Chelsea Physic Garden

Blog: Gardens & Living Collections

Policy Blog - Heritage Debate 2022

Blog from Sue Medway, Director of Chelsea Physic Garden, on the future of heritage.

Shared in the lead-up to The Heritage Alliance’s Heritage Debate 2022: Heritage in 20 years.

Chelsea Physic Garden

Heritage in 20 Years: what will matter most?

I would like to make a pitch for there to be consideration that living collections, in our case, plants, will matter as much as any museum or heritage collection and historic and botanic gardens should be considered as worthy of being able to apply for a category of museum status.

Chelsea Physic Garden has existed in the same location in SW3 on the banks of the Thames fronting Royal Hospital Road for 349 years. 1.5 hectares it contains over 4,000 taxa (different plants) with a plant database that totals some 20,000 plants. 

Registered as a botanic garden (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) our plant collections are managed with the same level of curatorial rigor as any museum collection. Every individual plant has an inventory number on the database, we know which plant the seed, or cutting came from, or if from another collection, and from the point of germination its progress to the point of planting is tracked.  Even if the plant dies, its record remains. We have a Conservation Plan and an Acquisitions & Disposals Policy like any other museum.

The expertise of horticulture staff are unfortunately often not respected, certainly not to the degree to which a museum curator or a registrar might be acknowledged. The training botanic horticulture staff undertake is comprehensive and lengthy and includes science, botany, taxonomy, alongside the many practical skills of gardening that are required and what people mostly see. 

It matters that people think of historic Gardens and their collections like living museums to ensure that they remain on the national and international agenda and receive the same level of support as heritage sites and museum collections.

It matters too that our ability to provide important access to green space is respected. Plant collections such as ours can help to tell important stories about how the world’s climate is changing and demonstrate climate mitigation impacts, in a way that people can relate to in their own lives. Whilst not belittling the catastrophic impact of the loss of the Amazon Rain Forest, we find that many people cannot relate to the impact at home. Demonstrating the impacts in the Physic Garden helps people to think about their own actions. Relying on our planting records over many years allows us to demonstrate how the Garden and its planting has change and to help people understand to what degree that is an impact of a changing climate.

Heritage in 20 years – What will matter most – respect for Gardens and living collections and the people who look after them– they have never just been plants, gardens, and gardeners.

– Sue Medway, Director Chelsea Physic Garden

All images in this blog are from Chelsea Physic Garden [Alliance member].

Explore other perspectives on ‘Heritage in 20 Years: what will matter most’ over on our event page for Heritage Debate 2022.