Kew Gardens director hits back at claims it is 'growing woke'

The head of one of Britain’s largest botanic gardens has hit back at claims that the publicly funded institution is “growing woke”, saying it could no longer stay silent on Britain’s colonial exploitative history and modern-day race issues.

In its 10-year manifesto, Kew Gardens outlined five key priorities, including having honest conversations about its links to imperialism and colonialism, and helping to tackle the biodiversity crisis.

Shortly after its release, the manifesto – which contained a pledge to “decolonise” the garden’s collections by acknowledging and addressing “exploitative and racist legacies” – drew criticism for being woke. The Tory MP Sir John Hayes described it as “preposterous posturing by people who are so out of touch with the sentiment of patriotic Britain”.

But the director, Richard Deverell, said the manifesto signalled one of the most fundamental periods of change in the history of the world-famous botanic garden in London and to stay silent on issues of race could be seen as being complicit.

Describing it as a “fork in the road moment”, Deverell said the outpouring of grief around the world after the killing of George Floyd brought into focus deep-rooted and longstanding injustices faced by black people.

Deverell said Kew, as an institution, could not stand aside. “Like so many other organisations, parts of Kew’s history shamefully draw from a legacy that has deep roots in colonialism and racism,“ 他说. “Much of Kew’s work in the 19th century focused on the movement of valuable plants around the British empire for agriculture and trade, which of course means that some key figures in our past and items still in our collections are linked to colonialism.”

Deverell, the 17th director of the Royal Botanic Gardens since 1841, alongside the board of trustees vowed to “decolonise” its collections. Currently, the gardens botany collection contains plant specimens that were obtained under colonial and exploitative conditions in many parts of the world including Asia and Africa. Display boards at the gardens will be changed to give further information on plants such as sugar and rubber, in order to reflect their links to slavery and colonialism.

“For more than 260 年, scientists from Kew have explored every corner of the world documenting the rich diversity of plants and fungi. We were beacons of discovery and science, but also beacons of privilege and exploitation,” Deverell said.

他加了: “There is no acceptable neutral position on this subject; to stay silent is to be complicit. Each of us needs to step up to tackle injustices in our society and our organisations.

“We have been a bit lazy with our language in the past. 例如, we describe many plants as being ‘discovered’ by western botanists and explorers but many of these plants had been used by indigenous communities for thousands of years already so it’s about making sure that detail, that historical context, is in there.”

In the recently published 36-page Manifesto for Change, Kew declared that it would increase tenfold the number of visitors from presently under-represented communities to the gardens and “ensure the diverse countries and cultures that partner with RBG Kew and contribute to our collections are accurately and equitably represented”.

It said: “We will move quickly to ‘decolonise’ our collections, re-examining them to acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies, and develop new narratives around them.”

As well as broadening the narrative around plants, Deverell said there would be a move to increase diversity among senior staff. The institution does not have a record of the number of people from ethnic minority groups that it employs.

“We need to make sure that people do not feel intimidated by the Victorian wrought iron gates of Kew. At the moment we have too few role models from minority backgrounds and that is something we will definitely work towards addressing in the next 10 年,“ 他说.

在一个 recent podcast entitled “Dirt on our hands: overcoming botany’s hidden legacy of inequality”, released as part of the gardens Unearthed series, the author and BBC broadcaster James Wong explored the histories of inequality and racism that lie behind the seemingly democratic and wholesome world of plants.

During the recording, Wong, who is of half-Malaysian heritage, describes how visitors to the Chelsea flower show made assumptions that he would only be interested in tropical gardens and complimented him on his “wonderful English”.

Advolly Richmond, a garden historian and presenter on the BBC programme Gardeners’ World, described similar experiences. “I always get double takes, sometimes third takes,“ 她说. “Sometimes I am the only black face in many, many situations to do with gardens and gardening. And I have been followed around a particular property’s shop. Sometimes it’s really, really difficult to feel comfortable in gardens … and this is me speaking as a qualified garden historian who teaches garden history,“ 她说.

In conversation with Deverell on the path ahead, the Kew botanist Sophie Richards, who is of Caribbean heritage, adds: “I think the history is very sanitised … it tells a story of usually white British elite people. There is so much more and I don’t think you can fully tell the history if you don’t mention the British empire and slavery. You can’t tell British history without talking about different ethnic groups because the empire was so large it encompassed so many different people.”

“Kew has this amazing opportunity,” Richard says. “We can tell the story of the British empire in a way that museums can’t – we can tell it through living things. We shouldn’t forget that plants were central to the running of the British empire.”

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