The Museum of Economic Botany at the Adelaide Botanic Garden opened in 1881 and has had a continuous life dedicated to the collection and interpretation of ‘useful’ plants. Much of the collection originally on display in 1881 has been reinstated – including hundreds of objects once thought to be lost and many more having been relegated to storage. These objects have been out of sight for the last 60 years and provide an authentic experience of a Museum of Economic Botany. At one stage there were four such Museums in Australia and many more throughout the world. Adelaide’s is the only one to survive – the purpose built building intact with its collection, paint scheme and furniture.
The permanent collection – a layering of objects – some acquired as early as 1865 and continuing until the present – are on display in original display cases. Highlights include 19th century papier mâche models of fruit and fungi, aboriginal plant products, tapa cloths, timbers and fibres. An exhibition space designed by Khai Liew houses temporary exhibitions and a commissioned artwork “Grove” by Fiona Hall is a permanent centre-piece.
The term ‘Economic Botany’ may have an antiquated ring, but it is as relevant today as it was to the young colony of South Australia in the 19th Century – the key messages in 1881, which continue today, are the avoidance of waste and learning from other cultures – a celebration of plants people and culture. The Museum celebrates the ‘value’ that the botanical world brings to our society and the importance of plants in our way of life; past, present and future. Consider the food we eat, the medicines that heal us and the clothes we wear.
The Museum is one of the earliest examples of ‘Greek revival’ building in South Australia. A wonderful stencilled timber ceiling remains as an ‘untouched’ element of the building, whilst the rest of the Museum’s 19th century paint scheme has been exposed or reinstated – many layers of 20th Century improvements have been peeled back to restore the former glory of this grand and gothic building.
The Museum of Economic Botany is on the Register of the National Estate, Register of State Heritage Items, Register of the City of Adelaide Heritage Items and classified by the National Trust. The Museum has gained a new lease on life thanks to an internal restoration and refurbishment, external restoration and a sponsorship deal which sees Santos supporting both the Museum and its exhibition program. The Santos Museum of Economic Botany is one of Adelaide’s unique treasures sitting in the Adelaide Botanic Garden arguably South Australia’s most visited cultural and scientific institution.