Saturday, 31 January 2015




When does your museum visit start: when you walk in the door? Are the liminal spaces, such as lawns, gardens and other landscape features part of the exhibit or the fa├žade? The landscape of a museum should be recognized as a part of the exhibit space, a peripheral place where unique things happen and escape of a different nature is facilitated. Some have been waiting for this movement in Museology for a very long time.
Getty Villa Gardens
Getty Villa Gardens

Gardens are a particular feature I find exceedingly delightful, especially if they have enchanting pockets and places in which to hide amongst the lush greenery and floral scents. It is always wonderful to find little secret benches and enclosed alcoves; it appeals to the part of me that thinks I have discovered something and a part of this museum is mine alone. A very astute blog post explored this notion of the joy and visitor loyalty it inspires to find a special place that feels like a personal refuge within a large institution. If museums are charged with providing a space for everyone, or at least trying cultivate a dialogic environment that appeals to many, is not a tranquil place to relax and ruminate an important consideration? Nature often inspires reflection. Not just upon itself, but acts as a welcoming environment that (persuasively) whispers, “Come, think deep thoughts.”

Another delightful thing about museum gardens is that they often hold some of the most interesting exhibits. Such as Dwarves. Or many, many gnomes. The York Museum Gardens near the Abbey Ruins showcases sarcophagi, not lined up as one is used to seeing them, but propped in the oddest positions as decorative features. The local community thinks it is a delightful way to repurpose and enliven the ruins, which have now become a popular walking spot.

Gnome Reserve Museum
Gnome Reserve Museum

If we look at gardens as simply another exhibit space, we see how they reflect the nature of their host museum; they can be reminiscent of absolutist control over nature, a utilitarian collection of useful plants and herbs, or an oasis of tranquility in the midst of a busy urban landscape. Heritage homes commonly have ‘Grounds’ with sprawling lawns and kitchen gardens. Herbs, flowers, pruning and architecture reflect the tastes and uses of the historic house. For example, the gardens of the Getty Villa are historically reconstructed to resemble an elite Roman villa.

Heritage gardens are also common, perhaps most spectacularly at Versailles, or more humbly in homesteads such as those in BC, and the workhouse kitchens of the Ripon Museums in the UK. They are also wonderful for showcasing the landscape aesthetic of other cultures, or even the particular plant environment of an older era. The Royal Museum of Physicians includes the famed medicinal gardens, teaching visitors on historical medicinal uses for their plants.

Similarly, the Cloisters Museum in NY uses their beautiful gardens to illustrate which medieval plants and botanical motifs that were commonly found in tapestries, art and ornaments. Visitors can learn about the lively folkloric beliefs, medicinal uses and recipes in which these plants were included. The lush, peaceful gardens also serve as a wonderful enhancement to the museum’s atmosphere.

Morikami Museum and Garden
Morikami Museum and Garden

Mandates, such as the Smithsonian Gardens’, prioritize education and compliment the museum experience: “To enrich the Smithsonian experience through exceptional gardens, horticultural exhibits, collections, and education.” Like the Smithsonian, the Horniman Museum utilizes its gardens like an outdoor classroom, with not only an insect reserve and living natural history exhibit, but also as a soundscape exhibit for school groups. Other gardens serve as temporary exhibition spaces, such as the Hermitage Museum and Gardens, which hosts a variety of community programming.

Museums should strive to follow these examples and utilize their landscapes as exciting and usable spaces to enrich the museum experience. Gardens and liminal landscapes are commonly overlooked as active gallery spaces, and should be recognized as much more than simply a front yard.

Check out a previous post that also explores how The Butchart Gardens fit within the museum framework.

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