I just got back from a week-long interpretation workshop sponsored and hosted by the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, CA. Everything about it was great…the weather, the people, the location, all of it.
There were 10 of us in attendance (5 men and 5 women) from all across the country (NH, CT, MI, WI, IL NC, IA, CA, VA). Most were from other public gardens, a couple were from science centers, and one was from a natural history museum. Coincidentally, one of the attendees was a former colleague from my days at Norfolk Botanical Garden in Virginia – small world.
The Huntington is a national treasure. Part library, part art gallery, part botanical garden, its various collections are both significant and cherished. The 200 acre site and its handful of buildings is the former estate of Henry Huntington. With the help of his right hand man William Hertrich, Huntington spent the first half of the 20th century converting this former citrus farm into the impeccably kept grounds one sees today. With over 14,000 different varieties of plants showcased in more than a dozen unique garden areas, a week is hardly enough time to take it all in, but I had fun trying.
In 2006, work was completed on a 2000 square-foot, multimillion dollar glass conservatory that enabled the Huntington to expand their plant collection to include exotic tropicals and afforded an excellent opportunity for year-round educational interpretation. The exhibition featured in the conservatory, “Plants Are Up to Something”, won top honors from the American Associations of Museums in 2007. The space itself was the brain-child of Jim Folsom, the Director of the gardens, while the success of the exhibition was due in large part to the hard work and careful planning of Kitty Connolly, one of our workshop leaders. Rachel Vourlas, the other leader, worked as a gardener during the installation and was responsible for planting much of what can be seen thriving in there today.
Kitty is a strong proponent of interactivity when it comes to exhibits, and this m.o. was apparent in the format of our workshop as well. The first couple days consisted of a general overview of museum exhibitions, including several presentations from guest interpreter extraordinaire, Beverly Serrel, who has been in the biz for 40 years and quite literally written the book(s) on the subject. During this time we also got a behind the scenes look at the “Plants Are Up to Something” for inspiration.
For the next couple days we were each assigned a partner and asked to develop a prototype for an exhibit intended to go live at one of our own sites. I was paired with Jan from the Sarah P. Duke Garden, the “crown jewel of Duke University”, and we decided to work on an exhibit I’ve proposed to install at UWBG that aims to engage citizen scientists with the phenology of local native plants.
On Saturday, we were given the opportunity to try out our prototypes on actual Huntington visitors. This experience was a little nerve-racking, a lot of fun, and provided extremely valuable insights into the minds of our audience. If you’re interested in being a guinea pig, be on the lookout in the coming months for a prototype near you!
Our final 2 days were spent diving deeper into what goes into making a successful exhibition, and one evaluation technique developed by Beverly called Excellent Judges. We used one of the Huntington’s own exhibitions, “Beautiful Science”, to try it out. While sharing our individual impressions over a dim-sum lunch, what struck me most was the wide range of opinions amongst the group. Beauty (and in this case science) truly is in the eye of the beholder.
The take-home that I bring back is that it is an impossible task to create an exhibition that pleases everybody, and any attempt to do so is an exercise in futility. That said, museum exhibitions are important tools in bridging the academic world with the world that most of us live in. They enable us to reach so many more people than programs and tours and use our collections to better pursue our mission. The mission of the UWBG is to sustain managed to natural ecosystems through plant research, display and education. With this mission in mind, in the coming year we will be developing a series of interpretive loops at the Washington Park Arboretum, and if funding can be secured, we look forward to bringing these to you in the not too distant future…stay tuned.