Curation of Ethnobiology collections workshop

This week, I was fortunate enough to attend a two day course on the curation of Ethnobiology collections at Kew Gardens in London. The course was run by SYNTHESYS, who fund many scientific and cultural projects in Europe.

The people who taught the course are Mark Nesbitt (Curator of Economic Botany at Kew Gardens), Luba Dovgan Nurse (Textile conservator at Kew Gardens), and were assisted by a wealth of knowledgeable people such as Pat Griggs, Caroline Cornish, Jan Salick, and Emily Brennan.

So what is an Ethnobiology collection?
Broadly speaking, an Ethnobiology collection is a group of specimens kept for the scientific study of the way animals and plants are treated or used by various human cultures. These collections are important for a number of reasons. The first, and probably most common is the usage of a particular animal or plant, whether it be medicinal, an indigenous artifact or food crops.

The second is taxonomic research. Though Economic Botany collections are used less than standard herbarium sheets for this type of research, modern collections are using more and more voucher specimens. One of the projects we were shown by Mark Nesbitt while being given a tour of the stores was the Chinese Medicinal Plants Authentication and Conservation Centre. The collection exists because of the rising popularity in Chinese Medicine, and unfortunate lack of quality control regulation, both enviornmentally and health-wise. Counterfeit herbs appear on the international market and this has led to concern for patient safety, and wild plant and animal populations.

The specimens act as a reference collection for identifying herbs to prevent the dangers of counterfiet or illegal products on market. Most of the specimens are kept dried in sealed jars (see photos below) and new lab methods can detect toxic compounds.


Speaking of toxic compounds, my favorite part of the tour was undoubtedly when we were shown some large Ethnographic objects collected by Botanist Richard Spruce. One of these was a box of curare arrows collected by Spruce while in the Amazon. The tips of the arrows are still toxic and the box displays a bright orange sticker warning anyone opening the box not to handle the specimen.

In fact, we got told an amazing story during the Ethnobiology course. Apparently the foremost ethnobotanist in the world is Michael Balick. He once scratched himself on a curare arrow and realized he had no idea what it was tipped with or if he was going to die. He rang up the nearest hospital in a panic. The woman on the other end of the phone said “you’re in luck sir! No need to worry, the world’s foremost expert on natural poisons is currently in town. His name is Michael Balick.”

We were also shown a shield Spruce collected in the amazon. It was interesting and useful to see the different ways these objects were packed.




Part of the workshop involved a practical excercise on how to pack specimens. Ethnobiological collections are extremely varied when it comes to the size and shape of objects because they contain both natural history and ethnographic material.

We worked in pairs. My workshop partner, Rachel Jennings and I were given Christmas tree ornaments to practice on.



During the course, we discussed issues such as agents of deterioration, environmental control, cataloguing collections, pest management and networking. One of the most important issues was the ethical aspects of acquisitions. Because Ethnobiology collections cover such a wide range of disciplines, many laws and ethics need to be taken into account. Ethnobiological collections are also a rich source for many indigenous communities, and they are encouraged to view, touch and study their own history.

I came away from the course feeling refreshed and knowledgable, and I can’t wait to use what I’ve learnt to tackle researching the Manchester Museum’s own Materia Medica collection. We have lots of interesting medicinal plants and animals there!

A few more photos:

Mark Nesbitt talks to use about data standard procedures when documenting Ethnobotany:


Very cute pine cone birds


Kew’s collection of Essential oils:


7 responses to “Curation of Ethnobiology collections workshop

  1. Pingback: SYNTHESYS ethnobiology workshop | Trainee Biological Curator·

  2. Can you tell us any more about Kew’s Collection of Essential Oils? How old are they, where they are from, etc.? I love ethnobotany, and especially essential oils! Thanks for the interesting article.

    • This is from Kew’s website: “Another interesting collection now at Kew is the essential oil cabinet. The cabinet contains 704 essential oils as well as chemical compounds and various other plant specimens. The provenance of these items is not well known. Some of the major donors of essential oils to the Pharmaceutical Society were Schimmel and Co. (1893), Stafford, Allen and Sons (1937), and the Sydney Technological Museum.”

      You can also browse the record for each oil here by clicking on the catalogue number:

  3. Pingback: Additional material for participants of ‘Curation of ethnobiology collections’ course (SYNTHESYS/KEW) | Luba Dovgan Nurse·

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