Looking after No 1

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
Bernard Adams finds out what's new at Kew

It's hard to concentrate in the education centre at Kew's refurbished Museum No 1 (yes, that's its real name). From the windows of the huge first-floor room, there's a breathtaking view of Kew's finest monument to Victorian horticulture, the Palm House. Elegantly rounded, confident, it is the ultimate greenhouse.

Museum No 1 opened in 1857, when Kew also had museums 2, 3 and 4. These have since been rechristened with names like the Orangery, but No 1 has retained its original moniker. The renovation cost Pounds 2.4 million, most of which came from the lottery.

The Decimus Bruton building, which houses No 1, has been gutted. (It was closed 11 years ago because of its poor condition.) The museum's thousands of items were previously scattered around the building, but are now all housed on the ground floor, while the first floor has been transformed into the education centre with the view.

Over two centuries, 70,000 artefacts made from plants had been amassed to "show vegetable products that are either eminently curious or serviceable to mankind". The curators had to select just 500 pieces for the streamlined museum.

"It wasn't easy," says Gayle Bromley, Kew's education manager. "Our criteria were: Does it look good? Can it be used to explore broader themes? And does the item grab the attention because there's something unusual, exotic or historic about it?" The themes of the new exhibition are the uses of plants in food and drink; health; clothing; and in more unlikely areas, such as for toys, musical instruments, transport, or fuel. The curators have brought in a few new items - like a bottle of Soy Sauce and some Body Shop products - but the rest are original artefacts.

Twenty-three of the original mahogany display cases have been preserved, but the display technique is simple and modern - with the objects being allowed to speak for themselves. And of course there are high- and low-tech interactive tools.

One case looks at plants and medicine (25 per cent of medicines come from plants, including aspirin, which is made from white willow bark). Another case looks at what plants can do to our minds, with plenty of opium pipes and poppies on display. A third contains a clever straw with a filter which was used in Latin America as a kind of home-made tea-strainer.

An English seaside town figures splendidly. There are dinky woven loafers made from Marram grass, and beautiful osier baskets, both from Great Yarmouth. And there's a terrific cork bowler hat from 1882.

The education room can be partitioned into sound-proof sections, and there are state-of-the-art desks which can double up as drawing boards. Kew will be able to address all its target audiences here: teachers on training courses; higher education and school students; and members of the public who enrol for study days.

This museum may not be everyone's No 1, but it's likely to stay high in the botanical charts for a while to come.

For more information about visits and courses, contact the Education Department Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 3AB.Tel: 0181 332 5000

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