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Community Participation in Exhibit Development

Contributed by Carolann Walach Baldyga, Fairchild Tropical Garden, Maimi, Florida, USA

The Garden and the Community

Fairchild Tropical Garden was established in 1938 and is well known among botanists and scientists around the world. In 1996 Fairchild joined a network that became the Caribbean Botanic Gardens for Conservation, with planning support from Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). To many Miami area residents, however, Fairchild was not well known until Hurricane Andrew swept through ten years ago. Fairchild collections have recovered, and the Garden continues to seek ways to build upon the community interest generated when people from all walks of life helped in the recovery process.

Miami is often called the capital of Latin America. More than 50% of the South Florida population comes from the Caribbean or countries that lie in the tropics and subtropics of Latin America. The Fairchild Board of Directors includes members of Caribbean heritage. To attract community members of Latin American and Caribbean origin to the Garden, we have conducted Latin jazz concerts on the lawn and targeted schools whose students have Latin or Caribbean heritage. Our exhibits have introduced bilingual brochures, an audio tour and interpretative signs in Spanish and English. Bilingual staff and volunteer interpretative guides provide increased access to Spanish speakers. We work with community organizations and groups who target Caribbean and Latin audiences for environmental and civic activities.

Jewels of the Caribbean

A new exhibition, ‘Jewels of the Caribbean’, is presenting us with an opportunity to engage the community in exhibit development. It will feature plants of the Caribbean region and include South Florida species. Many of the species are distributed throughout the region. To incorporate an ecological message into the exhibition, it will be planted as six areas: Xeric Landscape, Pine Forest, Mangrove, Seasonally Dry Forest, Humid Forest and Palm Savanna.

When people leave their homeland, their treasured memories often include images of landscape features such as rural countryside, their family garden, a landscaped park or even the roadside plants. Sometimes we hear older visitors telling children about a palm, tropical fruit tree or other plant that they see in the Garden and recall from Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti or elsewhere in the Caribbean. By including these familiar plants in Jewels of the Caribbean, we will create an opportunity for intergenerational communication and learning.

In 1997 an adjacent exhibition, the Keys Coastal Habitat, was created to attract birds migrating along the eastern flyway of North America, by planting species found in the Florida Keys and coastal areas. This exhibition and the new Jewels of the Caribbean exhibition will unify 12 acres in a project that will celebrate the regional environment and provide an opportunity for local visitors and tourists to learn about regional ecology.

Defining ‘Community’

From the outset, education and horticulture staff discussed the opportunities for community involvement in development of the exhibition. We needed to identify all possible stakeholders and their potential contributions to the project. Garden stakeholders include our Board of Trustees, Garden members, volunteers, the education community, adjacent neighbours and government agencies. University courses are conducted at Fairchild, so we know that there are faculty and students with interests in regional environments. Programs for elementary and middle school students and teacher-training link Fairchild to the local school district. Thirteen horticultural societies hold shows and sales at Fairchild. Collaboration exists between horticultural and education staff and community groups of Caribbean origin. We also cooperate with member gardens in the Caribbean Botanic Gardens for Conservation network. The development of new exhibitions and construction has required that Fairchild staff work with local environmental and zoning agencies. Each Fairchild department brings its professional expertise and community partners to the planning process. So, with numerous stakeholders, ours was to be an inclusive definition of community.

Once we had determined which issues would be addressed by community involvement, we would be able to assess the suitability of various groups as participants in development of this exhibition. We knew that we wanted to communicate the similarities and differences among Caribbean Basin ecosystems and species. We also wanted to influence the way people think about the environment and the importance of plants (Roberts, 1997). The Caribbean Basin has landmasses that are geographically detached; yet connected by their people and their plants. Adaptations of both plants and people to different environments are to be a focus of our interpretation. Another objective of Jewels of the Caribbean is to increase understanding of our own fragile South Florida environment. The growing population of Maimi is encroaching on the Everglades, one of the most endangered environments in the world. An existing Endangered Species Garden will be relocated so that its plants will be seen in a more natural setting. Jewels of the Caribbean will be able to help our community to understand and appreciate our fragile environment and to determine ways in which it can be protected.

