Botanic gardens have key 21st Century social and environmental role, claims major new report

Posted by vm64 at Oct 14, 2010 10:05 AM |
University of Leicester School of Museum Studies examines the social role of botanic gardens

Issued by Botanic Gardens Conservation International on 14 October 2010

Botanic gardens have vast untapped potential as agents of social and environmental action, claims a groundbreaking new study commissioned by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). This is especially true in addressing pressing concerns like global climate change. But, the report argues, while organisations elsewhere across the cultural sector are re-evaluating their social and environmental roles, many gardens lack the capacity or motivation to do so, or even understand what their social roles really are.

“It’s a sobering assessment,” agrees BGCI Director of Education, Julia Willison, “but also a wake-up call to all of us in the botanic garden community that there’s so much more we can do to meet our social and environmental responsibilities.”

Funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and carried out by the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), the research focused on the social role of botanic gardens in the UK.

“We wanted to clarify the situation in respect of UK gardens,” says Julia Willison, “but we were also aware of its potential value to the botanic garden community at large.”

The BGCI/Leicester study revealed common agreement among botanic gardens that they needed to develop in a number of key areas. These included broadening their appeal beyond their traditional white, middle class constituencies and more effectively addressing the needs of their local communities. Education, modelling sustainable behaviour and changing attitudes and behaviours to the natural world were also seen as priorities. Gardens recognised the socio-economic importance of their research activities, in developing medicines and hardier crops for example, or setting up seed banks and pioneering conservation strategies. And on climate change, they shared the scientific consensus on the climate change threat.

But these shared aspirations, the report argues, were not in most cases matched by effective action because, historically, the gardens have rarely been required to consider their public roles, analyse their organisational structures or demonstrate their social worth to their governing bodies. As a result, says the report, ‘small workforces and a lack of staff with specialist experience in social and community-based work lead to a lack of broader vision and an inward focus upon collections which is not conducive to community engagement.’ This was compounded by traditional management hierarchies, often dominated by people with scientific or horticultural backgrounds, who were often reluctant to take up overtly political or campaigning positions, for example on climate change.

One of the few exceptions to the rule was Oxford University Botanic Garden, which closely aligned its practices to the overall educational objectives of its parent organisation. And challenging the conventional model was the Eden Project, which was imbued with a strong social mission from its inception.

Another major impediment is highlighted by the report, namely the lack of long-term research into who uses botanic gardens and why. Without understanding the impact they have, concludes the report, “botanic gardens will not see the real value of the work they do or be able to communicate their value to external audiences and funding bodies.” 

But with many gardens relying for their survival on public funding, their public accountability is growing, with site development and broader audience engagement becoming increasingly important benchmarks.

The report recommends that botanic gardens re-evaluate their social and environmental roles within a modern framework of values, mission and vision and urges them to work together, through partnerships and networking organisations like BGCI to face the environmental and social challenges of the 21st Century.

Building on this research and with the continued support of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, BGCI is now working with RCMG to promote the social role of botanic gardens throughout the UK. They are collaborating with an initial group of three gardens to frame new values, goals and practices designed to unlock their potential for encouraging positive social change and raising environmental awareness, especially about climate change. 



‘Redefining the role of Botanic Gardens: Towards a new social purpose’ (

1. About BGCI

Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI)
Descanso House
199 Kew Road
Richmond Surrey TW9 3BW
Tel 020 8332 5953

BGCI is the largest international network of botanic gardens and related institutions working collectively for plant conservation and environmental education.  Its mission is “to mobilise botanic gardens and engage partners in securing plant diversity for the well-being of people and the planet.” 

Established in 1987 and with over 700 members drawn from almost 120 countries, BGCI provides technical and policy guidance as well as regular up to date information through its newsletters, magazines, conferences and courses.  From influencing government policies and priorities to encouraging grassroots action, BGCI’s global reach and professional expertise enables it to achieve real conservation milestones.  For further information, go to

For all media enquiries, contact Julia Willison, Director of Education on 020 8832 5942 or e-mail at:

2. About the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG)

Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG), School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.

Based in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, The Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) researches into the social role, impact and agency of museums and galleries, focusing on themes of disability, representation, education and learning. The Centre works closely with cultural organisations to reflect on practice, report on the impact of practice, and, ultimately, improve practice. Its vision is to make museums inclusive, challenge prejudice, inspire learning and be relevant in contemporary society.

The RCMG works with a range of organisations, museums, galleries, libraries, archives, and botanic gardens.

For further information, contact Jocelyn Dodd, Director
Tel: +44 (0)116 252 3995

3. About Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation

The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is a charitable foundation established in Portugal in 1956 with cultural, educational, social and scientific interests. The Foundation’s Headquarters are in Lisbon with offices in London (the UK Branch) and Paris. The purpose of the UK Branch is to help enrich and connect the experiences of people in the UK and Ireland and secure lasting and beneficial change in their lives. The Foundation has a special interest in supporting those who are most disadvantaged.

Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
(UK Branch)
50 Hoxton Square
London N1 6PB
T +44 (0)20 7012 1400 or 0845 872 9930
F +44 (0)20 7739 1961

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