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Education by Stealth: The Subtle Art of Educating People Who Didn’t Come to Learn

Number 20 - July 2000

I. Darwin Edwards

In achieving these objectives, art may prove to have an equal role to science. The garden, as a sanctuary for both safeguarding biodiversity and nurturing the human spirit, represents a very powerful theme relevant to the modern age. Recent research describes what visitors seek and what they get from visiting a botanic garden, and how both of these may be influenced by effective and sensitive site interpretation.


The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) has an educational programme which encompasses three complementary areas: schools and teacher education, community education and events, and public exhibitions. The most important resource, which is at the basis of all aspects of the programme, is the living plant collection. Often in deciding whether or not to take on a new project we ask ourselves the question could this be done as well somewhere else? If the special resources of the RBGE, and in particular the living plants, would provide some unique or original aspect to the project it is much more likely to be taken further.

Although primarily a scientific organisation, the educational programme of the RBGE is not exclusively about the understanding of science. It is designed to appeal to a wide range of user groups and aims to encompass artistic, aesthetic, horticultural and practical aspects of plant and environmental studies. More importantly it seeks to communicate with people who are not intentionally involved in any kind of formal study programme, including garden visitors who did not come to learn. This is what is referred to in the title of this talk as ‘education by stealth’.

When we analyse attendance figures for RBGE we find that schools’ programmes reach about 10,000 pupils, and adult and community programme, including the Edinburgh International Science Festival at RBGE, another 14,000 people each year. Approximately 150,000 people, mostly families, visit exhibitions in the Exhibition Hall. These numbers, however, represent only a small proportion of the more than 700,000 visitors to the Edinburgh Garden each year. We have established that the majority of visitors do not come to our garden, nor to most botanic gardens, with the specific aim of learning. Therefore, if we wish to impart some ideas or messages relevant to sustainability during a visit we will need to do this almost subliminally. The definition of site interpretation which I offer: '…the subtle art of educating people who didn't come to learn…', tries to reflect this.

Why do People Come to Botanic Gardens?

As a starting point it is worth considering why people do visit a botanic garden or arboretum. Many institutions have carried out visitor surveys but you will have your own ideas and these are probably quite close to the true picture. A quick poll to see why people visit sites represented at the congress produced a long list, including:

  • to find peace and tranquillity
  • to eat
  • to read a newspaper
  • to relax
  • for recreation
  • to play games
  • to be with their family
  • to escape from their families.

There seemed to be a consensus that to study or learn about plants was generally less important for the majority of visitors than something more obviously linked to seeking pleasure or satisfaction of some kind.

The thirteenth century mystic St Thomas Aquinas said ‘You change people by delight. You change people by pleasure’.

Aquinas understood that giving people a pleasant experience is more likely to put them in the mood for receiving some new ideas or information. This principle is well established in the advertising industry where companies compete to place their commercials between the most popular and entertaining television programmes. What is more, we know from our surveys that people who have an enjoyable experience are the ones most likely to return. Repeat visits are important for the type of low level interpretation I am proposing. Each exposure helps reinforce and strengthen even the most subtly-delivered messages.

In asking for ideas for why people visit gardens no one specifically mentioned healing. However, I believe that public gardens can, and do, offer people a form of healing, and although this may not necessarily be accepted by those who manage them, this may lie close to the root of their popular appeal among visitors.

We are all familiar with one aspect of the relationship between gardens and healing. Cultivating medicinal herbs, a central theme of this congress, has been a significant activity in both Western and Eastern cultures since the first gardens were planted. For millennia people have grown many plants used in herbal remedies as an alternative to collecting them from the wild. The European physic garden of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, styled on earlier monastery gardens, is just one example of horticultural activity devoted to the supply of medicines. An important supplementary role was the training of apprentice herbalists who in ignorance could as easily kill a patient as cure them if they made a mistake with their botanical identification!

