Collection Spotlight: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The collections at Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is an internationally-renowned centre for research into natural sciences. Their collections hold millions of plant specimens, and a number of objects which highlight the usefulness of plant materials in craftsmanship and construction. The Economic Botany Collection at Kew is home to a broad range of objects, demonstrating the diverse human use of plants around the globe.

The MINIM-UK project has identified musical instruments in many unexpected sources, and the Economic Botany Collection was identified as a great potential area for study through its examples of plant use in instruments. A review of the Economic Botany Database identified a number of potential items for review, and the project was kindly invited to photograph and document the instruments in the collections.

The gardens at Kew, with Kew Palace in the distance.

The gardens at Kew, with Kew Palace in the distance.

Ana Silva documents instruments in the Economic Botany collection.

Visiting the collection

As part of her MINIM-UK cataloguing visit, Ana Silva was able to document a number of interesting items that are usually studied through the prism of botanical studies. During the visit, c.100 instruments were documented and photographed. A truly international representation is found in the collection, including:

  • Violins, including an intricately carved example
  • A wide range of percussion instruments such as maracas and rattles
  • Indian stringed instruments, including a hinnari
  • Various flutes and ocarinas.

Three Strychnos fruits made into flutes.

A lute constructed using wood from trees felled during a storm at Kew.

The collections include a number of unusual examples - some with potentially poisonous qualities! These globular ocarinas are made of fruit gourds (collection catalogue notes: "very toxic"!) Though harmless now as musical instruments, they are made from fruit species of the Strychnos genus, well-known to contain seeds with strychnine.

There is an interesting link to Kew history in one particular instrument: a modern lute in the collections was built with the wood from a number of trees felled at Kew during a storm, and displayed in the "Thread of Life Exhibition", the inaugural exhibition in the Sir Joseph Banks Building.

The instruments photographed for the MINIM-UK project will appear in the public interface launching in October 2017.

Posted in News.