Redefining the Role of Botanic Gardens - Towards a New Social Purpose

This groundbreaking study was undertaken by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. Commissioned by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) and funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, its aim was to examine the social role of botanic gardens in the UK. In common with many organisations in the cultural sector, the botanic garden community is now more aware of their need for their social relevance, of working in partnership with their local communities and addressing contemporary concerns like climate change.

Key findings

It is fair to say that while some good work is already being done in botanic gardens, their full potential in this field remains unrealised. This study is a key step towards identifying that potential. By examining the current state of play in botanic gardens and by arguing for their broader social role, the report may be seen as framing the important debate that needs to be held.

Botanic gardens are well placed to educate the public on conservation issues and the human role in effecting environmental change. While many botanic gardens are well established as educators in a formal sense, their role as informal learning environments is less well documented. Yet, as custodians for living plant collections that are often displayed in an informal, relaxed way, they are ideal environments in which to demonstrate how important plants and people are to each other but few are taking a visible and active role in this area.

Most botanic gardens are keen to broaden their audiences and challenge the perception that they are the preseve of an elite middle class. However, the evaluation found that such work is patchy and varied considerably across the sector. Enhancing relevance to hard-to-reach communities is an intensive, long term and difficult task and requires people with specific skill sets and experience who are not always found on the staff of botanic gardens. It also requires total organisational commitment.

If botanic gardens are to genuinely reposition themselves and redefine their social purpose more integrated action and further evidence is required. Botanic gardens need to redefine their purpose, mission, value and vision. They need to examine their social and environmental roles and communicate and evidence their value more within and outside the sector. Establishing the defining characteristics of a truly socially relevant botanic garden is a sector-wide task that would be best achieved by active discussion and debate.

Outcomes

Towards a new social purpose: redefining the role of botanic gardens (Summary, 2010) (PDF, 416kb)
Redefining the role of Botanic Gardens - towards a new social purpose (Full report, 2010) (PDF, 1373kb)