The iconic Museum of Economic Botany is one of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens’ most cherished heritage treasures, housing a permanent collection displaying the practical, medicinal and economic use of plant materials.
The Museum is associated with the directorship of Richard Schomburgk, who campaigned strongly for the formation of a botanical museum during the construction of Palm House in the mid-1870s. Schomburgk proposed a ‘technical museum’, where commercial and economic plants could be displayed in both their raw forms and in various stages of manufacture. Schomburgk’s persuasive arguments during a prosperous period for South Australia resulted in quick approval from the Gardens Board, with construction commencing in 1879. The new Museum was opened to the public in 1881.
The building has been described as being in the ‘Greek’ style of architecture and appears to be strongly based on the Museum of Economic Botany in Kew Gardens of London, founded in 1847. The design is 31 metres long and 12 metres wide with a central portico and flight of steps leading to the entrance on the southern side. Sixteen windows providelight to the eight-foot-high display cases, set out between the windows at right angles so the case would receive a maximum amount of light. In the centre of the room were two rows of showcases in the form of tables with glass lids, with similar examples under the windows and recesses. The eastern end of the building housed a separate room intended to house Schomburgk’s own herbarium. The total cost of the Museum building, fixtures, glazing and decorative painting was 2,900 pounds, approximately half a million dollars in today’s currency. An impressive ‘Greek style’ terrace was created outside the Museum with lawns, palms, dracaenas, agaves and flowerbeds, featuring statues to represent the four seasons. The Museum formed an important adjunct to the scientific and education role of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and represents the last major project of the Schomburgk era.
In 2008 GGA was responsible for a package of external conservation works. The building had for many years been covered in ivy, which whilst picturesque, was not ideal for maintaining the rendered masonry walls. Works included re-rendering, roof repairs, and reinstatement of the signature gold leaf text on the building facade. Internal works were also undertaken, and new custom joinery designed by South Australian designer Khai Liew installed to provide for temporary exhibitions. Feel free to go inside and take a look at the collections and impressive interiors!
Photography credit: Grant Hancock