Education for Conservation ­ the Way Forward at Kew

Gail Bromley

Education Department, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Richmond, Surrey, TW9 3AB, U.K.


"Kew's purpose is to increase mankind's understanding of the plant kingdom". This statement is reproduced on the mission statement of Kew and is central to the strategic planning and policy development within the Education Department. Beyond this, the Education Section at Kew has its own mission statement which puts forward the philosophy of the Section within the context of Kew's overall mission, namely "To increase public knowledge and understanding of the value and vital importance of plants and to increase recognition of, and support for, the work of RBG Kew".

There are of course a number of very different audiences at Kew, each of which require a specific approach. These are:

To deal with these varying audiences Kew provides three educational programmes. Within each programme the strategy is to inform the relevant audience about the subject-matter and through this to support and encourage good management of the world's plant resources on which our future depends. The three programmes are:

Case Study in Adult Education: Plant Conservation Techniques

Adult Education was launched as a self­funding programme within the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew two years ago, and originated with such courses as Garden Design, Botanical Photography and Botanical Illustration, to provide baseline funding for the operation. In 1993 the latest development will be offered, a course in Plant Conservation Techniques. This will be a five-week course teaching the basic skills and expertise required for the management of ex situ and in situ plant conservation world-wide. It will enable staff from reserves, botanic gardens and similar institutes to see their particular needs in a broader, international context and consequently develop programmes which fit more closely within a global strategy for the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable environmental management.

Kew has excellent resources and highly skilled staff who can provide examples of a range of techniques and first-hand examples of in situ and ex situ conservation practices. The Herbarium of six million specimens provides a resource for floristic surveys and checklist production. These currently provide information to support the establishment and management of reserves in programmes such as Projeto Nordeste in Brazil. The world seedbank at Wakehurst Place will provide on-site training in seed collection, storage and the genetics of ex situ management. The Micropropagation Unit at Kew will provide further training in ex situ conservation practices. Case studies for in situ reserve management where Kew has been involved, as in the Cameroons, St.Helena and Brazil, will also be presented, with opportunities for discussion on problem-solving and tactical management.

This is just one of the courses on offer at Kew, but one that is central to its mission. All courses contain specific elements which highlight the importance of plants, biodiversity and the vital role played by botanic gardens world-wide.

Case Study in Schools Proqrammes: Plants across the Curriculum

Until a few years ago, schools programmes at Kew were reactive. They were often given in isolation and did not address the contemporary needs of schools. Over 52 000 children visit Kew on school trips every year, and it soon became obvious that it was impossible to provide individual training for all groups. Kew education staff were also disappointed by the narrow way in which botanic gardens were seen as a resource for teaching. A change in approach and policy was clearly needed, and this was developed and put into operation as soon as possible.

The schools programmes at Kew are now aimed primarily at teachers; this is both time-effective and more efficient in the dissemination of information over a wider area. It had also been recognised that environmental education sometimes failed to make the direct link between the subject-matter and the student, making it difficult to develop attitude changes. By providing a more intimate link between people and plants, their support for conservation strategies could be more readily enlisted. This philosophy led to the use of 'Economic Botany' as the focus for developing an interest in plants, the interrelationship of mankind and plants and, through this, an awareness of the need for conservation measures.

Currently one of the major strategies of the teacher-training programme is to inspire teachers to use plants as the focus for every aspect of curriculum work. Traditionally, schools have used botanic gardens for specific programmes such as science with the themes: Variety of Life, Processes of Life and Adaptation to Environment. Botanic gardens serve these programmes well and, of course, can aid the introduction to environmental education. With a little more innovative approach, however, teachers can introduce conservation issues into all subject areas.

Once students understand that plants are used in all aspects of life: as food, textiles, building materials, flavours, religious symbols, industrial oils, transport and medicines, it becomes easier to explain the need for classification and investigation into the properties of plants. Matching plant topics to areas of the curriculum becomes simple for teachers, so that history, geography, religious education, technology and music can all be covered using, for example, cotton, spices, plant-based religious artifacts, furniture and musical instrument production.

All of these studies lead naturally to a discussion of the sustainable management of these resources. Paper production and timber use open the discussion of logging and of investigations within botanic gardens into alternative timbers and their management. Technology can move from environmental control within glasshouses to ex situ conservation techniques such as micropropagation, and in situ habitat management.

The concept of ethnobotanical investigation is, again, easy to develop. One of the most exciting programmes at Kew run recently involved the subject of 'wrapping'. This linked objects to raw materials and examined techniques for 'wrapping' within other cultures. The themes for teachers were technology, art and design, and geography, but the overlying objective was to encourage an informed interest in other cultures and to raise awareness of the contrasting opportunities and constraints facing people in different places.

Another exciting programme was on body painting. This course linked mathematics, art and design, and geographical studies. In this instance, children were invited to a lecture on the Amazon Basin, with specific focus on the way that indigenous groups utilised plants. The influence of plants in art and design and in mathematical patterns in plants provided the children with ideas for body painting designs. These were transferred into reality by the children painting their own plant-based designs onto themselves or each other.


The Interpretation Programme at Kew is similarly aimed at delivering simple messages about plants, their biology and uses, to encourage an interest in plants in general and in the conservation of plants in situ and ex situ. This is achieved through a variety of media:


Currently Kew has an exhibition called 'Cellulose'. The various uses of cellulose in the form of rope and basketry, paper, dietary fibre and textiles are presented in an audio-visual manner, and the consequences of cellulose extraction and the development of sustainable management of cellulose resources are discussed during the presentation.


The gardens at Kew and Wakehurst Place also have a major programme for label and information sheet production. The labels are designed to attract the interest of the public and to present information that shows the interrelationship of plants and mankind, and which also often reflect research programmes at Kew, such as the biochemical assaying of plants for medicinal purposes. The information sheets that Kew produce have a dual purpose, serving to provide enhanced information on plant species, aspects of Kew research programmes and on habitats and their management for both the interested general public and as background information for teacher programmes.


Perhaps the most effective form of interpretation is the direct one-to-one interpretation provided by guides. The USA has a long history of development of 'docent' or guide schemes but all botanic gardens world-wide need to address the dissemination of information to visitors; this method can provide a vital tool in gaining support for the work of botanic gardens. The main objective is to break down the barriers between the 'science' and the 'public', and for this you need a team of committed and well trained communicators.

At Kew it had long been recognised that the drain on staff resources to interpret for groups was becoming a problem. A Volunteer Guide Programme was set up to overcome this, and the first recruited guides have now been in place for six months. Changing staff attitudes to volunteer guides was the first hurdle to overcome and this was achieved by the staff personally training the guides: this ensured the accuracy of the message being delivered. The volunteers were also made to jump through several hoops: recruitment interviews, training, examinations and probationary periods before being accorded guide status. In this way the staff were fully satisfied that the message being given and the people delivering the message were right. Volunteers discuss the history and the role of Kew during all their presentations, and statistics such as those shown here are given to guides and regularily updated so that they can discuss the overall implications of taxonomic research and conservation measures in action at Kew.

In conclusion

The changes in attitude of students on such courses and our visitors is reflected in their readiness to discuss conservation issues later. A more energetic and innovative approach provides a more stimulating forum for introducing environmentally sound attitudes.

The ultimate message that the Education Section at Kew hope to get across is:

When we achieve that with all those who use the Gardens for education, we shall certainly be moving in the right direction.

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