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Somali plant specimens held by the Powell-Cotton Museum. Photo by Jonn Gale

People and Plants

Somali plant specimens held by the Powell-Cotton Museum. Photo by Jonn Gale

People and Plants will investigate the interplay between natural history and ethnography collections in museums, emphasising their value as material archives of indigenous ecological knowledge.

Last updated: 14 June 2022

About the project

From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, British museums systematically acquired large numbers of plant-based objects and raw materials. National Museums Scotland has a large collection of ethnographic artefacts and some ethnobotany specimens from its origins in the Industrial Museum, Edinburgh (1855-1864) and the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art (1865-1904).

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, collected both raw materials and artefacts for its Museum of Economic Botany, which remains largely intact today. Whilst the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent, famous for its dioramas of African animals, also holds many plant-based objects and a purely ethnobotanical collection of African medicines from the 1930s. It has been widely observed that biocultural specimens can languish as curators struggle with how to research and curate them.

Led by National Museums Scotland and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew the AHRC-funded project 'People and Plants: Reactivating Ethnobotanical Collections as Material Archives of Indigenous Ecological Knowledge' situates itself within current debates on decolonising the practice and method of museum work to explore how we care for, interpret and exhibit ethnobotanical collections in museums. The project will hold three workshops in 2022-23 with the aim of creating a conversation between academics, researchers, museum professionals, botanists, and indigenous knowledge holders to establish the relevance of ethnobotanical collections in the present, and their potential applications for the future.

Project Aims

• To bring academics and curators together with artists and knowledge holders from specific originating/diaspora communities in Australia, Somalia and Brazil, to create a strong network and to explore the ways in which stakeholders engage with and care about the material archives of biocultural collections.

• To consider in what ways historic collections of ethnobotany contain, represent and preserve indigenous ecological knowledge.

• To generate a better understanding of how such collections can be rendered versatile, as research and knowledge resources for indigenous and non-indigenous stakeholders to address current cultural and environmental concerns.

• To explore the ongoing significance of ethnobotanical collections and the implications this has for the ways in which these collections are catalogued, made accessible, cared for and displayed.

Project details

Project title

People and Plants: reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of Indigenous ecological knowledge

Project active

2022 - 2023

Research theme


Research sub-theme

Colonial histories and Legacies

Research Programme

Identities and Cultural Contacts

Strategic priorities

Developing, preserving and increasing access to the National Collections; Strengthening and sharing collections knowledge and research; Reaching out to people across Scotland and the world; Taking action on climate change and environmental impact

Dr Ali Clark, Senior Curator Oceania and the Americas, National Museums Scotland

MS Professor Mark Nesbitt, Curator of the Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Dr Inbal Livne, Head of Collections, Powell-Cotton Museum


The project is hosting three in person workshops across 2022-23 at each of the project institutions. One online workshop will also be held in July 2022.

11 March 2022: Powell-Cotton Museum, Kent

The workshop was run in partnership with the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent and the NOMAD project, which works with engaging Somali communities in heritage projects. Discussions considered the salience of ethnobotany specimens for diaspora communities today (particularly women) and how these narratives can be embedded into museum processes such as cataloguing, display and outreach. It used the Diana Powell-Cotton collection (1934-35) from Somalia as its case study, which includes a distinct subset of medicines for issues of women’s and children’s health.

Talks were given by Abira Hussein, Rosa Dyer and Inbal Livne. You can listen to Rosa's talk here. A blog post about the workshop can be read here. See also a blog post by the Natural Sciences Collections Association on the 'Social History of Natural History: People and Plants'.

Six people seated around a rectangular wooden table. An open box is on the table next to a specimen being examined.

Handling and discussing Somali plant collections at the Powell-Cotton Museum. Photo by Ali Clark.

July 2022: Online workshop

This workshop presented three talks by ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, curator and researcher Naima Hassan and artist and researcher James Tylor to explore the challenges of doing ethnobotanical research and its applications.

The video below is an online talk by James on how the Kaurna environment in South Australia constitutes a 'living museum collection'.

November 2022: National Museums Scotland

The workshop was run in partnership with the Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation, a Traditional Owner organisation based in Ieramagardu, Western Australia. The focus of the day was Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi biocultural collections held at National Museums Scotland and brought together by Emile Clement between 1896-1928.

A key outcome of the discussion was that the most contextual, useful and respectful care of biocultural collections could only come out of a partnership between museums who care for the physical collection and the Indigenous people whose experience of working with these materials and holistic cultural knowledge can enable the Museum to think about these collections as part of a wider cultural framework rather than in disciplinary isolation.

Talks were given by Gerry Turpin, Ali Clark and Alistair Paterson, and Kerry Churnside, Kevin Guiness and Kate Oosterhof. Blog posts about the workshop, written by the workshop bursary holders can be read on the Museum Ethnographers Group blog and the Natural Sciences Collections Association blog.

A group of a dozen people stand around a long white table, on which are a variety of biocultural sample objects.

Yindjibarndi cultural leader Kevin Guiness talks to the group about the multiple uses of a spearthrower. Photo © Ali Clark 2022.

March 2023: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The workshop was run in partnership with the Department of Cultures and Languages, Birkbeck, University of London and Museu Goeldi, Brazil. The focus of the day was northwest Amazonian collections held at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and brought together by Richard Spruce between 1849-1864. The workshop addressed the question 'how ethnobotanical collections in museums can best be used to support Indigenous communities?'

Talks were given by Luciana Martins, Dagoberto Lima Azevedo, William Milliken and Mark Nesbitt, Claudia Leonor López Garcés, and Cinthya Lana. Translation was provided by Cynthia Sothers.

Discussions focused on the value of cross cultural, cross disciplinary research for ethnobotanical collections; the importance of continuous dialogue with community partners in the planning stages of research projects to ensure mutually beneficial outcomes; and the potential of intercultural museum databases to enable Indigenous and western knowledge to walk side by side.

Monochrome grey-blue image of a long, narrow room packed with glass cases, books, diagrams and objects hanging from the ceiling.

The original Kew Museum of Economic Botany. © RBG Kew

Partner information

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council under their Research Networking scheme. The project is led by Dr Ali Clark, Senior Curator Oceania and the Americas, National Museums Scotland and Professor Mark Nesbitt, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with the Powell-Cotton Museum as a project partner alongside the Museum Ethnographers Group and the Natural Sciences Collections Association.

The project is supported by an advisory group which includes Dr Rajindra Puri, University of Kent, Professor Luciana Martins, Birkbeck, Dr Jilda Andrews, Australian National University, Isla Gladstone, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and Dr Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp, Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Email icon Dr Ali Clark

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