Growing the social role of European botanic gardens – lessons from a workshop in Prague

Prague Botanic Garden

How can botanic gardens be motivated to reach wider audiences? …How can we incorporate and address social issues more strongly? …And how can botanic gardens work together to grow their social role at a European level?

These are just some of the questions on the agenda at a workshop last month which focused on Growing the Social Role of Botanic Gardens in Europe.

The workshop involved 25 participants representing 22 countries.

The workshop involved 25 participants representing 22 countries.

Held in Prague, Czech Republic on Friday 24th May 2013, the workshop involved 25 participants representing 22 countries. Through a series of small group discussions, attendees explored the challenges and opportunities faced by gardens when expanding their levels of social inclusion, and a plenary session explored how BGCI could collaborate with the European Consortium of Botanic Gardens to further develop this work.

Developing Public Institutions Accessible to All

The workshop began with a motivating lecture from Dr David Fleming, Director of the National Museums Liverpool, which highlighted key drivers of change in museums, their responsibility to meet societal needs, and, most importantly, some top tips on how to initiate change and grow the social role of such institutions.

Founded in 1851, there are 8 museums that form part of the National Museums Liverpool: the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Walker Art Gallery, World Museum, Museum of Liverpool, Seized!, Sudley House, Merseyside Maritime Museum, and the International Slavery Museum.

A key emphasis of Dr Fleming’s talk was the strong responsibility that Museums have to society (especially since many of them are in some way public-funded). They must therefore meet the needs of the public, with education holding paramount importance. In order to achieve this, museums must:

1)      Be passionate – it is impossible to appeal to your audience without demonstrating a passion for your given subject. You should possess a drive and conscience to open up your discipline to wider public.
2)      Take positive action – analyse the problems you face and find solutions
3)      Understand their environment – You need to understand why people in your location do not visit (e.g social contexts, logistics such as transport)

As one of the most deprived areas in the UK, Liverpool’s socio-economic conditions are defining factors of how the museum service should be managed. The NML mission is to change lives by enabling millions of people, from all backgrounds, to engage with their world-class museums. This ambitious and inspiring objective motivates the whole team at NML and they truly believe they can achieve it.

Whilst the role of museums has traditionally been of an economic, research and social focus, Fleming argued that in order to progress and develop their social role, institutions such as these need:

  • A socially responsible mission
  • Staff that are able to take risks – by eliminating “blame culture” in the workplace
  • To regard change as a GOOD thing
  • To research their audiences – Actively seek out people who do not visit.
Dr David Fleming's talk highlighted key drivers of change in museums, their responsibility to meet societal needs, and, most importantly, some top tips on how to initiate change and grow the social role of such institutions.

Dr David Fleming’s talk highlighted key drivers of change in museums, their responsibility to meet societal needs, and, most importantly, some top tips on how to initiate change and grow the social role of such institutions.

Dr. Fleming then ended his presentation with some brilliant Top Tips for initiating such fundamental changes:

1)      Get a director who is a reformer
2)      Find out what the staff think about the organisation – make them feel involved in changes and enable them to shape the organisation’s direction.
3)      Analyse your external environment Be alert to social, economic and technological change to ensure they remain relevant. What do people think of you? Do they know you exist?
4)      Create a strategic plan – piece together motivational values and mission. Consult with the staff – they need to love the plan, so fill it with THEIR ideas.
5)      Restructure, if necessary, in order to break silos/staff divisions, and minimize damage from those who resist change.

Challenges and opportunities for European botanic gardens in developing their social role

Julia Willison, Director of Education, BGCI,  then gave a talk on Growing the Social Role of Botanic Gardens, including the various change inhibitors and forces for change towards botanic gardens having a greater social role and responsibility. This was followed by an evaluation of the social and environmental impacts of the Communities in Nature projects by BGCI’s Education Programme Coordinator, Dr Asimina Vergou.

Participants were then divided into small groups and asked to examine the inhibitors to change in botanic gardens, and to select the five barriers they considered most relevant to the gardens in their countries.

