The Guardian view on botanical gardens: inextricably linked to empire

For those fortunate enough to live within reach of one of them, the UK’s botanical gardens have provided a remarkable escape from the travails of the pandemic. From Belfast’s Botanic Gardens to the Royal Botanic Garden in Benmore, to the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Llanarthne and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, they have given visitors precious space, greenery and fresh air. As spring arrives in its fickle fits and starts, they provide breathtaking displays of seasonal flora: at Kew, carpets of sky-blue scilla and groves of flowering magnolia; at Benmore, tides of rhododendrons.

But botanical gardens are not just green spaces for exercise and diversion. Indeed, in the past they have most frequently been framed as mainly scientific institutions, important hubs of botanical research. The appeal to “science” often lends a kind of implied political and social neutrality to these institutions. But they are far from apolitical. Science, of course, is as susceptible to prejudice and politics as any other human endeavour. And when botanical gardens are properly considered as cultural spaces, not just scientific ones, their role in history and society becomes more complex.

Botanical gardens can also be thought of as museums. For the taxonomist, a botanical garden is the place to examine subtle variations between, say, fern species, just as a museum is the place to scrutinise the typologies of, say, ancient Greek pottery. The origin of the modern, publicly accountable museum lies in the cabinet of curiosities – collections of privately assembled artefacts, designed for the pleasure and edification of an elite few. Botanical gardens developed in an analogous fashion. And, like museums, their histories are inextricably entwined with imperialism. “Exotic” plants were collected not just for aesthetic reasons, but with economic purposes in mind. When botanical gardens have offered visitors a narrative of the white man’s supposed “discovery” of species, they have obliterated longer and richer cultural histories of humans’ relationships with plants.

Kew Gardens has recently published a 10-year plan, which places a need to decolonise its collections, expand its reach into underserved communities and train a diverse new generation of plant scientists and botanists alongside an urgent mission to help in the fight to restore biodiversity in the face of unprecedented environmental destruction. The institution has rightly understood that these impulses cannot be separated: they all go together. Predictably, its plan has been condemned as “woke” in certain rightwing quarters. Kew should ignore the noise of Tories obsessed with culture wars and forge ahead with its ambitions. Opening out botanical gardens, and deepening the understanding of their historical purpose, is something that will enrich the experiences of audiences and visitors. And the lovely green spaces will still be a joy to those who encounter them.

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