Curatorial Practices for Botanical Gardens. 2007. T.C. Hohn. AltaMira Press (A division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), Lanham, MD. 227 pages. $39.95. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 978-0-7591-1063-2.
Many signs indicate that as a discipline, the curation of living plant collections is maturing: undergraduate courses continue to crop up; graduate students turn out more theses; in 2007 the American Public Gardens Association offered a professional development symposium dedicated to the subject; and Public Horticulture recently was added as a section in HortTechnology. And now, Timothy Hohn leads us on an excellent academic foray into the science and systems of living collections management in his original textbook Curatorial Practices for Botanical Gardens.
Thus far, the only consolidated resource has been The Darwin Technical Manual for Botanic Gardens, published in 1998 by Botanic Gardens Conservation International. Although The Darwin Manual is a valuable handbook, particularly at the practical level, it lacks the broader, philosophical perspective of Hohn's new book, which combines the author's intimate knowledge of botanic garden work with a solid understanding of museum practice and theory. In fact, the author spends a great deal of time relating garden collections to the museum world—and vice versa—an action that may seem unusual or even anathema to some in the garden community. However, I applaud his approach. Rather than simply documenting how plant collections are curated, he outlines the way they should be curated, a presentation which is more apt to trigger a necessary paradigm shift.
Curatorial Practices for Botanical Gardens is organized into seven chapters, each abundantly footnoted with relevant citations. An even broader bibliography appears at the end. The first chapter affirms the seating of botanic gardens at the museum table by acknowledging their unique collections and need for proper curation. Chapter two, on collection governance, is useful and thought-provoking as it delves into aspects ranging from the preparation of a collections-management policy to dealing with ethical dilemmas that may surface along the way. The succeeding chapter on Building Collections outlines various approaches to plant acquisition, and the author does a fine job of reminding readers of the critical importance of following the policy and plan described in the previous chapter.
Information not only distinguishes a botanical collection (or any collection, for that matter) from a random assemblage of things, but also provides it with value. And thus to me, the most important chapter is the fourth: Documenting Collections. Hohn details the intrinsic significance of documentation by referencing the seven customary documentation stages for museum collections, which, to some, may seem over-the-top or unnecessary as an operational model for a garden. However, these concepts are well worth consideration, when practicable, for integration into our standard curatorial practices, whether one's collection is a display garden, a germplasm repository, or one of the many gradations in between. In fact, this chapter should be read multiple times by those involved in database design, records management, data collection, and other curatorial tasks.
Following this chapter is one on collection preservation, which comprises more than a few interesting nuggets. The author not only discusses preserving individual objects (i.e., sound horticultural practices), but also their genetic, historic, and programmatic integrities. The sixth chapter deals wholly with Collections Research, where Hohn firmly recognizes the primacy of collections research (as opposed to research that just takes place at the institution) for botanical gardens. In particular, I appreciate his egalitarian perspective that encourages all collections, regardless of size and scope, to take part in the discovery process. This section also contains some valuable insights of use to off-site researchers (e.g., university academics) who may be using botanical collections in their project work. The final chapter, though perhaps a bit too brief, pertains to the interplay between public programs and collections.
Throughout, the book provides specific approaches and tactics taken by gardens (as well as other institutions); however, I hungered for more and feel that it would have benefited from additional case studies. Perhaps, the author was reluctant to play favorites—or just the opposite, cautious to point out bad examples. In addition to the use of additional figures and illustrations, I would have liked also to see a summary chapter that tied the various threads together. However, the lack of these in no way diminishes the quality of the text. Among other aspects, one thing I found useful was the author's consistent use of recommendations, placed within textboxes and presented as basic, intermediate, and advanced targets—this presentation is of particular value for institutions assessing their current practices and establishing benchmarks for the future. And, again, Hohn's commitment to scholarship is exemplified by his thorough use of citations from a wide body of literature, some of which may be foreign to the reader and worthy of future exploration.
To the museum professional, this book links the theory and basics of curatorial science to the nuanced reality of managing living plants. To the student and educator, this text serves as a primary resource, providing insight into a topic under-represented in survey courses in public garden management. And to the practitioner, be they administrator, curator, or gardener, the book is a valuable tool to use when making strategic and tactical decisions related to collections management. It rests on my shelf within easy reach.