An interview* with Mark Nesbitt, Curator of the Economic Botany Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and President of the SEB 2019-20. Twitter: @economicbotany
~2,700 words, 20 minute reading time.
Please describe yourself in your own words. Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?
My interests are very broad and always have been. I’m not sure if that is a career weakness or strength, but it is a lot more fun being interested in lots of things. My work, at the core, is as curator of the wonderful Economic Botany Collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a record of human uses of plants from ancient Egypt to current day. Material culture – resulting from the transformation of plants by human ingenuity – is really at the centre of what I do.
Defining ethnobotany is a tricky question. There’s a narrow definition as field orientated, quantitative set of techniques, which I admire greatly. However, in my own field work back in Turkey in the 80s I wasn’t aware of these new methodologies. In that sense, I don’t see myself as a professional ethnobotanist. But in a wider sense of the term of ethnobotany, the interaction between people and plants is the subject. So perhaps a collections-based ethnobotanist would be a good term for me.
Describe what you see as your mission
I think at the core of my work, with colonial era collections in a large institution, is the repurposing of historic collections to address today’s challenges. The Kew collection was founded, like many other ethnobotany collections, in the 19th century to support trade and empire. In the 20th century the collection lost its purpose, and drifted for many decades from the 1930s to the 1990s. What has invigorated it, and similar collections, is the realisation that a lot of solutions to today’s problems lie in understanding the past. To put in another way, the purpose of such collections in the 19th century was to enable the Global North to plunder the resources of the Global South. In the 21st century how can we work in a genuinely collaborative way to redress these wrongs, and to support the source communities from whom collections came?
Describe your current role
One of the great things working in Kew’s Science departments is that you are given lots of opportunity to develop your personal job profile. Over last 20 years I have made good use of that. Part of my time is spent curating the Economic Botany Collection. That’s all aspects of museum work – acquisitions, hosting researchers, exhibitions and so on. It’s the largest collection of its kind at 100,000 specimens and there are just two staff, so we also work with many wonderful volunteers and students to get the work done.
The other part of my job is developing research in the Collection, mainly by collaboration with other institutions. That brings a lot of new insights and ideas. For example, we are working on revitalising Richard Spruce’s Amazonian collections from the 19th century. We are working with Indigenous colleagues in the Rio Negro in the Amazon region of Brazil, and with Luciana Martins at University of London, Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden and the Instituto Socioambiental. One of the things we are exploring is how to make true collaboration work over long physical and cultural distances (currently via Zoom conversations) and I think that represents part of an interest of mine: in the methodology of ethnobotany and in encouraging transparency in research and data.
A core theme of projects I work on is opening up collection histories, not just because I am interested in the past, but because a lot of current day issues and inequity are rooted in the past. It is so important to be aware, now more than ever, of personal and institutional histories. I am really pleased that projects such as the Mobile Museum have worked hard both to digitise Kew’s archives and to bring detail and nuance to Kew’s history.
Sounds like you are interested not just in science, but also in humanities. Is there a place for that in institutions such as Kew?
Absolutely! The humanities have the tools and context to critically assess our work as scientists, both today and in the past. It’s hard in science – and other aspects of Kew’s work such as public engagement – to find time to stop and reflect on one’s work. Humanities researchers bring new perspectives and new language to that, not least for discussion of ‘difficult’ subjects such as the colonial past and its impact on the present. I’ve been working with our Library team on expanding Kew’s humanities programme, ensuring that it’s an integral part of our research programme. For research to be truly transdisciplinary it needs to be embedded deep; it’s not something that can be done by occasional visits to archives. Many university colleagues and funders have been enormously helpful, particularly Felix Driver and Caroline Cornish at Royal Holloway who are doing important work developing the concept of Plant Humanities. I’m also inspired by the work of Elaine Ayers at New York University. I hope we can establish a public presence for the humanities at Kew, comparable to the New York Botanical Garden’s Humanities Institute.
Did you always want to work with plants or ethnobotany? What was your path towards ethnobotany?