In Europe there was, however, another incentive behind the creation of the first botanic gardens. Until the sixteenth century Christian theologians believed than the Garden of Eden actually existed somewhere on earth. The first explorations of the Americas, and in particular the discovery of tropical forests of 'perpetual summer', led to claims that Eden had eventually been found in the New World. However, when it was acknowledged that the Age of Discovery had not found the lost Garden of Eden, the search ceased and some wealthy and influential people set out to recreate paradise on earth. European botanic gardens of this period can also be viewed as an effort to assemble all the known plants of the world into Eden-like gardens of earthly delights.

Consequently from the start European botanic gardens had a dual function. They were practical collections of useful plants but also places of divine beauty where humans could feel on intimate terms with their Creator - havens for the soul. Through the combination of these two roles gardens were important in the nurturing and healing of body, mind and spirit. Therefore, there is nothing particularly radical or innovative in suggesting that people ‘feel better’ from the experience of visiting a garden. On one hand this idea receives wide acceptance; while on the other we find it rarely acknowledged within mission statements, strategic plans or annual reports of the world’s leading botanic gardens and arboreta.

The Secret Garden

In the nineteenth century children’s classic The Secret Garden, author Francis Hodgson Burnett recognised both the security aspect and the healing power of gardens. The story tells how three children discover a neglected walled garden and gently coax it back to life. As the momentum of an English spring builds, they find themselves swept along in the current of renewal and rebirth and believe that what is happening to ‘their’ garden is pure magic. The excitement and fulfillment that they all share in the garden becomes their most over-riding preoccupation. One of the children, a spoilt, hypochondriac boy of ten, who has spent his life confined to a wheelchair due to a mysterious, and one suspects largely psychosomatic illness, learns to walk for the first time, gaining inspiration from watching the first faltering steps of a young deer fawn.

Wrapping sound moral education inside a sentimental story was a popular device among Victorian writers but the parable of The Secret Garden seems at least as relevant for today’s screen-addicted children as it was when it was written. Many young people seldom have direct experience of animals beyond domestic pets and for many nature is confined to the virtual world of TV or computer simulations. In The Secret Garden, adults are excluded and the children can pursue their natural instincts for play and discovery, using their imaginations without inhibition. Protected behind high stone walls from unknown dangers, characterised in the book by a wild and windswept Yorkshire moor, the trust between the children also grows and they become involved in their own magic.

The children do not seek to dominate the neglected garden but rather to coax from the earth the potential which they believe to be buried or sleeping. The result is an earthly paradise where wildness still has a place and the scent of colourful flowers is accompanied by the flight of butterflies and songs of wild birds. The other transformation, in the character and health of the children themselves, occurs in parallel to the changes in the garden. The childrens' senses are revived as they become intoxicated with the scent of the roses and feel and smell the wet earth in their hands. It is ultimately through this direct contact with nature, their young lives become rich and meaningful. Burnett clearly believes in the power of fresh air and healthy exercise in creating strong bodies, but also acknowledges the increase in confidence which can be gained from taking care of something and the changes derived from focusing beyond the self to the wider world.

The Secret Garden, like so many childrens' stories, is a fantasy based on simple truth. In this case the underlying message is that gardens, through their remarkable ability to stimulate the complete range of human senses, are capable of helping people who have been deprived of sensory experience or allowed their perception of the natural world to deteriorate. Those of us that live in urban areas may be unconsciously forced to reduce our sensitivity to disagreeable or overpowering environmental stimuli. Out of sheer necessity we have to shut our ears to the noise of traffic, block off our noses to the smell of car exhaust fumes, screw up our eyes in the glare of headlamps and turn our heads from the ugliness of litter lying in the gutters. Only in the comparative safety of urban green spaces can we timidly explore the more rich scents, colours, reflections, calls and textures of nature.

