We often refer to the Chicago Botanic Garden as a “living museum.” As an art historian and a natural history museum aficionado, this term makes sense to me.
When I worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, I helped curate the 1995 encyclopedic Claude Monet: 1840–1926 retrospective. So, when I first joined the Garden in 2006 and began thinking about the “living museum” term, I recalled that experience. Indeed, what canvas is more similar to Monet’s than our garden’s 385 acres of exquisitely arranged plants that change with the light and weather hour-to-hour—exactly like Monet’s Impressionist subjects? And then I considered the hundreds of millions of specimens in the collections of natural history museums; the only difference between these institutions’ curated collections and the Garden’s is their current state of life.
When we slow down enough to look carefully, museum collections provide us with tremendous opportunities to learn about ourselves—and the world. At botanic gardens, plants provide us with inspiration and metaphors for life; trees, flowers, grasses, shrubs, and their cycles of life reflect our own. Similarly, at an art museum, by examining closely and quietly paintings and sculptures, we open our minds to the complexity, creativity, and diversity of people who have lived and now occupy our planet. Studying the skeletons, insects and birds, ceremonial clothing, and objects from daily life in natural history museums allows us to celebrate both the magical and mundane aspects of the human spirit and to marvel at the exquisite miracle of evolution. The same can be said for the experience at a zoo or an aquarium—two other “living museum” examples. These institutions provide us a unique opportunity to admire, and also to protect through breeding and conservation programs, animals whose natural habitats are worlds away from our own.
Common to all of these museum experiences is that the original “object”—whether a plant, painting, fossil, mask, fish, or monkey—is the focal point. The experience of activating all of our senses when encountering something that has been crafted by a person, by nature, or as a result of some human-nature collaboration (which is usually the case) cannot be replicated online, in print, or on the screen. Those experiences matter, too. And even though I love and admire National Geographic across all its media, I am never so moved as when I take in the paintings in a brilliantly curated art exhibition, examine the fossils or stones in a perfectly explained science exhibition, contemplate the earth and its people while examining a compelling collection of artifacts, or stop to admire the play of colors, composition, form, and chiaroscuro (the contrasts of lights and darks) of an expertly crafted garden bed.
As you can tell, I love all types of museums. However, I owe my passion for living museums, especially botanic gardens, to Lewis and Clark. Why? A couple of years before the bicentennial of the explorers’ journey, I set out on a tour of the Pacific Northwest. I was working for the Field Museum at the time. My mission was to figure out how to create an exhibition that would rival the Missouri Historical Society’s planned anniversary show, a show chock-full of all the original artifacts such as diaries and navigation devices that had been touched by Lewis and Clark’s own hands.
While I never did figure out an exhibition for the Field (since no original artifacts would be available to come to Chicago, we finally gave up since an exhibition of replicas wouldn’t do), I did stumble upon the passion that would guide the next chapter of my career.
After driving three hours through verdant, wooded, beautiful Washington State, I parked my car and started to climb the wooden staircase up a steep hill to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at the mouth of the Columbia River. Along both sides of the steep path, nature was thriving. In the still-cool late-morning air, I saw and smelled—could almost taste!—moss and lichen in dozens of shades of green, gray, and yellow; ferns, mosses, and trees; and small and large butterflies. I knew at that moment that I wanted to give people, especially those from Chicago’s urban center, the opportunity to experience nature first-hand.
And that is when my journey to the Chicago Botanic Garden began, my definition of a museum expanded, and my commitment to sharing with all people the wide variety of fascinating and inspiring curated collections became life-long.
©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org