I first came to realise that people and plants interested me originally in a school farm run by an eccentric and charismatic master. It even had a working steam engine, and the cultivation and harvest were all done in 19th century style. However, I can trace my interests earlier still, to a few summers around 1970 when I was about ten years old, living on a farm in a remote part of Andalucia. There was no electricity, and I spent a lot of time hanging around local farms seeing the close association between people and plants that has long been lost in city life.
After working on a farm in southwest Scotland, I went on to study Agricultural Botany at the University of Reading (1980-83). It has a long tradition of interest in crop domestication and tropical agriculture. I came under influence of two people: Barbra Pickersgill, a world-renowned geneticist of capsicum peppers, who gave me free run of her offprint library, which in the pre internet days, was the way to see key publications from around the world. The second person was one of her former students, Gordon Hillman. Hillman had just started teaching at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London (UCL). He led me to a Masters in archaeobotany (1983-4). Where I then spent around 15 years in archaeobotany, mostly working in Turkey, before a mid-career change in moving to Kew in 1999.
Why did you make a career change?
I had done a PhD with Gordon Hillman exploring the role of grasses in the hunter gatherer diet, jointly supervised by Tom Cope at Kew Gardens. I was then looking for a university lectureship and was living in Cambridge at the time. One day, I was waiting behind someone at a photocopier machine. He was copying an advert for a job at the top of a page (which he got) but at the bottom of that page I saw advert for a role as a useful plants specialist at Kew (which I got). It’s a reminder that when you look at someone’s CV, it all looks neat, tidy and considered, but you will find that the effect of chance is just as important in most people’s careers.
Who was the most influential person(s) on your career?
Without a doubt it was Gordon Hillman, who sadly died in 2018. He was a charismatic teacher and part of his legacy is many former students who live all over the world, of whom I am proud to be one. Gordon really revolutionised the field of archaeobotany by combining a really strong personal training from Reading in subjects like taxonomy and genetics with an understanding that people are not machines: that you have to look at past lives in archaeology as lived by individuals, by people. He was a passionate believer in the use of ethnographic evidence in interpreting archaeological data. So, in his publications he would freely draw on his knowledge of ethnobotany of Native Americans, Polish farmers, Siberian shamans and so on. Another of his great attributes was that he was a brilliant linguist, speaking English, Russian, Turkish and German. His international and anthropological approach has been very influential on me. He was also exceptionally supportive of his students – something that I try to pay on in my own career.
What was the highlight of your career? A moment you were proud of?
Perhaps I can mention three moments? One was the first big project I worked on at Kew called ‘Plant Cultures’. The project involved working with Asian communities and museums in the UK to explore connections between Britain and South Asia through plants. It was hugely complex project in early 2000s, particularly from an IT point of view. The website ran for about 10 years and was visited by millions of users. You can see the influence of our interpretation work still visible at Kew today.
I’d also like to mention two recent books. Curating Biocultural Collections (Winner of the Postgraduate Textbook Prize in the Royal Society of Biology Book Awards 2015), which was a project run by Jan Salick. It really encapsulates the approach that we try to take with Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, combining best practice in natural history museums with that from world cultures museums. The book really filled a gap in how to handle cultural collections in a natural history environment, and contains powerful statements from Indigenous scholars such as Linda Black Elk and Jane Mt. Pleasant.
I’m also very proud of our recent book Just The Tonic (Winner of the Debut Drink Book, Fortnum and Masons Food and Drink Awards 2020), particularly because it was my first popular book so it was quite an experiment for me.
And a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought what am I doing/how the hell did I get here?
Plenty of those! I find uncertainty – am I doing the right thing? Is it enough? – quite anxiety-inducing, but perhaps uncertainty is an integral part of research. And as someone who works in interdisciplinary spaces, I’m always aware that my colleagues are far more expert than me in botany and history. But that’s good, and I wish that I had known earlier in my career the value of working closely with knowledgeable, kind and clever people. I’m definitely a fan of team working.
What would be your advice for a student of ethnobotany?
I hope that is not a surprise for readers, but there are very few jobs advertised as ethnobotanist out there. But don’t despair, there are a huge number of jobs where ethnobotanical training is super-helpful. Not only in obviously plant-related roles in industry, NGOs and academia, but also in museums, public engagement and publishing to name a few. Something that I believe really helps in finding that pathway is having another technical skill: that might be in, for example, languages, GIS, genetics or art. Ethnobotany is all the richer for all the people coming from many different fields – biology, anthropology, English literature, history.
