For those fortunate enough to live within reach of one of them, the UK’s botanic gardens have provided a remarkable escape from the tribulations of the pandemic. From the Belfast Botanic Gardens to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Benmore to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales at Llanarthne and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, they have provided visitors with precious space, greenery and fresh air. As spring rolls in with its fickle springs and springs, they provide impressive displays of seasonal flora: in Kew, rugs of azure scilla and groves of blooming magnolias; at Benmore, rhododendron tides.
But botanical gardens are not just green spaces for exercise and fun. In fact, in the past they were more frequently framed as primarily scientific institutions, major centers for botanical research. The appeal to “science” often bestows a kind of implicit political and social neutrality on these institutions. But they are far from apolitical. Science, of course, is as susceptible to prejudice and politics as any other human endeavor. And when botanical gardens are properly considered cultural spaces, not just scientific, its role in history and society becomes more complex.
Botanical gardens can also be considered museums. For the taxonomist, a botanical garden is the place to examine subtle variations between, say, fern species, just as a museum is the place to scrutinize the typologies of, say, ancient Greek pottery. The origin of the modern and publicly responsible museum lies in the cabinet of curiosities – privately assembled collections of artifacts designed for the pleasure and edification of an elite few. Botanical gardens developed in a similar way. And, like museums, their stories are inextricably intertwined with imperialism. The “exotic” plants were collected not only for aesthetic reasons, but also for economic purposes. When botanical gardens have offered visitors a narrative of the supposed “discovery” of species by the white man, they have erased longer and richer cultural histories of human relationships with plants.
Kew Gardens recently posted a 10 year plan, which raises the need to decolonize its collections, expand its reach to underserved communities, and train a diverse new generation of plant scientists and botanists along with an urgent mission to assist in the fight to restore biodiversity in the face of unprecedented environmental destruction. . The institution has rightly understood that these impulses cannot be separated: they all go together. Unsurprisingly, his plan has been condemned as an “awakening” in certain sectors of the right. Kew should ignore the noise of conservatives obsessed with culture wars and move on with his ambitions. Opening botanical gardens and deepening the understanding of their historical purpose is something that will enrich the experiences of the public and visitors. And the lovely green spaces will continue to be a joy to those who find them.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism