Curating science in an age of empire : Kew's Museum of Economic Botany

Author/s: Caroline Cornish, PhD
Availability: Open Access
Type: Thesis
Year: 2013
Category: Science
Institution: University of London

Abstract: This thesis considers the history and significance of the Museum of Economic Botany at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, focussing especially on the period from its opening in 1847 to the eve of the First World War. Looking specifically at the Museum's collection of wood specimens and artefacts, it seeks to understand the nature of economic botany during this period, and to evaluate the contribution made to the field by the Kew Museum. Through examination of the Museum's practices, networks, spaces, and objects, it sets out to address the question: how do museums produce scientific knowledge? Part One sets the context. Chapter One provides a brief historical account of nineteenth-century economic botany and the Museum. Chapter Two offers a critical overview of literatures on Kew and economic botany; on the role of place in the production, circulation, and reception of scientific knowledge; and on the role of the public museum in Victorian science and culture. It also outlines the conceptual framework of the thesis. Chapter Three presents an account of the methodology and sources. Part Two highlights museum practices. Chapters Four to Six are devoted respectively to the practices of ‘exhibition' (the spatialities, rhetorics, and rationalities of display); ‘instruction' (the educational uses of museum objects); and ‘supply' (the circulation of objects). Part Three turns to specific objects and their biographies. Chapters Seven and Eight trace respectively the production, circulation and reception of a totem pole from British Columbia and a timber trophy from Tasmania, to demonstrate how objects acquire diverse meanings in diverse contexts, and how they are used to impart meaning to particular sites. In conclusion, Chapter Nine reflects on the cumulative findings of the thesis and on its potential outcomes, and it looks beyond the thesis to recommend areas for future research and practice.

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