The Department of Botany has its origins in the Department of Natural and Artificial Productions which was set up at the founding of the British Museum in 1756. In 1806 it was renamed the Department of Natural History and Modern Curiosities and was under the keepership of George Shaw (1751-1813) and later Charles Dietrich Eberhard Konig (1774-1851). The botanical collection at this period consisted almost entirely of the Sloane herbarium.
In 1827 the Museum acquired the herbarium of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), and with it, the services of Robert Brown (1773-1858), as 'Keeper of the Banksian Botanical Collection'. In 1835 the Sloane and Banksian collections were amalgamated to form a Botanical Branch of the Department of Natural History, and in 1856 the branch was given the status of a department, with Robert Brown as the first Keeper, and a staff of four.
Under succeeding keepers the collections held by the Department increased in size and scope, and by the time George Murray (1858-1911) retired in 1905 there was a staff of 13. A major reorganisation took place in the mid 1930s when the complement increased to 23, and the department was divided into six cryptogamic sections and five sections devoted to flowering plants, together with the library and the Keeper's Office. The Department was severely damaged during the war, and did not fully recover until the early 1960s.
Over the years the relationship of the Department with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has been scrutinised many times, on both financial and scientific grounds. Government enquiries were held in 1860, 1871, 1900 and 1960, and all recommended that the two institutions should remain independent, with the last leading to the 'Morton Agreement', which set out a division of accession and research activities.
By 1965 the Department was responsible for huge herbaria collections, and was active in research on the floras of tropical Africa, Europe, the West Indies and the Far East. The research was supported by the departmental library, which was rich in historic treasures as well as contemporary literature. The Department was also responsible, in conjunction with the exhibition staff, for displays in the botany gallery. Staff numbered 23, who between them saw to nearly 3,000 visitors, accessioned nearly 40,000 specimens, and published 30 or more papers each year.