Stimulating botanic gardens’ thinking of their social role – Communities in Nature 1st Workshop 16/02/2012, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

How can botanic gardens reflect on their role in the society, work with their local communities and become more socially relevant? BGCI is supporting four UK botanic gardens to run their community projects during 2012 and through a series of workshops provides training, stimulating presentations and an opportunity for the gardens to meet with each other, learn from each other’s practice and focus their actions on what needs to be done to achieve the project aims. The overall project is entitled Communities in Nature and involves University of Leicester Botanic Garden, Westonbirt The National Arboretum, Bristol Zoo Gardens and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The Partner gardens met for the first time at the workshop, which took place on 16/02/2012 at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. During the 1st workshop Jocelyn Dodd from the Research Centre for Museums and galleries, University of Leicester, suggested key areas that botanic gardens can develop their social role such as broadening their audiences, meeting communities’ needs, providing education, modeling sustainable behavior, and argued that botanic gardens need to redefine their purpose – values and vision by asking themselves: Why we exist? What we believe in? Who we do it for? What we want to achieve? Jocelyn also presented lessons learned from last year community projects run by Ness Botanic Gardens and Winterbourne House and Garden. The evaluation findings showed that the botanic gardens’ social impact comprised a sense of belonging, provision of green spaces and social spaces, learning in a real world environment, incorporating climate change and spiritual benefits. Find more in Growing the social role of botanic gardens – Jocelyn Dodd presentation.

However, changing an organisation’s culture towards a more social responsible role so that the organization will become appealing to diverse groups of the community is a process that is going to take a long time as David Flemming, Director of National Museums Liverpool explained. David presented during the workshop how museums of Liverpool managed to increase significantly the numbers of visitors in a decade by growing their social role. He argued, “the socio-economic condition of Liverpool and the surrounding area are defining factors for how my museum service should organise itself”. One of the important steps for organizational change is looking at the current mission and values of the museum. David Flemming encouraged the botanic gardens staff that participated in the 1st workshop to reflect on their own organisation’s policy and practice through a visioning and characterization exercise. Staff from the botanic gardens participated in the visioning exercise by thinking of 20-30 words that capture their organization. Then the participants moved to the characterization exercise. They had to answer the question: Imagine if your organization would be a person, who would it be? We recommend trying out the visioning and characterization exercises in your own institution as a first step for bringing organizational change.

Another important step in growing a botanic garden’s social role is engaging with the local communities, understanding their needs and involving them in developing and running the community projects. There are different levels of community engagement in a project (see figure below) and a variety of engagement methods that can be used to achieve this. During the Communities in Nature 1st workshop BGCI presented to the Partner Gardens different community engagement methods which they had to rank based on how relevant they regarded them for their projects (diamond ranking activity). This is a useful exercise for botanic gardens staff to start thinking about how and when they may engage their local community to ensure their active participation in a project.

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