Education, Education, Education: Changing Gardens
Botanic Gardens and education go hand-in-trowel (or hand-in-microscope) and have a long interconnected history. The raison d’être of a Botanic Garden – as opposed to a park or pleasure garden – is that in a Botanic Garden plant collections are identified, labelled and studied. Modern botanic gardens developed from European physic gardens and were devised to supply medicinal herbs and plants to those studying the emerging science. These early physic gardens went hand-in-scalpel with the development of modern medicine and surgery. During the seventeenth century, Britain’s first physic garden was founded at Oxford in 1621. This was followed by Chelsea Physic Garden, known as the ‘Garden of the Society of Apothecaries’, in 1673. Cambridge University’s own physic garden, was inspired by Chelsea and founded in 1762 for use by student physicians studying at the University.
By the early 19th-century, the small city centre garden had been outgrown and its scientific focus had shifted. A new 38-acres site was selected by John Stevens Henslow, fourth Professor of Botany (1825 – 1861) at Cambridge University. This new Botanic Garden reflected the development in the new discipline of botany and plant sciences during at that period. This new Botanic Garden was developed in two phases – in the mid-19th century and the mid-20th century – and echo the changes in the philosophy and approach to plants and the environment.
There are still strong connections between the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and plants grown for their active medicinal properties through the plant science facilities and experimental beds, as well as public displays such as ‘Healthy Herbie’. This latter planting was created in 2002 to educate the public about plant diversity, sustainability and conservation as well as plants with medicinal properties. Pharmacological plants are arranged in a person-shaped display in association with different parts of the body. For example, willow bark, which contains salicylic acid – an active ingredient in aspirin – grows in Herbie’s head.
Today, in addition to being a sub-department of the University’s Department of Plant Sciences, the Botanic Garden’s own education department runs an active programmes of talks, courses, workshops and activities throughout the year. These include school and educational visits, family activities, as well as adult courses on both horticultural and creative subjects.
In May this year, former staff of the Gardens gathered for their annual general CUBGA meeting. This year, a display of photographs from the archives and posters was set up in the Education classroom. These detailed the two oral history projects – Changing Perspectives and Voicing the Garden. CUBGA members were invited to help identify the names of former staff who had trained or worked at the Garden since the 1950s in a selection of annual staff photographs and other archival images. During the day, a number of oral history interviews were conducted by a team of staff volunteers. Many interesting stories, photographs and unknown ‘treasures’ emerged. For example, Peter Spencer (pictured left), a trainee in the 1950s, kept a work diary during his year in the garden which he offered to share with the projects. Peter became a professional fruit grower in Sussex and still returns to the Botanic Garden on Apple Days to provide advice about the selection and growing of apples.
This year’s third Festival of Plants was held on a rather chilly Saturday 18th May. The Festival provided an opportunity to talk to the general public and Friends of the Garden about the two history projects. Juliet Day, Development Officer, set up two interview gazebos to interview those who wished to be participate in Voicing the Garden. A larger marquee near to the Trumpington Road entrance displayed archival photographs, posters and leaflets about the Changing Perspectives and Voicing the Garden projects.Staff and visitors had a chance to scroll through the draft timeline of the Garden’s events on an iPad. This digital timeline is be uploaded onto the Changing Perspectives website in the autumn.