Plants & Culture


of an Exhibition

by Wendy Pollock

Published on January 03, 2008

  • Description:

    One of the lesser-known roles of the U.S. Congress is operating the U.S. Botanic Garden, located just down the hill from the Capitol Building. When I visited the other day in search of a mid-winter infusion of green, I encountered abundant poinsettias and crowds of visitors. But beyond the poinsettias, there’s also a new exhibition called Plants in Culture(another, How Plants Work: A Guide to Being Green, is at the other end of the building).

    In Plants in Culture, banners proclaim three “big ideas”: Plants are the seeds of our inspiration; plants are central to our languages, cultures, customs, and cuisines; and plants express our sense of who we are. A central area marked off by big tree-trunk columns (meant to evoke a temple, according to the website) provides a place to sit down. Exhibits use varied formats, there isn’t too much to do, and the “big ideas” are reinforced by different displays. Thinking of the Excellent Judges framework, the exhibition was clearly created with care.

    But is this enough? Yes and no. In the “temple,” quotations on signs are augmented, somewhat eerily, via audio that emanates from the trees (“Don’t let the grass grow under your feet,” a voice says; “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” says another). Most visitors don’t seem to notice. A display of postcards suggests important qualities of gardens—a nice idea, familiar but fresh—but the cranks and flip labels may attract more attention than the cards themselves. The same is true at three table displays, each of which uses a different style of text display—flip labels, rotating cylinders, even a three-part circular device that turns to reveal text and specimens. And a video display hidden in the heart of a big metal daisy seems to be going too far in the search for multiple formats.

    But another field of flowers seems to attract groups young and old. Here, the extravagant flowers hold samples of spices and herbs; plex covers with holes invite sniffing. Groupings around food styles (like Cajun) seemed to be stimulating sharing, instruction, and conversation. Because the “flowers” are in groups and at different heights, they’re easy for groups to use. (Another area with table displays also has things to sniff. But while it looks intriguing, it isn’t so readily apparent what to do.)

    Gardens start with inherent appeal—just listen to everyone exclaiming over a bunch of ripening bananas or a particularly beautiful orchid. I’m left puzzling about the challenges of developing exhibits that meaningfully extend the direct experience of the plants themselves.

Latest Comments (3)

Interactive Plant Exhibits

by Paul Orselli - January 05, 2008

Nice review, Wendy.

It’s interesting to see the growing interest (and practice) of interactive exhibitry in botanical gardens.

I wonder what other traditionally “hands off” museum genres (especially Natural History museums) could learn from the “growing field” of botanically-focused interactives?

An ASTC RAP at the Huntington perhaps?

interesting idea

by Kathleen Mclean - January 05, 2008

Thanks for the review Wendy. I rarely hear about exhibits at botanic gardens, and gardens are my passion. I agree with Paul that it might be a good idea to look at several different approaches. The exhibition at the Huntington—“Plants Are Up to Something” took a very different approach. For example, they made a conscious decision NOT to use any models of plants—only real plants, real tools, real science.

plant exhibits

by Eric Siegel - January 11, 2008

Thanks for the review, wendy. I worked at NY Botanical Garden for several years, and was involved, along with Sheila Grinnell and others, in the Children’s Adventure Project. This is a very large—several acre—children’s exhibit that was the vision of Catherine Eberbach who led the project. It was incredibly difficult to get off the ground for all kinds of reasons, not least of which was the curatorial concern that if kids are encouraged to touch plants in one place, they would tear up the whole peapatch. Catherine stuck to her guns, for example insisting on using a rich pallette of real plants, and what was built was very close to the original conception. I recently visited it, nearly a decade after it opened, and was exhilarated to see how beautiful, inviting, accessible, and active it has become.

We also got NEH funding to do site interpretation at NYBG. Richard Rabinowitz helped us come up with a brilliant and exciting scheme. I was project director for that, and did not have nearly the success Catherine had in realizing the original vision.

The exhibition program in the NYBG Conservatory is also quite well developed and worth looking at.

Happy New Year, you all.


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