Group discussions

The Top 5 barriers identified were:

  1. A lack of capacity and skills / limited diversity of workforce.
  2. Limited funding. It was recognized, however, that whilst funding is currently seen as a barrier to these kinds of projects, growing a social role does open up opportunities for new sources of funding.
  3. Limited motivation & awareness of relevance of social role.
  4. An historical fixed mentality & reluctance to change often perpetuated by management hierarchy/governing bodies. Botanic gardens are often part of a larger historical context e.g. University gardens, City Gardens, Federal Gardens hence they cannot decide for themselves for changes and use of funds, they always have to ask for approval.
  5. Gardens being too focused and inward-looking. There is an embedded attitude that what botanic gardens have should be protected as it is, and not changed.

It was also stated that botanic gardens should not change for the society but should engage in a dialogue with the society aiming for a common change (change with rather than for the society).

Reflection & discussion – BGCI survey results

A BGCI survey was conducted to identify the state of the socially relevant activities of botanic gardens across Europe. The results were used during the meeting to stimulate discussions on the following issues regarding scaling up social inclusion work in botanic gardens:

  1. How can we share the expertise and resources of botanic gardens in Europe who have already developed their social role?
  2. How can botanic gardens be motivated to reach wider audiences?
  3. How can we encourage botanic gardens to carry out audience research and what support do they need?
  4. How do botanic gardens move from working with current audiences to include under-represented groups?
  5. How can we incorporate and address social issues more strongly?

Participants then brainstormed, in small groups:

  • How can botanic gardens work together to grow their social role at a European level?
Group discussions

Brainstorming collaboration between European botanic gardens carrying out social inclusion work.

The workshop revealed that several European botanic gardens are already conducting socially relevant work and that there is a significant interest among European gardens to develop this work further. However, it needs to be recognised that the governance of gardens differs widely and this may inhibit some gardens in developing their social role. Gathering evidence of past and present social inclusion activities in botanic gardens and their impact was considered of paramount importance for building future work.

Social Inclusion at Prague Botanic Garden – working with visually impaired visitors

At the end of the discussions a presentation from Prague Botanic Garden showcased how the garden is working to become more inclusive by working with people with visual impairments. The workshop was followed by a visit to the garden and the interactive, tactile exhibit that was designed and developed in collaboration with people who are visually impaired. The gallery below shows some photos from the exhibit:

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Collect, Collaborate, Communicate

After a great deal of stimulating discussion, the following recommendations were agreed upon:

  1. Collect information on the social inclusion work of botanic gardens and its impact and compile a report with the evidence
  2. Formulate a list of arguments for the need of social inclusion work by botanic gardens.
  3. Use the evidence gathered for:
    a. raising the profile of botanic gardens externally.
    b. fundraising.
    c. sharing good practice within the garden community and raise the profile of social inclusion work internally.
  4. Collaborate with gardens on developing projects - BGCI has offered to brainstorm project ideas and disseminate a document to the consortium for feedback.
  5. Develop a coherent strategy for growing the social role of botanic gardens within Europe. Map out what is already happening, identify the strengths and weaknesses in this field of work, identify the gaps to develop further this work, and develop a common vocabulary for communications and working together. Ensure that among gardens there is knowledge of what is already happening, where they can link and how they can interact.
  6. Include a chapter on the Social Role of Botanic Gardens in the newly revised European Action plan with case studies and recommendations for the work of botanic gardens - BGCI Education has been invited to lead a working group within the Consortium to write this chapter of the action plan.

This workshop has highlighted the diverse range of challenges European gardens face when seeking to grow their social role. By understanding these limitations and communicating methods of best practice, botanic gardens are in a much stronger position to support each other in initiating real change with their communities for the enduring benefit of society, the gardens themselves and towards a sustainable future for our planet. We look forward to seeing the social role of gardens grow across Europe as we share our expanding knowledge and experience, putting gardens on the map as recognised forces for positive environmental and social change.

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One thought on “Growing the social role of European botanic gardens – lessons from a workshop in Prague

  1. Pingback: Europe’s Largest Botanical Garden | moderndayruth

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