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Student Showcase Archive

Helen Butler

MA work

MA work

  • Early Rubber Moulding

    Early Rubber Moulding, Thomas Hancock, Science Museum, London (1935-57) c. 1840
    Vulcanized India-rubber and glass frame
    Photographer: Helen Butler

  • Rubber Ornamental Shoe

    Rubber Ornamental Shoe, Charles Macintosh & Co., Kew Economic Botany Collection (44133) c. 1851
    Photographer: Helen Butler

  • The Great Exhibition, 1851: Articles in Indian Rubber by Mackintosh

    The Great Exhibition, 1851: Articles in Indian Rubber by Mackintosh, Claude-Marie Ferrier, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017 (RCIN 2800096) 1851
    Salted paper print

  • Hevea brasiliensis or Para Rubber: Its Botany, Cultivation, Chemistry and Diseases by Herbert Wright

    Hevea brasiliensis or Para Rubber: Its Botany, Cultivation, Chemistry and Diseases by Herbert Wright, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Archives
    Photographer: Helen Butler

  • H. N. Ridley with a Hevea tree showing herringbone tapping

    H. N. Ridley with a Hevea tree showing herringbone tapping, c. 1900

‘The Caoutchouc of Commerce’: India-Rubber and Economic Botany in Nineteenth Century Britain

Founded in 1847, the Kew Museum of Economic Botany dedicated its collections to useful plants, with its displays aimed at ‘the merchant, the manufacturer, the physician, the chemist, the druggist, the dyer, the carpenter and cabinet-maker, and artisans of every description.’ Among the array of vegetable products was a collection of natural rubber, known as ‘India-rubber’ or ‘caoutchouc’, including raw material, ethnographic objects and British manufactures. Blocks of raw rubber sit next to objects such as animal figurines, surgical articles, moulded portrait plaques, vulcanite rubber jewellery and an inflatable cushion, linked by the plant name Hevea brasiliensis, the primary tree from which latex was tapped to source the material.This dissertation frames itself around Kew’s collection, tracing the objects’ biographies to form a history of Victorian applications and perceptions of rubber.

The first half of this study analyses the implications of rubber’s position within a botanical institution, Kew’s link to rubber manufacturers, and the ways in which Kew aligned itself with industry, turning rubber into an imperial opportunity.The spectacle of economic botany is explored, not only at Kew but at international exhibitions, where India-rubber was presented as a material of wonder and curiosity, with innumerable applications.The second section examines the museum’s rubber accessions throughout the mid to late nineteenth century, detailing their makers and donors and comparing them with other manufactures from the same period.Through gathering details about the collection, exhibition and consumption of these objects, changing perceptions surrounding the desirability, utility and potentiality of rubber are revealed. 



  • MA Degree


    School of Humanities


    MA History of Design, 2017

  • Helen Butler is a design historian and artist. Her research focuses on botanical history, exhibitions and material collections.

    Her second-year dissertation surrounds intersections between botany and material innovation in nineteenth century Britain. This research project traced biographies of natural rubber objects in a number of museum collections, placing them within histories of economic botany and Victorian material culture, whilst revealing networks of botanists and manufactures involved in the project of cultivating South American rubber trees in plantations throughout the British Empire. 

  • Degrees

  • BA Fine Art, University of Leeds, 2015; BA Fine Art (Study Abroad Year), University of California, Berkeley, 2014
  • Experience

  • Gallery assistant, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2016–17; Exhibitions assistant, The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, Leeds, 2015; Curator, The Debut Series, Leeds, 2014–15; Intern, Worth Ryder Art Gallery, Berkeley, California, 2014