Matthew Fox, the renegade Catholic priest who has become a kind of latter day St Francis of Assisi, describes how the urban dweller is surrounded by stories which are ‘cleverly and expensively’ told by the media (Fox 1993). He feels that advertising people are ever encouraging us to fill our lives with the ‘goods and goodies of twentieth century Western society’, things we don’t need and that are damaging to our health or the environment, in order to fulfill a fantasy which rarely leaves one’s mind content but is more likely to generate an even greater thirst. Fox argues that we need an ‘alternative story’ which fills the need and satisfies the human condition. Interpretors should be trying to discover and tell this alternative story. The challenge is to demonstrate gardens, with their rich and diverse array of sensory offerings, are able to provide a stimulating ‘high’ which is more fulfilling and long-lasting than, say, a can of Coca-Cola or a new compact disc.

Many people believe that human beings have an innate capacity to appreciate nature in an aesthetic rather than purely scientific ways - a phenomenon which Edward O. Wilson calls biophilia (Kellert and Wilson 1993). If we accept the biophilia hypothesis then it follows that gardening, which involves manipulating living things to enhance a landscape’s aesthetic appeal, expresses the same basic human need to be in touch (sight, smell, taste and sound) with nature. Gardens act as a catalyst to enable people to discover this important part of their psyche and to be involved in a practical and immensely satisfying way with the environment. For many people gardening does offer an alternative and ultimately more rewarding experience than consumerism. In the UK, although shopping is considered the most popular recreation, gardening is probably a close second. However, in the wake of increasing popularity gardening has also attracted its own form of consumerism as garden centres, glossy magazines and TV garden ‘make-over’ programmes proliferate.

Using Metaphors

At the 1998 BGCI Congress in Kirstenbosch, South Africa, Ally Ashwell of the National Botanic Gardens gave a presentation in which she asked us to consider our organisations as metaphors. Her examples were more to do with the corporate structure of an organisation than its functions; but this set me thinking about some of the metaphors we use to describe the role of botanic gardens and their appropriateness as starting points for planning themed interpretation.

The design of gardens, from earliest times, involved the frequent use of metaphors and symbolism. Modern botanic gardens also have many metaphors. For example:

  • Many gardens strive to cultivate rare plants which are in danger of extinction in the wild in ex situ conservation collections. An appropriate and frequently used metaphor for these gardens might be a botanical ark.
  • The traditional educational value of botanic garden reference collections, not only in teaching plant taxonomy and classification, but for illustrating important botanical concepts, such as pollination or seed dispersal, has led to the description of botanic gardens as living encyclopedias demonstrating in a unique way the diversity of plantlife.
  • A third metaphor might be a show case for botanical diversity. By displaying to a wide public (over 150 million people a year worldwide) the greatest possible variety of plants, and providing interpretation on their value and usefulness, botanic gardens are an important shop window for science and horticulture.
  • Another useful metaphor and one particularly appropriate for a main theme of this Congress is the medicine chest. As described above botanic gardens from the earliest times have provide herbalists with a wide range of valuable plants and by supplying cultivated material have helped to conserve wild sources.

My favourite metaphor, however, is the sanctuary. Mediaeval engravings of gardens show a dark or mysterious forest beyond the protective walls, a place with wild animals and other untold dangers lurking suspiciously in the shadows. In modern times it is likely to be an urban landscape outside the garden and the environment in our cities becomes less habitable with each decade. Beyond safety of our carefully cultivated collections plants are under threat; but so too is our own species. There is a real danger that we are fouling our nest to such an extent that we could make large areas of our planet unlivable in the future. The urban environment is becoming increasing less suitable for human existence and as already described our reaction has been to turn down our sensory perception to a low level in order to survive the onslaught.

Safe within the sanctuary of the garden we can see, feel and breathe naturally. Green spaces offer revitalisation and I am aware that for many people they provide restorative energy with which to carry on with their daily tasks. This is not a new discovery. My ancestors and traditional communities throughout the world experienced similar empowerment within the greenness of their sacred groves. But, then again, this is probably a lesson that every generation must learn for themselves.