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Botanic Gardens and the Public Understanding of Science: a Management Framework

Volume 1 Number 18 - July 1999

Alice Hague





Botanic garden education staff worldwide were consulted about the issues which affect the success of education programmes.  The results of this research have been developed to establish an 'ideal educational profile' of botanic gardens, to be considered during the development and running of garden education activities.

This paper summarises the dissertation 'Botanic Gardens and the Public Understanding of Science' written by the author as part of the MSc in Communicating Science at Techniquest, Britain's leading hands-on science discovery centre in Cardiff and the University of Glamorgan, Wales.


The aim of the research was to investigate the role of public education in botanic gardens and to explore the activities undertaken by gardens in the public understanding of science.  Through the identification of the elements which contribute to successful events programmes and consideration of management practice and educational learning theory, the intention was to form an 'ideal educational profile' of a botanic garden, which could be used throughout the world.

The Public Understanding of Science

The public understanding of science is an area into which botanic gardens have expanded in recent years although traditionally most of the activities in the public understanding of science have focused on medical and physical sciences.  Exhibits in hands-on science centres have invariably been based on physical science phenomena, whilst plants and plant science have been neglected, partly due to the slow response rates of most plants to stimuli.  This should not be a problem for botanic gardens.  Although gardens may have traditionally had an aura of 'hands-off' about them, their plant collections are unique scientific resources and should be used to their fullest extent when being displayed to the public.

Many botanic gardens have already become involved in activities in the public understanding of science (as opposed to events organised essentially as part of the garden's education programme).  For example, Oxford University Botanic Garden, UK and the Royal Botanic Garden (RBG) Kew at Wakehurst Place, UK have run events as part of the UK's Science, Engineering and Technology week, and RBG Edinburgh, Scotland, organises events for the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

The standard for many public understanding of science activities has been set by events relating to the physical sciences.  Biological and botanical sciences need to attain this standard in order to be successful today – it is not acceptable simply to have posters to read.  Activities need to be developed which promote biological science in a manner that will attract and interest the public and only through this will biology be given an equal role in the public understanding of science.

What Methods Were Used?

Practitioners in the field were consulted using case studies, questionnaires and interviews.  Eleven gardens responded to a questionnaire, which was distributed to just under thirty botanic gardens worldwide, and detailed interviews were held with staff of three UK botanic gardens.  Staff were asked about the important elements in ensuring successful educational activities.  The research included an in-depth consideration of educational learning theory and management strategies, in order to consider the variety of influences which affect the running of public education in botanic gardens.

What Was Discovered?

Botanic gardens vary widely in the breadth and depth of events programmes offered.  Guided tours were the most widely used activity for public education and were also identified by practitioners as being one of the most powerful tools for increasing the public understanding of science in botanic gardens.  However, educational activities consist of more than guided tours and include self-led trails, lectures, hands-on workshops and drop-in sessions, adult education programmes, family gardens and other special events.  The ability of gardens to offer activities may depend on factors such as staffing, funding and resources, and although individual activities have separate strengths and weaknesses, many can be transferred between gardens with only minor alterations.

It seems that very little evaluation has been done on the educational effectiveness of the separate activities, and this should certainly form the focus for further research in the field.  Whilst the activities undertaken all form the public face of an education programme, it is important to realise that a successful public education programme relies on more than the events offered.  The research identified three topics of particular importance when organising activities in botanic gardens which, combined with the actual events offered, are essentially the core aspects of a successful botanic garden education programme:

  • Communication (between staff; between staff and visitors and; between visitors)
  • Resources (botanical and staff resources)
  • Facilities (eg. including factors such as having an education centre, the provision of disabled access and the location of visitor toilets).

An Educational Profile for Botanic Gardens

The topics identified during the research were developed with respect to learning and management theories to form an ideal educational profile for botanic gardens.  This profile has been determined to help establish a framework for the provision of successful education programmes, and gardens should consider each of the points below in order to achieve a high standard for their education programmes.  This profile incorporates the following seven points:

  1. A clear set of aims and objectives for the botanic garden, and for the education mission within the botanic garden.
  2. Staff resources – enthusiastic staff, a full-time education officer, staff willingness to share their expertise, staff training in areas such as communication and customer care, and staff development through networks such as Botanic Gardens Conservation International.
  3. Pro-active publicity through the issue of press releases which gain coverage and an up-to-date network of named teacher contacts.
  4. A range of imaginative special events which consciously attract particular audiences, e.g. new visitors to the garden.
  5. A comprehensive range of ongoing activities to complement the special events and to maintain year-round interest in the garden.  This should not be treated as less important than the special events.
  6. A clear communication strategy for all aspects of educational work in the garden incorporating communication with visitors and communication with the botanic garden.
  7. Continued development and improvement of activities through ongoing research, monitoring and evaluation of the education programmes.

Aims and Objectives of Education Programmes

The identification of the role of education within the garden's mission is one of the most important factors that must be considered.  How is education incorporated into the overall role of the garden?  What are the aims of the education programme?  Only when these issues have been clarified and understood by all relevant parties can a programme be developed which is oriented to fulfilling the aims.  Isaf (1995) highlights the importance of a focused purpose when providing teacher-training courses, and this applies equally to all events.  Without a defined aim, the development of public understanding of science programmes within gardens will in all likelihood be incoherent and confusing.


The ideal educational profile of a botanic garden is a useful checklist for the development and running of education programmes and activities within botanic gardens.  Each of the areas indicated in the educational profile contributes to a successful public education programme.  It is important that due attention is paid to each section, to ensure that the resources available to botanic gardens can be used effectively and successfully in running public education programmes.

Further information or a complete copy of the author's dissertation can be obtained from the address below.


Isaf, A. (1995). Teacher Training: Introduction.  Roots 11:2-3.  Botanic Gardens Conservation International UK.


Les personnels chargés de l’éducation ont été consultés au niveau international sur ce qui fait le succès des programmes éducatifs. Les résultats de cette recherche  ont permis d’établir le profil pédagogique idéal des jardins botaniques qui serait à considérer pour tout développement d’activités pédagogiques.
Ce texte résume les conclusions du travail des auteurs effectué dans le cadre d’un Master of Sciences en Science de la Communication à Techniquest premier centre de communication par l’expérience à Cardiff et à l’Université de Glamorgan, Pays de Galles.


Se ha consultado a personal educativo de todo el mundo acerca de los problemas que afectan al éxito de los programas de enseñanza.  Se han desarrollado los resultados de esta investigación, con el fin de establecer el “perfil educativo idóneo” de los jardines botánicos, que se examinará durante el progreso y la organización de las actividades educativas.

Este artículo resume la tesina Los jardines botánicos y la comprensión de la ciencia, realizada  por su autor como parte de un Máster en Ciencias de la Comunicación de Techiquest, el principal centro práctico de investigaciones científicas de Gran Bretaña, en Cardiff y en la Universidad de Glamorgan, Gales.

About the Author 

Alice Hague