Thursday, 8 January 2015

THE CURATED GARDEN: A MUSEUM?

MUSEUM INNOVATIONS

BY: JAIME CLIFTON-ROSS

As I discussed in a previous post, many MMSt students consider a variety of organizations and institutions as museums. Our studies at the iSchool encourage us to think outside the box and explore venues beyond the realm of the traditional artefact-based institutions (be sure to check out our Mission page, which lists some sites that we consider as museums). As I learned last semester in Dr. Irina Mihalache’s class, Interpretation and Meaning Making, interpretive planning originated in parks before migrating to museums. Considering museums adopted practices developed to enhance education and engagement in parks, can we not consider public gardens as museums as well?
Butchart Gardens Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter Collage
Butchart Gardens Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter Collage. All photos from Butchart Gardens Website
During my winter holidays, I travelled to Victoria, BC—the self-titled garden city of Canada, which also happens to be my hometown. I’ve visited the lovely Butchart Gardens numerous times over the years, often during Christmas, as it became a holiday tradition. The site is made up of a variety of “curated” and manicured floral displays, reminiscent of historical British, French, Italian, and Japanese gardening practices. Because it preserves 19th and 20th century gardening aesthetics (often uncommon in Canada as a result of our cold climate), the gardens are officially designated a National Historic Site. Vancouver Island’s incredibly mild climate, one that heavily contrasts the rest of Canada, makes it the perfect locale for such a site.

My experience at the gardens this year was quite different from my previous visits. For whatever reason, I had never noticed the series of plaques placed throughout the gardens that explore the story of its creation. Armed with museum insight, I couldn’t help but notice the garden’s approach to interpreting the history of the site. Short yet equally compelling descriptions, strategically placed in front of noteworthy spaces, helped convey the “provenance” of the sites of display.

Before and After: From Quarry to Garden. University of Waterloo.
Unbeknownst to me, the gardens were originally a limestone quarry owned and operated by American cement pioneer, Robert Pim Butchart (1856-1943). He also owned a cement plant at Tod Inlet that supplied cement across the west, from Victoria to San Francisco. After the quarry was exhausted of limestone deposits in 1909, his wife, Jennie Butchart (1866-1950), transformed the barren site into a breathtakingly lush “sunken garden”. She worked with the prominent Canadian architect, Samuel Maclure, who channelled the English Arts and Crafts aesthetic in his landscaping designs.
Robert and Jennie Butchart.
Robert and Jennie Butchart. 
Between 1906 and 1929, Jennie continued to build grandiose floral displays, which now include a seaside Japanese Garden, an Italian Baroque Garden, a Mediterranean Garden, a Rose Garden, as well as various sculptures and water displays. She even built a star-shaped pond for her husband’s family of ducks! But don’t worry about the the environmental impact of the gardens, as they are maintained by a self-sufficient irrigated water system that is supplied by wells and reservoirs filled with rain water. Be sure to check out their official website for more details.


Because the family gardens were passed down from generation to generation, they gradually transformed into what they are today. The family began hosting outdoor symphony concerts, theatrical stage shows, operatic performances, water and firework spectacles, and even puppet shows. These events helped establish the gardens as a world class tourist site. During Christmas the gardens are decorated in spectacular light displays guided by the traditional Christmas song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Visitors can also enjoy an outdoor skating rink (a complete phenomenon on Southern Vancouver Island) as well as Christmas carollers. Visitors can also dine at The Dining Room Restaurant, explore their gift shop, and even ride a carousel.

This site truly embodies the spirit of museums (and theme parks to an extent) as it encourages visitors to engage with historical gardening practices and preserves natural and architectural landscapes all while celebrating the beautiful, lush nature of the West Coast of Canada.

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for the article Jaime. I have often thought about the Don Valley Trail in Toronto as a Museum Space as well. While not a Curated Garden, the Don Valley Trail is an integral part of Toronto, both past and present.

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  2. What a great example! I totally agree that public gardens are museums. They're curated and carefully laid out, often reflecting a place's cultural history and artistic communities. The Leo Mol sculpture garden in Winnipeg (my hometown!) is definitely a museum in my books! It reflects both the city's artistic and historical legacies. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Thanks Katherine and Jenny for sharing your examples! I really love outdoor spaces that celebrate cultural history. Why can't museums exist outside, after all, we're always talking about experiential engagement!

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  4. As you can imagine, I of course clicked on the dining room restaurant first :) Thank you for this perspective on gardens as curated spaces - it is so interesting to think of the unpredictable nature of gardens, as the "objects" on display are quite different than those in regular museums. Plus, gardens allow for the multisensorial experience which is often difficult to provide in a closer museological space.

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    1. I was actually thinking about you when I posted the link to the restaurant! :) Their menu looks delicious. The gardens definitely offer a multisensorial experience. If you visit them in the spring and summer, the flowers are so fragrant! The Japanese Gardens are also very beautiful as the landscape is more naturalistic with flowing streams and sprawling moss. You definitely feel much closer to nature!

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  5. Jaime, this is a very thought provoking post. We think you make a good case for considering some public gardens museums. We forwarded your blog post to Dr. Richard W Benfield, Dept of Geography, Central Connecticut State University, as he literally wrote the book on garden tourism, aptly named, Garden Tourism. This is timely in light of our "Historical Display" which happens every year from January 15 - March 15. http://www.butchartgardens.com/activities/experiences/?gotoSection=HistoricalDisplaySection Thank you!

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    1. Wow! Thank-you so much for your insight. We really appreciate your interest and for sharing it with Dr. Benfield. I will be sure to check out his book. I'm very interested in how the experience of museums can be taken outside the traditional institutional walls. We'll be sure to share the "Historical Display" exhibition on our social media. While I cannot visit the gardens in person unfortunately (as I am now back in Toronto for a while), I would love to learn more about them. Perhaps we can have a phone interview and I can feature the story in an upcoming post? If you're interested, please let me know and we can connect.

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