The first article in every issue of The Botanic Gardener, a professional magazine is always an interview with someone outstanding in the field of botanic gardens’ management, science, horticulture or education.
To showcase botanic gardens from ‘the inside looking out’ I’m reproducing an interview here that I conducted with Paul Redman, Executive Director Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania USA for our November issue. The theme was ‘Amazing interpretation’ and personally I think Longwood Gardens, under Paul’s leadership, is leading the way in defining what a contemporary botanic garden should be.
“As well as being a sensational public attraction Longwood Gardens has a reputation as a world-class training organisation for botanic gardens staff. I’m particularly interested to learn how botanic/public gardens can create meaningful connections between the place, the plants and visitors…
What is the role of interpretation in botanic gardens?
The most important thing to understand and embrace is that everything we do is interpretation. Fundamentally, interpretation is creating meaning and an emotional connection. Interpretation is achieved through the words we use when we welcome guests to our gardens, to the messaging of special exhibits and to the types of education programs or performing arts events that we offer to our guests. Interpretation is about the story that you want to tell and the framework by which you tell your story. Interpretation brings your brand to life.
What is the most memorable interpretive exhibit or sign you’ve ever seen?
I have several most memorable exhibits that come to mind, but I use the term exhibits loosely, because it’s about the place and the emotion that I experience. One experience that I think is one of the very best is the Grove Farm Homestead Tour on the island of Kauai (Lihue, Hawaii).
The experience is really simple. Staff or docents aren’t actors dressed in period costumes. Grove Farm Homestead is hugely impactful, because you leave the tour feeling connected to the place, to the people that lived on the estate and to the history of the island.
A tour guide shares the story with you as you tour the house, but it’s not spoon fed to you. You can stand next to a desk that still has the very papers, notes and books on it since the last occupant lived there. You even sit in the kitchen, have a cookie and listen to an old story from the sugar cane plantation days of Kauai just as if you were a real guest of the owners.
What is the role of creativity and innovation in your workplace and how do you support its expression?
We define excellence through creativity and innovation. Creativity and innovation are the legacy of our founder Pierre S. du Pont and drives everything that we strive for at Longwood Gardens. We achieve its expression by encouraging experimentation, taking risks and supporting professional development of our staff and volunteers.
How are great ideas turned into reality at Longwood Gardens?
Any and all ideas are welcome. We know that the best ideas come from those who are on the front line interacting with guests. Our first aim is to continually reinforce the idea of leadership and achieve a culture of leadership within all levels of the organisation to create a trusting environment for sharing of ideas. Our second aim is to filter ideas through the lens of our brand, ‘A World Apart’. Ideas are passed-on to our cross departmental Programming Committee that is responsible for planning our 3-5 year calendar of annual themes and programs that include everything from seasonal displays to major exhibitions like Nightscape.
Please tell me more about your philosophy of a leadership culture.
The foundation of having a culture of leadership is trust and with trust comes respect for one another. Once trust is achieved any conflict that may occur, because of opposed perspectives, is eliminated. Any and all ideas are shared freely. Not all perspectives may be the right perspective, but through open dialogue and discussion everyone arrives at the same conclusion. The best programs come from collaboration and working toward a common goal.
How did Longwood Gardens arrive at the brand ‘A World Apart’ and what do you hope visitors leaving Longwood Gardens feel or take away with them?
I want visitors to leave connected and inspired. We established our ‘world apart’ brand through a lot of research and internal discussions facilitated by an external branding expert. We all knew what made Longwood Gardens special, but we didn’t have the words or the framework to articulate who we were.
Given the advances in information technology and social media, how important is signage in a contemporary botanic garden?
Signage is a necessary evil, but I think gardens and other cultural institutions use too many signs and spoon feed information to our guests, especially when it comes to directional signage. After all, a garden experience is a journey of exploration, right? Our approach is to layer our story or whatever story it is that we are telling through multiple channels that include minimal signage, story-telling with Guest Service Associates or volunteers, on our web site, through social media like Face Book or Twitter by engaging our audience in discussion or through the merchandise that we sell in our gift shop.
What do you see as the role of botanic gardens in today’s society and what are their biggest challenges?
Public gardens are the future and I firmly believe that right now, in the early 21st century public gardens are resonating stronger than ever with communities, because of what we have to offer, which in my opinion is beauty and connecting people to nature. Our aim is connect people with plants, but in the end we want them to understand how they are connected to and a part of the greater global garden.
The biggest challenge facing public gardens is not embracing active and progressive marketing to tell our story and engage our communities. What is active and progressive marketing and how is this achieved?
Progressive marketing isn’t necessarily achieved by having a large marketing budget. Progressive marketing is about realising that public gardens are transactional in nature and are dependent upon people entering our garden gates so that we can fulfil our mission to connect people to plants. Progressive marketing is about making a decision to use whatever resources you have at hand to share the story of your garden, what makes your garden unique and to present a compelling and motivating case to make visiting your garden a priority in their life.
How does Longwood Gardens measure success and understanding of its key messages?
Our entire interpretative strategy and brand is based upon the notion that Longwood Gardens is a microcosm of the greater global garden. Our aim is to help our guests understand what makes our garden special, and therefore the greater global garden special, and worthy of their stewardship. Our website articulates this http://longwoodgardens.org/about. We measure our success by attendance, participation in our programs and guest feedback through our active guest survey program.
What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?
I am reading the novel John Adams by David McCullough. I am looking forward to reading my next book The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer.
[All images: Courtesy Longwood Gardens.]