Museum Number One so I feel a special attachment to this sibling museum.

Nowadays MN2 is the School of Horticulture, and the 'open room', once the base of the public display area of the museum, is now a teaching laboratory. The building was designed by William Burton, also responsible for the Palm House, Temperate House and the Main Gates (the ones opening to Kew Green). It opened in 1846 or soon after and was such a great success that in 1857 another museum, also designed by Burton, was built opposite the Palm House. It was called, oddly, MN1, leading to the retrospective naming of MN2. There were third and forth museums but let's not bother with them today.

Inside the first museum - i.e. number two - used to be lots of twine, bark and wood, displayed in glass display cabinets, crowding the room in a typically Victorian way. Yesterday (literally) and today we have orderly displays on the tables - 500 of the specimens - and some very pretty and informative posters on the walls.

And what did we see? Lots of wood and wood products, much of it dating back to the great Joseph Hooker's time as Director of Kew (1865-1885), and expertly interpreted by PhD student from Royal Holloway University (and partner with Kew for the open day), Caroline Cornish.


And plenty of weaving and thread work. As Lynda found out, this colourful 'basket' is in fact an African table - you remove the lid and then serve your food on the flattish top underneath. Nearby were various baskets and two odd-shaped hats, one made from the leaves of a palm which is now so rare that a local reed is used instead for this millinery.   


The full economic botany collection resides in the Joseph Banks Building (a newish building at Kew) and includes 85,000 pieces, with about 500 added each year. Mark and friends have a very nice blog all about the collections and what they are up to.

Although the objects were all fascinating, I was drawn up to a collection of drawings on the mezzanine railings, including some lovely watercolours of algae... This one is a desmid and the next Volvox. Algae really are everywhere.



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