The world in the garden: ethnobotany in the contemporary Horniman Museum Garden, London

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This article traces the evolution of the Horniman Museum garden, London, from the nineteenth-century and focuses on its current design. The design (2007-present day) mimics the founder Frederick Horniman’s approach to collecting and displaying, which is now described as ethnobotanical, but with an increased focus on unifying the museum collections and garden.

The Museum contains displays of ethnological, zoological and entomological specimens. Sections of the contemporary garden showcase world plants, which are part of the ethnological museum trail, leading visitors from the gallery into the garden, to witness nature and culture intertwined. Interpretation panels describe world cultures’ relationships with botany. Through this process of display and interpretation, the museum produces ethnobotanical knowledge for its visitors. The mode of construction of knowledge in this didactic garden is two-fold. It is materialist and representational, while providing space for the visitor for a translation of ethnographic meanings.

I borrow James Clifford’s “Ethnographic Allegory” (1986) to examine the ways in which this method of curating enables processes of translation and the role of the garden within this. While this curating approach attempts to mimic Horniman’s vision, it produces a historicist vision of world cultures – objects from the past juxtaposed with plants growing in the garden and descriptions of contemporary lives. The garden as a living entity provides the allegorical process, the element of coevalness. This is distinct from Horniman’s vision, which located plants and people within an evolutionary timeline. The didacticism of this contemporary museum garden, therefore, is crucial in producing the idea of coeval lives, a unique practice in an ethnological museum.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)40-52
Number of pages13
JournalStudies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2019

Bibliographical note

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 2/1/2019, available online:


  • Horniman Museum
  • Ethnobotany
  • Garden Design
  • Museums and Galleries


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