Huntington Botanical Gardens: A New Place for Learning About Plants

 

The main entry to the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Author’s photographs, except as noted

The main entry to the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory at the Huntington Botanical Gardens. Author’s photographs, except as noted

The newest conservatory on the West Coast is the centerpiece of an ambitious and exciting program to enhance visitor education at the Huntington Botanical Gardens.

What do people know about plants and how did they learn it? What should children understand about plants as part of the natural world or as part of their built environments? What might a home gardener want to know about plants if you could peak her interest in matters of plant growth and development, physiology and nutrition, or ecology? How might schools and colleges include more information about plants in their curricula? How will scientists and horticulturists increase our understanding of plants? How does basic appreciation of botany become relevant to people in an urban setting like that of Southern California?

Examining such questions was the beginning of a decade-long programming process for the Huntington Botanical Gardens. From questions, to a vision, to planning, fundraising, design, and construction, we are nearing the big ribbon-cutting, in early 2005, that will mark the completion of our new Botanical Center.

Established through a trust indenture dating back to 1919, The Huntington comprises the estate and collections of manuscript and printed materials, art and decorative objects, plants and gardens that H E Huntington developed in San Marino, California—with a broad mission to conserve and expand those collections in order to promote and execute research and education for the public’s benefit. Staff members think of The Huntington as a collections-based research and educational institution, having wide-ranging strengths, from literature to art to plants. For people who take classes and workshops here, it may seem like an informal university. To casual visitors, this is the Huntington estate—a landscape of botanical gardens, museums, and libraries.

The low, sleek lines of the Huntington’s original wooden lath house…

The low, sleek lines of the Huntington’s original wooden lath house…

… provided the model for the new, glass and steel Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory, due to open to the public early in 2005

… provided the model for the new, glass and steel Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory, due to open to the public early in 2005

The Gardens

Today’s Huntington Botanical Gardens have really developed over the last hundred years, beginning with construction of the Lily Ponds in the first year after Huntington purchased the property, which was then a 600-acre orange grove called San Marino Ranch. By the time of his death in 1927, the basic plan for the gardens and the template for plant collections had been established, with a focus on several groups of exotic and rare plants that could be grown in our climate, and with a desire to test the productivity of Southern California. Today, the Botanical Gardens offer a series of informal landscapes that provide an effective showcase of plant diversity.

The Botanical Gardens have provided interpretation and educational programs since the early twentieth century, with an emphasis on the rare and exotic plants. In 1985, when The Huntington initiated a master plan for future development of the Botanical Gardens, the main objectives were to plan for rehabilitation and growth of the gardens and plant collections, and to examine the potential of the Botanical Gardens to support research and education. Given the humanities research emphasis of The Huntington Library and a specific mandate in the trust indenture to promote the sciences, educational planning for the Gardens led to establishing a broad outreach program themed around the science and natural history of plants and gardens. By 1995, that emphasis yielded the very questions that began this article. Our response to those questions has been that these Botanical Gardens should become a great public resource. We aim to engender for our audiences a sense of the beauty and wonder of plants. We hope to spark a process of inquiry for our visitors by helping them gain the skills and basic knowledge to ask and answer their own questions about the plant world. We intend to accomplish this through turning a wonderful and exciting collection of plants into green ambassadors. Encouraging people to examine and touch the neatest plants we can make available, we will let the plants talk for themselves. In giving audiences of all ages the hands-on opportunity to study and learn from plants, we have no doubt that we can change lives. And changing lives is what non-profit institutions like The Huntington are really about.

A broad view of the Huntington’s new Botanical Center, with the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory on the left and the greenhouses on the right; the Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden (opening in June 2004) occupies the center of the complex. Photograph by RGT

A broad view of the Huntington’s new Botanical Center, with the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory on the left and the greenhouses on the right; the Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden (opening in June 2004) occupies the center of the complex. Photograph by RGT

The Botanical Center—A Philosophy

In our educational planning, the questions quickly moved to issues of process, space, and access. It became obvious that what we needed was a field station—even a field lab—where green wonders and curiosities could be made available to people. At the same time, we needed new facilities to actually manage the Gardens—places to work and study, places to house resources needed to manage the collections and landscapes. The Botanical Gardens offices had been in temporary trailers for a decade and the maintenance facility (in Huntington’s original garage) was soon to become an art gallery.

The answer that emerged from much discussion and planning was construction of a new nursery—a great nursery like the one any self-respecting estate would have included. But this nursery would invite students of all ages behind the scenes—to visit Huntington propagation facilities, greenhouse collections, workspaces, and offices. Visitors would take classes right where staff and volunteers work; they would handle the same kinds of tools and equipment we and other professionals use; visitors would get to see the very things that make gardeners and botanists so passionately interested in plants. No models. No virtual experiences. No hyperbole. You don’t need it. Plants are cool all by themselves; the more you learn about them, the neater they are. It seemed a pretty straightforward concept.

