These Aren’t Your Grandma’s Flower Beds: How Botanical Gardens are Cultivating New Audiences

Ashleigh Hibbins - Museum Professional

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Spring is in the air, and Mother Nature is strutting her stuff at your local botanical garden.

Not everyone thinks botanical garden when they hear the word ‘museum’, but they actually share a lot of similarities: from changing exhibitions, to guided tours, to fascinating histories, and amazing (living) collections.

So why aren’t these galleries of greenery part of the traditional museum tourist circuit?

Some experts suggest that in the past, many potential visitors saw botanical gardens as beautiful places, but weren’t necessarily aware of their fascinating cultural heritage and scientific research.

Botanical gardens are taking this audience development challenge by the rose thorns by trying new programs and strategies that attract new audiences. In the process, they’re changing public perception of what a garden can be. Here are some of the museum trends that are flourishing in botanical gardens right now:

Tastier than topiaries

Food and drink-themed events are always crowd-pleasers, and botanical gardens are especially well-placed to deliver unique and tasty experiences. Chelsea Physic Garden is the oldest botanical garden in London, cultivating thousands of edible and medicinal plants since 1673. So it makes perfect sense that they’re trying a refreshing twist on botany this year by exploring the plants that make our favorite drinks – from herbal teas to G&Ts. A few thousand miles to the east, Singapore Botanic Gardens also runs workshops on cooking and healing with herbs and spices. We can’t think of a better place to satisfy our craving for knowledge than a botanical garden.

Singapore Botanical Garden. Credit: Edwin.11 via Flickr.

Going nocturnal

You might think a garden wouldn’t be the best place to visit after dark – but you’d be wrong. Botanical gardens are oases for nocturnal flora and fauna, not to mention they make amazing backdrops for light shows, stargazing, and an after-dusk cocktail or two. Urban gardens like Brooklyn Botanic Garden are attracting a growing audience of younger night owls (the human kind) by organizing evening events. The BBG is experimenting with late openings for the first time this year, enticing an after-work crowd with cocktails, dinner, and sunset views. Late openings at botanical gardens are a growing international trend – on the other side of the world, The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney runs nocturnal animal adventures and ghost tours after dark.

Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Credit: Dan via Flickr.

Acing accessibility

The museum sector is doing more than ever before to increase access for disabled visitors, but there is still a long way to go. Many botanical gardens are industry leaders in increasing accessibility. For example, Berlin’s Dahlem Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum is not only fully wheelchair accessible but also has a Fragrance and Touch Garden specifically designed for visually-impaired visitors. The Gardens of Trauttmansdorff Castle in Italy also offer botanical sensory tours, ‘barrier-free’ facilities, and a free entry scheme for disabled visitors.

Globally, about 15% of people have a disability. Botanical gardens around the world are demonstrating that increasing access isn’t just the right thing to do – supporting more people to visit also makes sound business sense.

Dahlem Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum. Credit: Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr.

From pollination to education

Botanical gardens aren’t just relaxing spots to attain spiritual enlightenment – they’re also a great place to gain practical knowledge in biology, horticulture, design, and more. Botanical gardens around the world are using their natural assets to become sector leaders in adult learning education courses. Take inspiration from VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, which offers adult learning courses in topics as diverse as flower photography, fruit tree cultivation, and yoga. Or for a more local culture approach, check out Royal Botanic Garden Sydney’s workshops on Aboriginal art, cooking, and heritage.

Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. Credit: Maksym Kozlenko via Wikimedia Commons.

With new ideas for engaging audiences sprouting up around the world, botanical gardens are really starting to blossom. They may not always look or feel like typical museums, but gardens offer the same quality of amazing stories and place-based experiences as their less flower-powered cousins.

If you’re looking for more stories about botanical gardens, check out these case studies on our work with some of the best in the biz!

Do you know a botanical garden doing something awesome? Share it with us!

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