Caroline Cornish – Circulating India: Kew, Colonial Forestry and Circuits of Display


Event Date: 6 December 2011
Flett Lecture Theatre
Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD


Wallich and Indian Natural History:
Collection Dispersal and the Cultivation of Knowledge



Caroline Cornish (Department of Geography, Royal Holloway College, University of London)
Circulating India: Kew, Colonial Forestry and Circuits of Display


Abstract: The Museum of Economic Botany at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was the idea of the first director, William Jackson Hooker (1785-1865), and opened in 1847; a second museum was added ten years later. With audiences including the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and cabinet-maker, and artisans of every description,[1] the object was to instruct British industry on the wealth of plant resources available throughout the Empire. Woods formed a major component of the museum collections from inception and by 1863 a third museum, dedicated to colonial timbers, was opened in the former Orangery.

Whilst the museums no longer exist, the collections survive as the Economic Botany Collection and provide a rich resource for analysing the movement of collections from South Asia, during and prior to the existence of the Kew museums. Approximately 20,000 specimens of Indian woods are held which were transferred to Kew from EIC officers, the former India Museum, Indian botanic gardens, and numerous other institutions in the sub-continent. Many of the best-known names in imperial botany are represented in them, including Nathaniel Wallich, William Roxburgh, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Anderson, and Hugh Cleghorn.

In this paper, Kewís Indian woods are considered in two contexts: firstly, the rise of Indian forestry; and secondly, the collection and circulation of Indian arts, manufactures, and natural history specimens in both colony and metropole, what Saloni Mathur refers to as cosmopolitan circuits of exhibition and display.[2] I then trace the circuits taken by selected groups of objects, identifying the human actors who collaborated in their mobilisation, considering their sites of display, and thus gaining a greater understanding of how the Kew museums contributed to the circulation of India.

What emerges is a decentralised view of the forms in which knowledge of India ( objects, texts, images, people ) circulated within India, between India and other colonies and sovereign states, and within the imperial metropole, in the nineteenth century. This approach inevitably calls into play the role played by indigenous Indians in the production and circulation of scientific knowledge of the subcontinent, and results in a re-inscription of indigenous agency into the narrative of circulating India.

Biography: Caroline Cornish is a third year PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a holder of a Thomas Holloway Research Scholarship. Her research project ( Collecting and Curating Science in an Age of Empire ) is focussed on the Kew Museums of Botany from 1847-1939 and is conducted in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. In October she will undertake a research trip to India to examine historic sites of collecting and displaying economic botany in the sub-continent. She has previously worked in museums and collections at national and regional level.


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