Collection Spotlight: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Music through the perspective of the botanical world.

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.

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.

Ana Silva documents instruments in the Economic Botany collection.
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.

Three Strychnos fruits made into flutes.
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.

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