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People and Plants: reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of Indigenous ecological knowledge

Medicinal collections display at the Powell Cotton Museum.Copyright Powell Cotton Museum

The one year project started in January 2022 and is led by National Museums Scotland, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and the Powell-Cotton Museum funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


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.

Four spaces will also be allocated to professional museums staff who are members of the Museum Ethnographers Group (MEG) and/or the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NATSCA). Interested participants will be required to write a short statement outlining their interest in the workshops and their reasons for wanting to attend.



 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.


9.30-10.00 Welcome and housekeeping 

10-10.15 Introduction to People and Plants 

10.15-11.30 Introduction to the Powell-Cotton Museum and time to explore the Museum 

11.30-13.00 short papers 

Abira Hussein, NOMAD project/University College London:  

‘The potential role digital technologies can have in pluralising curation, and the role of diaspora knowledge in challenging and informing museum practice’ 

Rosa Dyer, Pitt Rivers Museum/Birkbeck College:  

‘Initial explorations of the Somali ethnobotanical collection at the Powell-Cotton Museum’ 

Inbal Livne, Powell-Cotton Museum: 

‘Community engagement and decolonising the catalogue’ 

13.00-14.00 Lunch 

14.00-16.00 Discussion in the collections; how can these collections be useful beyond the museum?  

16.00-16.30 Wrap up and next steps 

18.00 Dinner, Margate.

The workshop talks will be available through the People and Plants Youtube channel. 

 Online Workshop - July 2022.

For a full write up of the online workshop please visit the MEG blog.



National Museums Scotland Collections Centre, November  7, 2022

 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.


Draft Programme for the day is:

09:45-10.00 Welcome and housekeeping

10.00-10.15 Introduction to People and Plants

10.15-11.00 Introduction to National Museums Scotland and store tours

11.00-13.00 short papers

Gerry Turpin (Australian Tropical Herbarium)

Ali Clark (National Museums Scotland)

Alistair Paterson (University of Western Australia)

Ngarluma Yindjibarndi Foundation

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-16.00 Discussion in the collections.

16.00-16.30 Wrap up and next steps

18.00 Dinner, Newhaven, Edinburgh.


Bursaries for People and Plants workshop 2 at National Museums Scotland

November 7th 2022

Applications are now open for 4 funded spaces at workshop 2 of the AHRC funded project 'People and Plants: reactivating ethnobotanical collections as material archives of Indigenous ecological knowledge'.

Four bursaries of up to £250 each are available

This sum may be set against your:

  • Travel costs
  • Accommodation costs


  • Only members of the Natural Science Collections Association and the Museum Ethnographers Group can apply for a bursary.
  • All successful applicants must provide a write up for the NatSCA or MEG blog.
  • Due the funds available, applications are limited to UK residents only.
  • Bursaries are only open to individual members. Institutional members cannot apply.

To apply for a bursary please write no more than 500 words on how the workshop would be useful for your own personal or professional development, how this fits with your interests and what you might bring to the discussion.

Preference will be given to those lacking institutional support to attend workshops, early career museum professionals and students.

All bursaries are given at the discretion of the project team and the NatSCA and MEG committee. Applicants will be notified by August 29th if they have been successful and travel and accommodation will be booked by the project.

Applications should be sent to: Ali Clark a.clark (at) by Friday August 19th at 5pm.


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.

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.



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