diverse voices

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    Halls Hill Labyrinth constructed by Jeffrey Bale in 2014, Bainbridge Island, Washington

    In mid-October I was moderating a panel discussion topic “Curating Through a Different Lens: Bio-cultural Collections and Traditional Knowledge” at the American Public Gardens Association Collections Symposium in Vancouver, BC.  Upon my return to New York I’ve been thinking about how I might extend this work to support diverse voices beyond this session given I’m now spending my day job as a research and teaching facilities manager at a big agriculture school.  Part of that inquiry and exploration of thought has brought me to sharing some of the 10-minute introduction for our session here on this blog in hopes that others may see extensions and connections with the work I’m trying to create.  

    I’ve been diving into the question of what a social role public gardens might have in current socio-economic and biological contexts since my graduate work at UMass Boston.  And the images shown on rotation during this overview of our session will give you some context of my own journey through these questions.  I’ve had a rather traditional career in public horticulture both on the East and West coasts of the United States, but the seed of my wonder for plants and appreciation for cultural diversity was planted on the summer road trips my parents took their children on.  No doubt my young curiosity and excitement for difference brought me to anthropology and horticulture as my undergraduate work.  These became places where I could start to name and make sense of how plants were related to each other and how different world-views and relationships to nature brought beauty to our shared humanity.
    Through my work and community of friends following my formal education I became intimately aware that there are other valid ways of thinking about relationship to land, to people and all living beings.  And I embarked on the career many of you know me for as a plants-woman, designer, plant recorder, curator and photographer.
    But the elite and colonial history of horticulture in relationship to a new social purpose for botanic gardens is troubling me.  And I want to do something to help bring different voices and practices into the world that honor more sustainable and ethical ways of knowing and practicing relationships.  My first opportunity to practice this within collections management was for Cornell Botanic Gardens where I crafted a collections policy that opens opportunity for community curated bio-cultural collections and addressed ethical and diversity issues for acquisitions.  I also continue to teach and engage with communities of collaborative learning practice in the Science in a Changing World Program at UMass Boston.  When I was promoted in July this year to manage 127,000 sq. ft. of research greenhouse facilities, 150 environmental growth chambers and a research quarantine facility for arthropods, the policy was not yet adopted by the garden’s advisory committee and I suspect will go through another version with a new Director of Horticulture before the garden has strategy to support the policy.
    Eight years ago I started thinking about collections beyond their taxonomy and in the context of climate change, one bio-cultural story that’s affecting our global community.  But I’m also thinking beyond our collections in the eyes of western beauty, science, use and knowledge.  Some gardens have culinary or medicinal collections with amazing interpretation strategy.  Some gardens tell the stories of arts and humanities from cultures around the world.   But I’m asking the question if curating our collections in our traditional ways is enough if we are going to start thinking about our collections as bio-cultural collections.  I’m asking the question if diverse worldview representation in our interpretation programs should extend into our collections management strategies as really living in practice what we say we are doing.  I’m not dismissing the value that western culture has, I’m suggesting that we have an opportunity to give voice to the breadth of knowledge within the human experience.

    I was fortunate to bring together Nancy Turner, Pepeyla Miller, Sadafumi Uchiyama and Michael DeMotta for our session.  In each of their ways they contributed greatly to the ethics and practices of curation and relationships.  My intention was to make a space that helps open an exploration of what curating bio-cultural collections might mean at audience member’s institutions with four perspectives on ethics, relationships and practice.

    I shared long introductions to help place some context of each presenters experience in relationship with our topic.  Their diverse stories did not prescribe take home curation strategies.  But they brought up questions and tensions that might be an opening for exploring how audience members might think about curation differently in the unique contexts of their collections and institutions.  This was purposeful because to prescribe practices or strategies is reinforcing colonial power dynamics.  And just as we formed the focus and participation in our session through a collaborative process, others will need to build their own communities of engagement in their workplaces.

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