The nursery, christened the Botanical Center, emerged as a six-phased project. Phase I was a new maintenance center for irrigation support, storage and repair of equipment, and gardening staff facilities. Phase II included two head houses, four greenhouses, potting sheds and a shade house. Phase III, the Mishler Resource Building, houses botanical libraries, curatorial and educational staff, research facilities, teacher in-service training facilities, and meeting spaces. Phase IV, the Weingart Learning Center, includes a teaching lab, large classroom, auditorium, and computer classroom. Phase V has two areas, a teaching greenhouse and the Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden. Finally, Phase VI is the Conservatory.

The Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Plant Science

The signature building for the new nursery, the Conservatory would be a re-creation of Huntington’s original lath house—a 300-foot-long wooden structure built to house tropical plants early in the history of the estate, but dismantled after Huntington’s death to allow for expansion of the main Research Library. Rather than wood, the new building would be of steel and glass—a true conservatory. Rather than pure display, this Conservatory would house plant collections as the basis for a science center type of experience.

Early in planning and design, it became clear that, if we built a conservatory we hoped would be a science center, we were dealing with many issues and a lot of expectations. When botanical gardens address science, they usually approach the topic like a museum or natural history center: Here you see fifty members of some plant group, and you, our audience, can worry about knowing which ones are big versus which are small, which are old, which are new, which are borrowed and which are blue; and, by the way, some of these are important to your life.

Science centers, on the other hand, are about process: What is happening? What do things do? How do they do it? We wanted the Conservatory to focus on process. But, conservatories and greenhouses usually are about plant collections and plant displays; people will enter a conservatory expecting to see some great plants. That, of course, is fine; the neater the plants available, the greater the potential to engage visitors in discovery and learning. And all plants are engaged in process. They are alive-actively growing, developing, interacting with their habitats, even evolving and adapting.

Visitors to the Conservatory will encounter four galleries, three dedicated to habitats and one fashioned as a hands-on plant science lab. The central rotunda simulates lowland tropical wet forest, with exhibits focusing on plant growth. The west wing houses a cloud forest gallery and a bog room. Exhibits for these spaces relate to plant adaptations to those special habitats. The east wing is a spacious lab, where students of all ages will have the opportunity to expand their understanding of what plants do. Areas dedicated to the roles of leaves, stems, roots, and flowers will allow visitors to investigate properties and functions of these basic organs—by touching real plants and using real equipment.

Classic columns and shaped southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) will create a circular room in the Huntington’s new Children’s Garden

Classic columns and shaped southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) will create a circular room in the Huntington’s new Children’s Garden

My summary makes this sound simple and straightforward. That, of course, is not the case at all. None of this new development would have been imaginable without the existing gardens and collections as a resource, or The Huntington as a context. The Conservatory project, itself, would not have been possible without the over $20 million in financial donations that were required to build the entire Botanical Center, nor without the thousands of hours of planning and design that have gone into the overall project. Certainly the exhibits we are building would not have been possible without a significant informal science education grant from the National Science Foundation. In addition, it is no small matter to develop and test exhibits to accomplish the many goals and objectives we have set forth. A dedicated project team, led by Kitty Connolly, staffed full-time by Karina White and Katura Reynolds, has worked with our architects, Offenhauser and Associates, exhibition designers Deneen Powell Atelier, contractors Valley Crest, and a hearty and remarkably insightful advisory team for two years to make the Conservatory into a science center.

Now, eight years after initial design and six years after the construction began on the first phases of the Botanical Center, Phase VI, the Conservatory, nears completion. With planting and installation of Conservatory exhibits, the Botanical Center becomes complete. Though we have been using each phase of the Center as construction was completed, the many areas and functions were planned integrally, so use has proceeded in the midst of on-going construction and without the logic that comes with completeness.

Early in 2005, visitors will enter the Botanical Center through the front door, the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory, where they have the option of spending time at any of over fifty exhibits. They may be arriving to pass through the Conservatory for a scheduled class or workshop in one of several other educational spaces built earlier in the process. Their objective might well be to accompany a child on an exploration of the new Children’s Garden, a modern garden of wondrous follies conceived by Sebastapol, California, artist Ned Kahn. Or they might be headed to the Resource Center, seeking answers to vexing questions from their own gardening experience. There is something here for people of every age, something that hasn’t existed at The Huntington before. This is truly a new place for learning about plants.

When visitors leave the Botanical Center, we hope they look at the rest of the Huntington’s Botanical Gardens with new understanding and fresh questions. We have made every effort to connect the resources of the Center with the wonders of the garden at large, creating activities that reach out to interpret the gardens and plant collections in the broadest sense-indeed, making sense and new meaning of the world of plant diversity that can be found in this landscape. If we can foster wonder and inquiry in the Botanical Gardens, that same spirit will go with our visitors into the world they inhabit and will enrich their lives. One person at a time, we will make a difference.

World geography is the focus of one segment of the Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden; Aloe bainsii provides a dramatic backdrop

World geography is the focus of one segment of the Helen and Peter Bing Children’s Garden; Aloe bainsii provides a dramatic backdrop