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Museums Association Feature on Museums & Gardens

With green spaces at a premium in cities and growing public concern over pollution, climate change and biodiversity, museums are starting to look at how they can use their gardens in new ways.

Tate Britain recently unveiled plans to revamp its garden, which sits on Millbank opposite the river Thames.

The new space is being redeveloped in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society, while landscape design practice Tom Stuart-Smith Studio, in collaboration with architects Feilden Fowles, has won the tender to create the project. The Clore Duffield Foundation is funding the scheme.

“Since this area was last redesigned, the world has changed and we all feel that public spaces in the heart of our cities need to work harder,” Stuart-Smith says.

“Mown lawns and clipped hedges are hard-pressed to do this on their own. We hope to make Tate Britain a haven for wildlife, and bring beauty, complexity and joy into this garden in the heart of London.”

Reflecting priorities inside their buildings, museums are developing outdoor spaces that are more accessible and inclusive than they used to be, with some even including interpretation for visitors.

“A lot of people don’t have access to green spaces so it’s important to us that our gardens are free and open to all,” says Heather Stevens, the head gardener at the Museum of the Home in east London.

“It is important to have accessible pathways for visitors, and seating. Good plant interest all year round with signage means people can learn and see what plants are called.”

With community wellbeing also a priority, many museums are seeing their gardens as a way to support this.

“Our gardens encourage visitors to spend time outside in an oasis of calm, in a relaxing atmosphere and, of course, around wildlife,” Stevens says.

“We are also building a new Discovery Garden with local primary school children, encouraging them to learn about the mental and physical health benefits of green spaces.”

Supporting wellbeing is one of the key aims for Brighton & Hove City Council and Brighton & Hove Museums, which have received a £4.3m National Lottery Heritage Fund grant to restore the historic Royal Pavilion Garden.

“The gardens are a rare city centre green space in Brighton and are treasured by local people and visitors,” says a Brighton & Hove Museums spokesperson.

“We will be looking for creative and innovative ways to promote wellbeing, working in partnership with a wide range of people and local organisations to make the very most of the opportunity. Community engagement with the garden is an essential part of the project and wellbeing is a key part of that.”

The interpretation plan for the garden is designed to improve the wayfinding, making it easier for visitors to discover its history and its plants.

The restoration will make it safer and more accessible, while the project will also involve work with local schools and other community groups to shape the programming and interpretation.

This approach will ensure that the events and activities taking place in the garden are inclusive and appealing for a wide range of audiences.

A sanctuary for the homeless

Community engagement is central to the philosophy of the Museum of Homelessness (MoH), which has been busy developing its first permanent home in a small gatekeeper’s cottage in Finsbury Park, north London.

The organisation, which is run by people with direct experience of homelessness, sees the garden that surrounds the cottage as a core part of the experience. All visitors will take a tour that includes performance, poetry, object-handling, chats and more.

“Our museum garden is already important to the existing community,” says Jess Turtle, one of the co-founders of MoH. “People have used the site for outdoor drinking and other things for about 12 years while the site was unused.

“When we moved in, we didn’t want to displace anyone, but we also wanted to make a site of healing and recovery, so it needs to be a sober site. The first thing we did was provide things that are needed, like hot and cold-water taps, which are available 24/7. This has helped us make good relationships with people.

MoH does not need to lock the gate at night as people treat the place with respect and care, keeping to the sobriety boundaries that have been set together.

“The community has designed the transformation of the entire site and we are doing it mostly by hand,” Turtle says. “We have designed a welcome area for visitors that will challenge the stigma of homelessness. We are restoring the pond and the original pathways, and we are making a sacred space to remember those we have lost.

“Visitors will be able to explore how we reuse things that other people throw away, and the huge amount of creativity and skill that exists within our community.”

An award-winning, ecologically-minded design for a community-centric museum stems from a holistic redefinition of exhibition, storage and community spaces, all with no commensurate increase in energy use.

Entrance to Museum of the Home with people sitting on a bench in the foreground in Hackney London