Challenging Perceptions; Re-thinking Practice

Brown Bag 18 May 2011

Redefining the Role of Botanic Gardens: Towards A New Social Purpose

Jocelyn Dodd and Ceri Jones

This Brown Bag was a little unusual for two reasons: firstly, it gave us the chance to find out more about some of the research which goes on in our own department, and secondly it took that research beyond the museal context, and into new territory. Today we welcomed Jocelyn Dodd and Ceri Jones from the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, based at the School of Museum Studies here in Leicester. Jocelyn is Senior Research Fellow and Director of RCMG, and Ceri is both a Research Associate with RCMG as well as a current PhD student with the School.

The RCMG was set up in 1999 by Professor Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, its primary remit to conduct research into ‘the social role, impact and agency of museums and galleries’ (RCMG 2011). This mission statement was accompanied by practical objectives to promote inclusivity, inspire learning and ensure that museums and galleries are relevant to contemporary society. RCMG often embark upon collaborative research projects with other organizations, and all research tends to fall into two categories – that which is initiated by RCMG, and that which is commissioned by external organizations.

In 2010 RCMG were commissioned, most unusually, by an organization outside the museum sector, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, to carry out research into the societal role and impact of botanic gardens in the UK. The impetus for the research was an overriding concern that botanic gardens were becoming out of touch with society. As a result, BGCI not only wanted to attract a greater number and diversity of visitors to botanic gardens, but to re-connect them with plants and the major role they play in nearly all aspects of contemporary life from food, clothing and fuel to healthcare and medicine. The research, the first of its kind in the UK, was funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The definition of what constitutes a botanic garden in the twenty-first century is somewhat hazy. In differentiating between botanic gardens and public parks or pleasure gardens, BGCI lists a set of ten criteria, but suggests that above all, there has to be an underlying scientific purpose for the plants grown in a botanic garden (BGCI 2011).

The research made some surprising discoveries. Botanic gardens tend to be situated in affluent areas, such as Kew Gardens on the outskirts of London in Richmond, Surrey, and typically attract visitors from more ‘élite’ backgrounds. Yet the preponderance of botanic gardens in the UK are very much in the dark as to the identities of their visitors, and appeared to be lacking in statistic collation or visitor studies of any kind. The research also found that while well-placed to educate the public on key societal issues such as conservation, climate change and species extinction, botanic gardens are in most cases far from fulfilling their true potential. The lack of visitors from poorer economic backgrounds is also a worrying trend as it is these groups who are most likely to be affected by the negative impact of human activity on our environment. Botanic gardens also tend not to publicise themselves effectively – who knew, for instance, that the University of Leicester has its own botanic garden, or that it is the only garden of its kind in the whole of the East Midlands?

Why is this? RCMG’s findings indicated that the majority of botanic gardens have an insular and traditional outlook. Staff were often found to be of a retiring disposition, and unused to actively promoting the merits of botanic gardens to visitors. There was also a lack of informal learning opportunities, and a marked lack of education on issues such as climate change. Jocelyn and Ceri suggested that such attitudes may hearken back to the purported origins of the botanic garden in the physic garden of the early modern era, which housed specialist collections for medical students, and was typically not open to the general public. However, it is also the result of more practical contemporary concerns: public funding for botanic gardens tends to be limited, especially for new or experimental work, and so public accountability is limited as a result. An exemplar of the more traditional outlook is provided by the University of Oxford’s botanic gardens, who take pride in stating that their mission statement has suffered no alteration in four centuries. Above all, RCMG found, these gardens are seen as timeless places, havens of tranquillity undisturbed by the stresses and strains of everyday life, and in which the visitor does not wish to be disturbed by warnings of climate change or carbon footprints. There appears to be a real tension here; in promoting change, would an integral part of these gardens’ appeal be eradicated? I would suggest probably not; but to ensure their survival, the valuable contribution they are capable of making to society must be evidenced.

There are notable exceptions, however. The best-performing site in the UK was the Eden Project in Cornwall, but as Jocelyn and Ceri point out, this has moved so far forward that it is debatable whether it can be considered a botanic garden any longer, which brings us back to the emerging tension above. Yet botanic gardens can certainly learn from Eden’s example. Eden is particularly adept at changing visitor behaviour in a manner which is embedded within the site itself – as a model of sustainable practice. Their café, for example, fulfils its environmental obligations not only by composting and recycling, but by growing its own organic food – which is clearly visible and identifiable as such to visitors as they enter the premises. RCMG found that this approach, pleasingly non-invasive, can go a long way to combat society’s current detachment from plants and the vital societal, as well as scientific and technical, issues they raise. Indeed, Eden is now helping to shape government policy itself, an interesting prospect in the era of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

The research methods employed in this project were diverse, and mainly of a qualitative nature. They included desk-based research in the form of a literature review, case studies, interviews with key individuals in the sector, questionnaires and a think tank. While based in the UK, the researchers also engaged with botanic gardens in Sydney and Chicago, and found that the UK appears to be lagging behind international practice. Botanic gardens in Sydney, for example, were found to be sharing their expertise with the public in simple but innovative ways, such as transforming derelict areas of the city into community allotments.

There followed an interesting discussion in which Dave Unwin pointed out that climate change is an area of contention for many scientists; many are not convinced by its arguments, and there are some who believe while human behaviour has an impact on the environment, climate change is something that occurs naturally and cannot be prevented. Nevertheless, there was a general consensus that even if such change cannot be stopped, botanic gardens are well-placed to educate the public on how best to cope with it when it does happen.

In identifying key forces for change as well as change inhibitors in today’s botanic gardens, RCMG have also set out their own solutions and recommendations. First and foremost, botanic gardens need to communicate more – with each other, and with the general public. In particular, they need to be bolder and more assertive in publicizing what they have to offer. Secondly, they need to build more diverse workforces, but to be a force for positive change in their own right, they need to share the desire to create a different world.

Our thanks go to Jocelyn and Ceri for such an interesting Brown Bag. More about RCMG’s research findings on the societal role and impact of botanic gardens can be found in their recent report here.


Jenny said…
Thanks for the write up - I wish I'd been at this one, it sounded really interesting! I think there are serious overlaps between the role (and the characters) of museums and botanic gardens in many ways - and of course, the Tradescants were plant hunters as well as collectors of material culture.

Both museums and botanic gardens, of course, should constantly reassess their role and purpose. It is not enough to remain the same without justifying why - and because I love Oxford Botanic Gardens, it saddens me to hear of their stasis.
Stephanie said…
It is interesting to see that overlap; it was also present in the days of the curiosity cabinet. RCMG are still working on this problem I think, and are considering how museums can help botanic gardens become more socially relevant.

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