One month into my AHRC post-doctoral Cultural Engagement post and I’ve been trying to get to grips with the botany collections at the Natural History Museum. One of the project’s aims is to look for areas of shared history between the collections at Kew and the NHM, one element of which is display. At South Kensington the last dedicated botanical displays were in existence from 1881 to 1940 when the Botany Gallery was bombed during the Blitz, and from 1962 to 1982, when it was replaced by the British Natural History Gallery (closed 2003). Since the last of the Kew museums closed in 1987, it is some time since botany has been extensively represented in London’s museums.
However the Museum’s historical records are enabling me to better understand how botany was constituted as a museum subject in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
One medium that both museums made use of was models of plants. If you rely on dried leaves, seeds, and other plant parts, botany displays can start to look awfully ‘brown’, and give little idea of the living plant. Consequently illustrations and models formed a key feature of such displays.
One of the best documented collections of botanical models at the NHM is the collection of fungi models created by naturalist James Sowerby over the period 1796 to 1815, whilst he was writing and illustrating his book English Fungi. His aim was philanthropic as much as it was scientific: to provide models of poisonous and edible species, to educate the public, and ‘prevent, as far as possible, future mistakes’. There had been a series of well-publicised self-poisonings prior to this, hence Sowerby’s concern. At his house in Lambeth he had had a special room built as a sort of museum where the models were displayed and where the public could visit ‘every first and third Tuesday in each month, from Eleven until Three o ‘Clock’. In total he created 193 models and in 1844, after his death, they were purchased by the British Museum for £70.
Unfortunately the models were constructed of unfired pipe-clay which made them very brittle and vulnerable to damage. Furthermore whatever paints Sowerby had used had changed colour over time, to the extent that whites, yellows and blues had turned black, rendering them unsuitable for the purpose of species identification. The models were repainted in oils and remounted by mycologist Worthington G Smith and went on display in the new Natural History Department of the British Museum, as it was then known, in 1888.
In 1940, most of the models were destroyed when the Museum was bombed but about thirty survive, and are now in store.
I was lucky enough to have a look at them the other day, courtesy of Curator of Lichens, Dr. Holger Thüs. They are quite beautiful and take you back to a time when foraging and botanising were widespread popular pursuits. Holger explained that the wooden mounts were those added by Smith in the 1880s. Originally Sowerby had fixed the models on sanded blocks of wood or cork, surrounded by moss – an inaccurate representation of the habitat of underground species such as truffles. The names given on the base were Sowerby’s own. However, as botanical names changed over the nineteenth century, new labels were applied over the original ones. These, too, have been kept and stored with the models, and together they tell a story of the ever-changing nature of botanical classification and nomenclature.
There are more botanical models at the NHM, but they are dispersed across various collections and have been little researched since their disappearance from the public galleries. I hope to discover more of them as the project progresses.
Caroline Cornish is an AHRC research fellow at Royal Holloway and is currently conducting research across the botany collections of Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum as part of a ‘cultural engagement’ project.