I got to live that very example last week. Rainey Tisdale and I were invited to present at the Longwood Gardens' Graduate Symposium on Daring Dialogue. For those of you who haven't been, Longwood is a premier public garden, outside Wilmington, Delaware (but in Pennsylvania) and every year, the small cohort of graduate students take on the planning of a symposium (and do a fabulous job on every detail!)
I don't know much about public gardens, and even less about horticulture. I've visited them (most recently to see the Frida Kahlo show at the New York Botanical Garden) but I certainly wasn't aware of the issues that concern their field and how it might intersect with museum work.
But over the course of great meals, conversation and presentations, with colleagues and students from the United States, Canada and the UK, I got the chance to learn about their work and ways in which we face similar issues and yet others that are very different. I learned about the dearth of young horticulturalists (and the fascinating work being done by YoungHort in the UK); I heard Nayra Pacheco's story of visiting a public garden with her father and then concrete strategies for engaging communities from her perspective as a community activist, important strategies valuable to both museums and gardens. Guina Hammond shared the way West Philadelphia's Mantua Peace Garden is a place of civic engagement, a place where the issues of poor health and access to resources begin to be addressed.
In small groups, we talked about the issues of raising tough issues when you're not yet walking the walk. What happens, for instance, when you talk pesticides, but still use them; or when you discuss climate change but your large, expensive to heat conservatory is still a key feature? How can we become places for thoughtful dialogue around these issues? (and no surprise, Sarah Pharoan of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience made an eloquent and passionate argument that included yes, we can and the how of doing so). Can we make the case for just beauty as a reason for our existence? As Paul Redman, Executive Director of Longwood said, must public gardens do more. Our conversations continued and flowed, even talking about what gardening-related movies worth seeing and books worth reading, causing all of us at our dinner table to haul out our smartphones to look up movie titles and make notes of books.
Two cross-pollination take-aways for me.
One, beautiful spaces matter. It was quite amazing to be able to walk into the conservatory at breaks. To look, to smell, to appreciate beauty. Imagine what all our conferences would be like if we could do more of this.
Two, how could history museums think more like seed-sharing programs? Over dinner, Mark Stewart of the Toronto Botanical Garden and I got talking about seed libraries and seed sharing programs that send seeds out with community volunteers, in the hopes that participants will plant seeds, grow something, and return seeds to be grown the next year by new people. But what if people don't return the seeds, I wondered. "It doesn't matter," he said. At least one person always does, and those seeds are enough to start all next year. It's a kind of generosity of spirit that I think we can use more of. I'm not quite sure how and what I might dream up for a history museum to do this way, but I'll definitely be spending a bit of incubation time, as my own, oft-neglected flowers come up this spring.
Okay, one more. Any event that puts people in conversation together is a wonderful thing.