Historic document could settle dispute over Kew Herbarium

Image above: Kew Herbarium – Photograph Michael Dibb

Document claims collection must endure at Kew “in perpetuity”

A recent report from the Daily Telegraph about the plant library at Kew has unveiled a significant dispute concerning the original bequest to the Royal Botanic Gardens by Sir William Hooker, that the collection must remain housed within Kew Gardens.

The current management of the Royal Botanic Gardens had announced plans to relocate the plant library to Thames Valley Science Park, which it says has facilities more suitable for studying the collection.

The revelation surfaced thanks to Isobel Moses, a direct descendant of Sir William Hooker. The renowned botanist, credited as the gardens’ inaugural director, notably constructed the Palm House and expanded public access to the site.

His donation of his personal collection to the Herbarium transformed it into a repository which now encompasses over seven million specimens from as early as the 17th century. This treasure trove includes a staggering 90% of the planet’s plant diversity, with an annual addition of 30,000 samples. Notably, it houses a Galapagos fern collected by Charles Darwin and specimens from the East India Company’s initiation of the tea trade.

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Sir Joseph Hooker, son of Sir William and a close confidant of Charles Darwin, substantiated the bequest’s intent in a letter addressed to the government. In this letter, he unequivocally conveyed his father’s final wishes: that the collection must endure at Kew Gardens ‘in perpetuity’.

Legal experts cited by The Telegraph assert that these documents strongly resemble a binding contract between Sir William’s executors and the government.

Isobel Moses vehemently opposes any relocation, she said:

“The proposed move makes no sense whatsoever, and would remove a key part of Kew from the rest of its activities, at a time of increasing concern about the dire effects of global warming.”

A resounding 84% of existing staff at Kew are against the relocation, and have raised concerns about potential damage to the collection and the possible retrieval of donated species by overseas contributors. Kew employees argue that proximity to live species is imperative for comprehensive study.

The Royal Botanic Gardens spokesperson defended the proposed move, stating:

“Our plans for a modern, purpose-built, and state-of-the-art facility for our world-leading collection will not only maintain Britain’s historic position in botanical research and innovation but will also ensure the secrets of these specimens can be unlocked in the future, leading to potential discoveries for repairing our fragile planet.”