Community participation might take the form of an advisory committee or supportive funding. There are opportunities for participation in the horticultural aspects of exhibit development such as planting and weeding. Community members might contribute expertise, experience and creative expressions about the importance of plants in their lives, or suggest the use of artefacts and activities that would make them feel welcome. Interpretative guides might add volunteers of Caribbean origin to their ranks. Ethnobotanical information gathered from our local Caribbean community might be included in the interpretative program. Community participation in development of this exhibit is evolving, and we anticipate that during the process some existing goals and assumptions may be challenged (Booth, 1995).

Community Participation

Florida International University, which is a local public university with some 40,000 students, representative of the local demographic profile, offered an opportunity for collaboration in landscape design. Together with Garden staff, a landscape architecture professor and students from the University have helped to plan the exhibition. All agreed that Jewels of the Caribbean would focus on habitats. This was an important decision. Biodiversity would be the focus of interpretation. Ethnobotany would highlight the people–plant connection. A University graduate student drafted the preliminary design, and her professor, a native of Cuba and a long-time Garden member, completed it.

The exhibition also will interpret conservation projects and research on the flora of South Florida and the Caribbean Basin currently conducted at Fairchild. Threatened and endangered species will be integrated into the habitats. The University participation continues as interns assist Fairchild staff in reintroducing and monitoring these species, while gaining valuable conservation experience in the field. In another collaboration, University environmental biology students are exploring the evolutionary history of the Caribbean Basin. These activities present opportunities to update the exhibition’s interpretation and to tell visitors about current Fairchild research.

Jewels of the Caribbean will occupy a site in the Garden’s lowlands. This area lies about 12 feet below an oolite limestone ridge on which the uplands section of the Garden is located. During heavy summer rains and tropical storms, standing water and salt-water intrusion can be a problem for specimens that cannot tolerate wet soil. Work began two years ago to raise sections of the site to create a more suitable environment for some species. Non-Caribbean species previously planted in the site are being relocated to other Garden plots. The pine forest and seasonally dry forest sections of the exhibition were planted this year (2002).
Community participation includes effective collaboration with government agencies. Approval from the Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM) was required to work in the area around the mangroves that border the Garden perimeter on two sides. Mangroves are a protected species, along the Florida coastline they serve as fish hatcheries. Working with DERM, we will accomplish our interpretation objectives while participating in a shared conservation goal.

Local residents are a target audience for the Garden and we hope to engage then in the development of Jewels of the Caribbean. How can we collaborate with community groups and which groups will participate? How can we make the development of this exhibition relevant to them? How can we market our goals to our target groups and integrate their interests with our plans? These questions will only be fully answered as the project proceeds.

Interested individuals, organizations, and community groups are being identified. An advantage of working with groups and organizations is that they bring a pool of resources to the project. The commitment of an organization brings the prospect of sustained involvement. One example of this is our partnership with Operation Greenleaves, an organization focused on restoring environmentally devastated areas of Haiti and providing environmental education for Haitians locally. Another organization, Citizens for a Better South Florida, targets communities of Caribbean origin to provide environmental education through programs and activities in their neighbourhoods. We collaborate for Earth Day activities, to plant trees at schools, to participate in community environmental education organizations and to develop grant projects.

In a partnership with the Girl Scout Council of Tropical Florida, Fairchild education staff developed three badges for the Girl Scouts in native plant identification and conservation. We now are exploring opportunities to include the Girl Scouts in development of Jewels of the Caribbean. The Caribbean Botanic Gardens for Conservation network is another community resource for links to member gardens, and to their local communities and schools. These opportunities were explored during the first Caribbean Botanic Gardens Conference held in May 2002.

Development of Jewels of the Caribbean is a 10-year project. Our partnerships with the University and the School District have presented the first opportunities for community participation. As we proceed, additional community involvement is anticipated, roles will become defined, and spin-off projects will develop. Community interest and motivation may not remain constant, so short term, rewarding objectives and flexibility will be important.

