Joseph Banks, the Banksian Herbarium and the Natural History Museum | Botany Collections

Sir Joseph Banks was an eminent eighteenth-century naturalist and explorer. His travels and scientific patronage enabled him to amass specimens from around the globe.

An avid botanist, his private herbarium was one of the founding collections of the Museum’s herbarium.

In a series of posts, the Museum’s botanical staff reflect on Banks’s herbarium, his approach to collecting, and the uses of his collection – both in his time and today.

The second floor balcony of the Museum’s Hintze Hall has a lot to see. There is a spectacular view looking down on Hope, our specimen of the Blue Whale, the largest animal species on earth. There is the Giant Sequoia specimen – the largest and one of the most long lived of plants – the rings of which record more than a thousand years of history. And there is the view of the hall itself, topped by the spectacular ceiling – a ‘gilded canopy’ of plants.

The balcony is also home to two statues. Unlike Charles Darwin’s on the Hintze Hall steps, they rarely feature in visitor’s photographs, but they commemorate two individuals who, in very different ways, made immense contributions to the study of natural history. They are Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) and Joseph Banks (1743-1820).

Among Wallace’s many achievements was the simultaneous discovery alongside Charles Darwin, of the theory of natural selection. For the discoverer of a theory of such fundamental importance in the field of natural history, his statue is remarkably recent – unveiled in 2013, a hundred years after his death. A great collector, Wallace is shown in the field, his insect net in hand as he looks up at a butterfly on the wall opposite.

The statue of Banks is much older. Banks died in 1820 – 200 years ago this year (2020) and the statue was commissioned in 1821 by the British Museum and the Royal Society (Britain’s Scientific Academy). Paid for by public subscription, it shows Banks at around 70 years of age finely dressed and seated. It was completed in 1827 and initially stood in the entrance hall of the British Museum in Bloomsbury before it was moved to the new Natural History Museum in South Kensington, along with the natural history collections, in 1881.

The life of Joseph Banks

The story of Banks’s statue reflects his status and influence in Georgian society. A member of the landed gentry who inherited extensive family estates, Banks was educated at Eton College and at Oxford University where he developed a keen interest in natural history.  He made his name as a naturalist on voyages first to Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada in 1766 and subsequently on Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage during 1768-1771.

Banksia integrifolia
Type specimen of Banksia integrifolia, collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in Australia during Cook’s Endeavour voyage. The genus Bankia was named for Banks by Carl Linnaeus the Younger who visited London in 1781-1782 and was a regular visitor to Joseph Banks’s house and herbarium in Soho Square. CC BY 4.0. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

His home in London later came to house an ever-growing natural history collection eclipsing that of the British Museum. It became a renowned centre for biodiversity research, staffed by some of the brightest naturalists of the day. Banks was well connected.

He was a friend and advisor to King George III and pivotal in the early development of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He was decorated by the King and he was recognised by his peers who elected him to the Presidency of the Royal Society, a post he held for 41 years until his death. His term of office is unequalled in the Society’s more than 350 year history.

The herbarium comes to the Museum

Banks’s death in 1820 set in motion a chain of events that led to the transfer of his herbarium and other natural history collections to the British Museum. Shortly before his death, Banks bequeathed his herbarium to his librarian Robert Brown (1773-1858) on the condition that it would become the property of the British Museum on Brown’s death – unless Brown chose to transfer it earlier. In reality, negotiations for its transfer began soon afterwards.

Favourable terms were eventually agreed and in 1827 the herbarium was transferred with Brown appointed Keeper of the newly formed Banksian Department as part of the agreement. The Banksian Department would later become the Botany Department, now the Algae, Fungi and Plants Division of the Life Sciences Department.

Brown first task as Keeper was to oversee the move of the collection to the Museum from Bank’s house in Soho Square. He subsequently gave an account of the contents of the collection to the trustees, noting that the general part of the herbarium contained 23,400 species arranged in 67 cabinets.

There were another 1700 parcels of specimens still to be processed that Brown estimated to contain 5000 more species. The collection also included 64 drawers of fruits and seeds, a modest collection of material preserved in spirit and a number of important historical collections that had been purchased by Banks and that were maintained separately. 

Banks Herbarium

The Banksian collection was a hugely important acquisition for the Museum. Its specimens formed the foundation of the General Herbarium, a collection that has continued to grow ever since and that today is one of the largest herbaria in the world, with more than five and a quarter million plant specimens.

Digitisation of herbarium specimens
The General Herbarium today in the Museum’s Darwin Centre. The Joseph Banks herbarium forms the foundation of the General Herbarium, comprising over 5 million specimens. The seed plants are housed in the Darwin Centre. © The Trustees of Natural History Museum, London. All rights reserved.

At the time of its acquisition, the Banksian herbarium was undoubtedly one of the most significant in existence. The herbarium included the specimens that Banks had collected in the field – both in Britain and on his voyages – but they accounted for a relatively small, though scientifically important proportion of the collection. Far more numerous were the collections made by others – plants that he had acquired as gifts or exchanges through his extensive networks, those that were contributed by people he commissioned to collect, those that he acquired from gardens – a rich source of species new to Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – and those that he purchased.

It is a collection global in coverage and amongst its specimens are plants that Banks was involved in moving around the world, reshaping cultures and economies, as Britain expanded its empire.

Given its significance, the Banksian herbarium was consulted widely by other botanists and it was frequently cited in botanical works – both during Banks’s lifetime and subsequently. As a result, it is a collection rich in type specimens – specimens that were cited in the first description of species and that remain important for ensuring the correct naming of plants. And today, the Banksian herbarium is finding new uses, its specimens, each providing a record of a particular species at a particular place at a particular time, being used in studies investigating changes to plants and to the environment over the last 250 years.

Banks’s legacy today

The Banks legacy is a mixed one. His efforts contributed greatly to European knowledge of biodiversity and resulted in collections that remain an important resource for contemporary scientific research. But at the same time, Banks’s was involved in projects that would have significant environmental impacts and that contributed to the institutions of slavery and imperialism.

The type specimen of Gladiolus byzantinus. Cultivated at Chelsea Physic Garden, the specimen was collected by Philip Miller, the head gardener and described in his Gardener’s Dictionary. Banks purchased this important collection in 1774 from Miller’s son, after Philip Miller’s death. CC BY 4.0. © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Over the course of this year, we will be looking at the herbarium of Joseph Banks. We will look at the specimens collected by Banks on his voyages overseas and those that he amassed from closer to home, in Great Britain. We examine specimens contributed by individuals among his networks who were so important for building his global plant collection.

We’ll look at how horticulture and gardens were an important source of specimens and how Banks used his considerable wealth to strengthen his herbarium through purchasing some of the most important collections of the day. We also consider specimens that reflect his interests in useful plants and economic botany in the context of Britain’s growing imperial power.

Finally, we will examine how the Banks herbarium was catalogued and studied; who was involved with that and consider the uses of the collection – both in Banks’s time and today.

Mark Carine is Principal Curator for the Botanical Collections at the Natural History Museum