University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

Art & Science of Curation: A ‘Living’ Collection

The Art & Science of Curation is a project which explores ideas around Curation and the role of the curator. Over the coming year, we will be inviting people from both within and outside our museums to share their thoughts on curation.  We want to build a body of writings which articulate and explore the many different ways in which a curator can curate, and each week we’ll be posting a new piece of writing here on our blog.  If you feel you’ve something interesting to say, do please get in touch about contributing. Find out more about the Art & Science of Curation on our website.

A ‘Living’ Collection
Tim Upson, Curator and Deputy Director, Cambridge University Botanic Garden

cache_wMvEfCu_15981The Garden is alive with activity. A green woodpecker seeks out ants on the lawn, a fresh scraping is perhaps the sign of a midnight feast by our resident badgers. The gates open and we welcome visitors – a family and child taking their first steps in discovering nature, a regular visitor keen to see how the Garden has changed today, a school party heading to the warmth of the glasshouses to learn that plants are essential to our lives in providing food, shelter, fuel and medicines. Lunch brings office workers keen to escape for an hour and find fresh air and inspiration. Our trainee horticulturists are being schooled in the science of plant identification – winter twigs this week. We welcome researchers eager for a stem or leaf that are key to their experiment, perhaps to explore the structural properties of a tree or the colour patterns of a flower. Others come to check their plants, neatly laid out in rows under experimental conditions, seeking new knowledge.

The Garden is diverse. Our collection is a unique mix of over 8000 plants from around the world giving a glimpse into the wondrous diversity of plants. Some specimens are long term inmates enjoyed by all for over 170 years, some will be here briefly, the details of the collection are constantly changing. Colourful orchid’s nurtured behind the scenes, are being brought forward to create an inspiring new display – our month long orchid festival. Bright colourful Vanda orchids suspended over a pool will no doubt be the stars – but we hope they will encourage people to look further and understand the intricacies of an orchid flower and its close evolutionary relationship with pollinators. Orchids mounted on bare trees show to many people’s surprise that most are epiphytes, growing on other plants, stems trailing along branches and roots adapted to absorb water from the moist air.

The Garden is dynamic. It’s a living ecosystem which we seek to manage and perhaps never quite tame. Secateurs cut and train, seeking to control or to rejuvenate. Compost carefully made over the summer is spread to reinvigorate the soil for the coming season. Seeds are sown to reap a harvest in many months time. But with life ‘inevitably’ comes death. A fallen tree, this one not blown over in a storm, but deliberately felled – its branches now too weak to allow people to walk safely beneath. With this loss come new views, the beauty of another tree revealed from a fresh angle, but more importantly a new opportunity for life. With a young tree fresh from the nursery and knowledge of its growth characteristics, we decide on its position thinking 100 years into the future to ensure our tree will be one admired by future generations.

The ringing bell signals it is time to depart as another day draws to a close. We wait with quiet anticipation to see what will have changed tomorrow.

4 comments on “Art & Science of Curation: A ‘Living’ Collection

  1. tamara
    April 18, 2014

    Reblogged this on My Botanical Garden.

  2. Chas Spain
    April 18, 2014

    Great to find your site – such a beautiful part of the world to be in. At my last visit to Cambridge I had enough time to enjoy the Polar Museum which was a real delight.

  3. simon7banks
    April 21, 2014

    I used to visit this botanic garden quite often as a student, and as my subject was History, it wasn’t for study reasons.

  4. camunivmuseums
    April 22, 2014

    Thank you for all the comments, it’s great to know people are enjoying the blog!

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