Green Treasurers

The School District is conducting an oral history project in which students interview foster-grandparents or other elders to gain first-hand knowledge of past events. Fairchild wanted to collect oral histories of plant use from community members. In our model, students interview elders, many of Caribbean origin, about traditional plant uses. Funding for this project, called Green Treasurers, comes from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; this is a foundation interested in improving science education and helping people to understand the importance of plants for medicinal purposes.

We targeted two middle schools with populations that had recent ties to the Caribbean. Edison Middle School, with a Haitian and African–American population, was unable to participate during the first year because of administrative changes. Carver Middle School did participate with its entire sixth grade – more than 200 students. With foster-grandparents, students interviewed elders at community centres, often in Spanish. Students learned about plant adaptations, and characteristics that made the plants useful. In teams, they conducted research about the plants using observation, the Internet and libraries.

They developed hypotheses, tested them and created presentations on their research. At a student symposium they presented their findings to the elders they had interviewed and to Fairchild staff. The Green Treasurers interview records have been maintained and archived. They will be an interpretation resource for Jewels of the Caribbean. In the future the students will recall their role in developing this exhibit. Teacher workshops in identification of native and Caribbean plant species and their adaptations are provided. The goal is that teachers will be able to use ethnobotany as a springboard to interest students in plants, the local and regional environment and in their cultural heritage.

A grant enabled the Garden to buy a van, the ‘Plant Mobile’, for touring schools. More than 1000 middle-school students have learned about South Florida plants and environments through Plant Mobile visits to their schools during the first year of the project. Through Green Treasures, community participation will enrich the development of the Jewels of the Caribbean exhibition, and may create a sense of ownership for community.

Year One

Collecting ethnobotanical information with middle-school students who interview their elders has presented some challenges. Firstly, we had selected two schools. One, Carver Middle School, has a population of Hispanic and English-Caribbean origins. This is a magnet school that focuses on international education. Most of the students speak Spanish, French or German in addition to English. They are highly motivated and interested in other places in the world. The lead science teacher at Carver is enthusiastic about this project and is an excellent teacher. Her encouragement has a positive impact on teachers and students. The second school is Edison Middle School. With a population of mostly Haitian and African–American students, this school will be ideal for conducting interviews with elders from the French-speaking Caribbean and South Florida (Falk, 1993). However, before school began both the principal and lead science teacher were transferred to other schools. Both had agreed to participate. This year, an enthusiastic administration and science staff have joined Green Treasurers; they are planning for a garden of traditional plants at Edison.

Secondly, we had not included indigenous people of south Florida in Green Treasurers. We now plan to invite participation of the Micosoukee Tribe of Native Americans, who operate a school in the Everglades. Micosoukee builders have constructed several traditional shelters called ‘chickees’ of cypress beams and sabal palm thatch at Fairchild.

Thirdly, we found that many of the elders who came to the student symposium in May were not those who had been interviewed earlier. The community centre director did not understand that students and elders were partners in Green Treasurers, but only saw the interviews as a worthwhile activity for the elders. So elders who were interviewed did not know about the outcome of their interview, and elders who attended the symposium did not know what the projects were about. This year, elders will visit the schools several times to observe the development of students projects prior to attending the symposium.

Fourthly, the education staff botanist who developed Green Treasurers, wrote the grant and conducted activities during the first year has left the Garden as her husband transferred to a university 400 miles away. Her training in ethnobotany guided this project. Our new staff members, who include an experienced science educator, and the continuing project coordinator, together will continue with Green Treasurers during the next three years.


Funding for Jewels of the Caribbean is a priority. Donor solicitation and writing grants to link education, research and horticulture objectives of the exhibit continue. Partnerships with schools have engaged children of the community in developing the exhibition. Stories of plant use told by community elders will survive in the exhibition. Additional partnerships will enrich the development of Jewels of the Caribbean.


Booth, Kathy (1995). Culture Builds Communities, Partners for Livable Communities, Washington D.C., U.S.A.
Falk, John (1993). Leisure Decisions Influencing African American Use of Museums. American Association of Museums, Washington D.C., U.S.A.
Roberts, Lisa (1997). From Knowledge to Narrative. Smithsonian Institution. Washington D.C., U.S.A.