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Cross-cultural Histories of Tropical Botany in Latin America

AHRC CDA and FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia)
Student: Sara Albuquerque
Partner: The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Supervisors: Luciana Martins (Birkbeck) and Christopher Mills (Kew Gardens)
Project title:
Cross-cultural Histories of Tropical Botany in Latin America
Start date: October 2008
End date: September 2012

Image Credits: Photograph of child wearing a leaf as a makeshift hat by Everard Ferdinand Im Thurn (1852-1932) © Copyright The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The project developed knowledge and understanding of the history of tropical botany through a critical engagement with the herbarium, economic botany, bibliographic and visual reference collections of a major botanic garden of global significance. The project illuminated the multiple histories entangled within the development of tropical botany, with particular reference to the Latin American collections, providing insights into the cultural history of the transatlantic exchanges between Britain and Latin America.

Thesis: Exploring Tropical Nature in British Guiana: RBG, Kew's Collection Revisited (2013)

This thesis explores the collected materials associated with Everard im Thurn (1852-1932) gathered during the late nineteenth century in British Guiana, especially held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, but also in the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford), the British Museum, the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Royal Geographical Society, using meticulous archival research and specific objects in the collection as a way into finding the histories and stories which contributed to the making of the collection. Thus, this thesis provides a historical reconstruction of the collection, which traces objects through time and space, discussing their changing meanings. The sources used here include not only materials from the archives, but also published works, the herbarium specimens, objects and raw materials themselves, photographs and secondary sources. This involves a methodological challenge of tracing the trajectories of particular objects and cross-referencing them with several sources. In addition, this thesis also contributes to the history of a neglected are of the British Empire, which was in fact neglected even in im Thurn’s time: British Guiana. This thesis locates im Thurn and his collection within an imperial framework, including collaboration with colleagues in British Guiana and Britain, in order to show the multi-faceted work and collection over time.

Following a contextualization of the present work in terms of the academic literature and a brief biography of im Thurn, Chapter 1 sets up the methodological approach, including the chosen manner of understanding the collections: ‘object biographies’. Chapter 2 turns to specific objects, setting them in historical and contemporary context, using both archival sources and recent trip to Guyana, discussing aspects of im Thurn’s collecting practices, and seeking o restore the ‘cross-cultural histories’ which these objects represent. Chapter 3 uses the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 as a case study to demonstrate how British Guiana was represented in Britain at the time, and also how im Thurn sought to manoeuvre that representation. Hitherto unknown photographs held by Kew are considered in Chapter 4, including not only the ones taken by im Thurn, but also those taken by the Norton Brothers and George Samuel Jenman. Chapter 5 discusses the role of im Thurn’s wife, Hannah, in her husband’s work as well as her contribution towards the making of his collections. The thesis concludes with an overview of the Amerindian objects through time and space, as well as a summary of the thesis and its contribution.