Another piece of advice may be a bit corny but is about seizing opportunities – I’ve thought a lot about this and I can see how important it is when I look at my cohort of fellow students. Sometimes we build the career we want, sometimes not. Is it all down to chance? I think that there is an element of looking out for and being prepared to seize opportunities as they arise. That is something I advise students to do – go to conferences, browse journals, do webs searches: the more you open yourself to what is out there, the more you are able to recognise your path and find out how to successfully develop it. I am proud that the Society for Economic Botany has a large student membership who are active at conferences. It is important not only for a lively society but is an investment in helping people build their careers.
How do you see the future of ethnobotany? e.g. new trends, areas not yet researched…
One welcome development is that as well as researching medicinal plants, ethnobotanists are taking a more holistic view of plant use. I’m excited to see ethnobotanical techniques used in food studies for example. There is also a whole area around the broader aspects of wellbeing/spirituality/belief that has hardly been explored by ethnobotany. I’m always excited about students with proposals in those areas.
I think one big transformation in ethnobotany in last 30 years has been realisation it is above all a form of applied anthropology, and is about supporting the communities we work with. We have moved away from the extractive model (going somewhere to get something we want) and the self-indulgent model (going elsewhere to find yourself) towards work that places true collaboration with host communities at the centre.
And the role of the Society for Economic Botany?
I’ve been a huge fan of SEB since I was an undergraduate, and it has been a privilege to be its President in 2019/20. Economic Botany remains one of the few academic journals that can be read cover-to-cover, and the conferences are notably friendly, with a broad spectrum of participants. SEB is distinctive in covering the broad spectrum of people-plant interactions that we discussed right at the beginning, and I think it is vital we keep that breadth. Like many other societies in this age of the internet, SEB faces a challenge in how it can best be more than a conference and journal. Two developments make me optimistic. First, the energy and fresh ideas that the SEB’s student members bring to the society. We need to work on keeping those connections in the precarious post-doctoral stage. Second, in this strange time of COVID-19, it’s clear that online technology is finally good enough to make online meetings really rewarding experiences. That could be transformational, especially for international societies such as SEB. Nanci Ross will be taking over as president in August 2020 and I look forward to supporting her in these new initiatives.
Favourite ethnobotanical researcher/books?
I can’t name just one! There are some people whose work I return to again and again. Gary Martin’s Ethnobotany: A Methods Manual is always the starting point for methodology. Anything written by Miguel Alexiades, a really forward thinking ethnobotanist. Patricia Howard’s book Women and Plants really opened the eyes, not just of me but of everybody to gender issues. Abena Dove Osseo-Asare’s Bitter Roots is a new way of looking at the history of medicinal plants. Tony Cunningham, not only for his Applied Ethnobotany book but also for his wonderful book on African baskets. Ina Vandebroek has done a fantastic job of connecting ethnobotanists with the most current urgent issues of our time. Cassie Quave for demonstrating ethical ethnopharmacology… the list goes on!
What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?
My hobby is family history, I enjoy it because I am not an abstract thinker, and find history easier to understand when it is connected to people (or plants!). What is fascinating is the interaction of people and wider world events through history. A lot of the archival skills for family history are the same skills and resources that you need for looking at botanical history.
What is your favourite plant and why?
Ever since I was an undergraduate I have been fascinated by wheat. Superficially it seems like a simple plant, a grass that has supported humans for the past 12 thousand years. But made up of 3 levels of ploidy and a host of other biological adaptations to human selection that make it a really fascinating study of the interaction of plants and people. Some of my favourite memories and places are in the Pontic Mountains of Northern Turkey talking to farmers about emmer and einkorn wheat cultivation back in the 1980s. That is where I really learnt about the extraordinary observational and experimental qualities of traditional farmers.
*An interview with SEB Student committee member Kim Walker, July 2020. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences. To read more of these, click on the Interview/Bio category in the side panel. If you have someone you would like to recommend for interview, please email Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org