Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG)

Growing the social role of botanic gardens

In spring 2010 RCMG completed a ground-breaking research project commissioned by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), Redefining the role of Botanic Gardens: Towards a new social purpose.  This identified that botanic gardens have the potential to have a far greater social role and connect with a more diverse audience than they do at present.  The research found that there were a number of factors that inhibit change in botanic gardens, which are important to address if botanic gardens are to achieve their potential in raising awareness about the importance of plant diversity and the threat from climate change. Growing the Social Role of Botanic Gardens built on this research, working with botanic gardens to re-evaluate their mission within a framework of social responsibility and to develop socially relevant projects.

Aims and objectives

Supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, BGCI worked with RCMG and three selected UK botanic gardens to examine their philosophy, values, goals and practices with the aim of realising their own potential to contribute toward positive social change and broad environmental awareness about climate change. Alongside a programme of workshops, two botanic gardens developed funded, small-scale research projects. These were:

  • Urban Veg, a community based vegetable garden designed by Winterbourne House and Garden as a two way cultural exchange and learning experience for the Islamic communities of Birmingham and garden staff.
  • Engaging Secondary Schools, a series of science-focused workshops run by Ness Botanic Garden for students from a deprived area of Liverpool.

Key findings

As a frank account of the realities and challenges of engaging with the social role of botanic gardens, Growing the Social Role stress tests the prevailing organisational cultures and structures of UK botanic gardens to see if they are fit for purpose for the 21st Century. Which is not to say that it's the working assumption of the report that the current model is exhausted and in need of revolution. Far from it, indeed, since the evidence is there for all to see that when they’re playing to their historical strengths and catering for their traditional audiences, the UK’s botanic gardens remain a potent force. But this begs the question: how much better would they be if, like our partner gardens here, they looked to engage with non-traditional audiences on globally significant issues such as global climate change and social and environmental justice? It is hoped that the learning that has come from the project will not only inform the practice of the botanic gardens involved but the wider botanic garden community too.


Growing the Social Role: Partnerships in the Community (Summary, 2011) (PDF, 3,317KB)
Let's Talk, A Case Study: Change Growth Impact (BGCI/RCMG) (Case study, undated) (PDF, 1,374KB)

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