It's up for debate

Making Botanical Gardens Better

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I’ve been harping on about the need for improving botanical gardens and making them more interesting without really offering any insight on how to do so. Sort of like how people on Facebook bitch about Obama’s botched health care program or tsk-tsk the current state of lobbyists and corrupt politicians in Washington. Or anything else that’s solely the government’s fault.

Those sardonic librarians...

Oh, those sardonic librarians…

But as I sit here on what could be the eve of my final day as an underground troll holed up in the basement as my gracious benefactor of a landlord hosts a Father’s Day cookout (Happy Father’s Day to everyone, by the by!), I am drawing up a very rough, anything-goes list of ideas while watching the original, first Jurassic Park and stealing them from other websites. The ideas, not the dinosaurs.

Also while learning this

Also while learning this

So, without further a-poo-poo, here are some ideas on how to make botanical gardens more compelling as well as enriching and educational:

1. QR Codes — Although a bit of a newbie myself with QR code–readable mobile apps, I thought that botanical gardens worldwide would’ve immediately taken advantage of this essentially at-your-fingertips textual tour guide (not suggesting to do away with human guides, but more on that later). What’s more is that the institution could create their own info pages linked to these QR codes. During my visit to Tokyo’s glass hothouses, I relied on spotty WiFi and Wikipedia for knowledge on flora I found botanically and historically fascinating — I found it even more incredulous that the gardens hadn’t chosen to highlight these stories…which brings us to the next idea.

2. Stories — Where History and Botany collide. And why shouldn’t they in a botanical garden? Just read this amazing tale summarizing the global impact of a sole slave boy who discovered and shared his knowledge on how to pollinate the vanilla plant. And take in those illustrations! Kid-friendliness aside, botanical gardens could afford to be a little more racy with displays. After all, plants are all about reproduction, which means sex.

How can storytelling work in a botanical garden setting? Take, for instance, the decomposition of an animal, displayed at the Natural History Museum in London: the model demonstrates certain time points of a rabbit’s decomposition in a series of contained displays. Now, consider especially the locality of a botanical garden: here, a display could show the ebb and flow/succession of dominating plants and the external (read: human-caused) factors contributing to the destruction or proliferation of certain exhibited species.

If only we lived in the age of R2D2-projected holograms, these stories could be supplemented with said human factors, the historical figures telling their own part in botanical dramas. And despite my distaste for overly cheesy tour guide actors (I’m talking to you, Ben Franklin of Boston — your autobiography proves that you were a dick), I think this is where tour guides can really enhance the experience, by several playing these parts as a guest meanders through the displays. You know, a hole they’ll fill until we have Star Wars–quality holograms.

And speaking of history, why can’t botanical gardens include pop culture references? Other museums do. I’m talking Triffids, Little Shop of Horrors, Amy Stewart–inspired botanical alcohols — even if this was a separate exhibit at the end of the tour, next to the gift shop, it would provide some fun celebrity and modern-day appeal.

Also, I just think we need to bring back Brendan Fraser

Also, I just think we need to bring back Brendan Fraser

3. Tour Guides — My London experience in 2013 would’ve been quite dry had I not taken the free SANDEMANs tour, led by a witty copycat of Jimmy Carr; the guide was incredibly knowledgeable, improvisational, and funny to boot, and I had no problem quaffing up quite a bit of voluntary tip money at the end of the tour. Perhaps this is one element botanical gardens should try out; if the guide made the experience worthwhile, then open your wallet as wide as you see fit. Also, please hire me.

4. Live Debates — Botany is a field full of controversy and intrigue. Exploit it! Host events that invite scholars, horticulturists, and other fancily named plant enthusiasts to venues at which hot topics are planned in tandem with the garden’s current flowering features.

5. Guest Curiosity and Feedback — This is a favorite of mine because it taps into our childish stage of constant Calvin & Hobbes’ “Whys”. The Socratic method of questioning could be implemented a number of ways: books placed throughout the gardens and in which visitors could pen their questions regarding all-things botanical or perhaps an end-of-tour query box in which anyone can submit their queries, which would be answered via radio show or on a feed on the garden’s website. This, in itself, could lead to more and better-designed exhibits. I daresay it encourages an entirely separate blog post.


I’ll. never. stop. posting.

6. Evening hours — I’m a bit biased, having known of Dale Chihuly’s work beforehand, but I admired Phipps Conservatory’s creative sight in using the glassmaker’s work so exquisitely in its exhibits. Chihuly’s work already wonderfully imitates nature — twining, writhing, and illustriously colored — but what really caught my and, undoubtedly, the public’s attention was the use of lights to accentuate the artist’s sculptures at night.

And although I mistook the venture for a botanical Philip Glass exhibition, I think even a music element might enhance the experience as well.

Look, everyone, I'm in a field of effortless, endlessly repeating crap!

“Look, everyone, I’m in a field of effortless, endlessly repeating crap!”

7. Mysteries and Quests — I’m a huge fan of the PC oldies like Myst, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and Banjo Tooie as well as the Nintendo-created Zelda series. Whatever that makes me, these games share the element of mystery, unlocking one clue after the next, tasks that must be completed, people that must be met, histories and cultures that must be learned and understood. Understanding is seriously lacking in botanical gardens, and although some provide trite little activities for children, such quest-driven games could work for all ages in this setting. Here again, technology can come into play, but, in the meantime, passionate tour guides could be the spark in guest participation just as well.


I understand the limits of botanical gardens, and I’m aware that those I haven’t yet visited might incorporate some of the aforementioned elements in their exhibitions. For those I’ve visited, as botanically interesting to someone who’s botanically interested as can be, perhaps we can up the ante and really jurrasicize (patent pending) the already interesting world of plants.


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