People and Plants Network for Reactivating Ethnobotanical Collections

Reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of Indigenous ecological knowledge

UPDATE: The first of two blogs written about the Powel Cotton Museum Workshop held March 11 are now available on the MEG website. Written by two fantastic bursary holders, Ayesha Fuentes and Jonn Gale:

Making Connections Through World Collections: People and Plants at the Powell-Cotton Museum (

Keep an eye on the NatSCA blog for an upcoming post in June by our other bursary holders Alexandra Slucky and Fiona Roberts.

Our next event will be a series of online talks released on July 11th via our YouTube channel: People and Plants – YouTube



This project is led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and the Powell-Cotton Museum. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and starts in January 2022.  It will involve network building through three workshops, one held in each of the lead institutions. The CBCD serves on the scientific advisory board, and will contribute to the first workshop to be held on March 11th at the Powell Cotton Museum in Kent.

Investigating the interplay between natural history and ethnography collections, the project will build on a re-emerging interest in indigenous ecology and the value of ethnobotanical collections as material archives of indigenous ecological knowledge.

Situating itself within current debates on decolonising the practice and method of museum work, the project aims to create a conversation between academics, researchers, museum professionals, botanists, and indigenous knowledge holders to establish the relevance of these collections in the present, and their potential applications for the future.

Project Aims
• To bring academics and curators together with artists and knowledge holders from specific originating/diaspora communities in Australia, Somalia and Brazil, to create a strong network and to explore the ways in which stakeholders engage with and care about the material archives of biocultural collections.
• To consider in what ways historic collections of ethnobotany contain, represent and preserve indigenous ecological knowledge.
• To generate a better understanding of how such collections can be rendered versatile, as research and knowledge resources for indigenous and non-indigenous stakeholders to address current cultural and environmental concerns.
• To explore the ongoing significance of ethnobotanical collections and the implications this has for the ways in which these collections are catalogued, made accessible, cared for and displayed.

Three one-day workshops will be held during 2022 at the project institutions. The workshops will have a maximum of 20 participants to ensure productive discussion. In addition to a core group of attendees, five spaces in each workshop will be made available to other interested parties, which may include student researchers, museum researchers, community members, ecologists, and academics.

Powell-Cotton Museum March 2022
This workshop will be run in partnership with the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent and the NOMAD project, which works with engaging Somali communities in heritage projects. Discussions will consider the salience of ethnobotany specimens for diaspora communities today (particularly women) and how these narratives can be embedded into museum processes such as cataloguing, display and outreach. It will use the Diana Powell-Cotton collection (1934-35) from Somalia as its case study, which includes a distinct sub set of medicines for issues of women’s and children’s health.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
This workshop will be run in partnership with the Department of Cultures and Languages, Birkbeck, University of London and Museu Goeldi, Brazil. Discussions will be centred around the ecological value of ethnobotanical collections, including a focus on the interaction of western botanical nomenclature and traditional knowledge which forms the basis of an existing British Academy Knowledge Frontiers project. The Richard Spruce collection (1849-1864) will be the basis of a case study for how culture, plants and environment in the northwest Amazon have changed over the last 160 years.

National Museums Scotland
This workshop will be Australia focused, using the collections brought together by Dr Emile Clement (1895-1900) as a case study to explore the potential of ethnobotany collections to be used as resources by Indigenous communities in cultural revitalisation projects, for teaching and/or for artistic practice.

Project Team
The project is led by Dr Ali Clark, National Museums Scotland and Professor Mark Nesbitt, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, with the Powell-Cotton Museum as a project partner alongside the Museum Ethnographers Group and the Natural Sciences Collections Association.

The project is supported by an advisory group which includes Dr Rajindra Puri, University of Kent, Professor Luciana Martins, Birkbeck, Dr Jilda Andrews, Australian National University, Isla Gladstone, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery and Dr Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp, Horniman Museum and Gardens.