On Monday 22nd May, just in time for Chelsea Flower Show, the Garden Museum will re-open its doors to the public after a lengthy, but very successful, programme of extension and refurbishment. The impressive results were on show last week at a press launch. Although work will continue right up to the wire what the first paying visitors will see on the 22nd is impressive and transformative. This has always been a very good museum, however strapped for resources it was. It is now an exceptional one and reflects the massive efforts of the Director, Christopher Woodward, the staff, the Trustees, and its numerous supporters at every level including the financial one.
This is the second phase of the Museum’s development programme and was enabled by £3.5 million of Lottery based money fully matched by funds raised by the Museum. The new work has a strong focus on the local and wider communities. It drives forward a process of engagement with the wider world. It is especially orientated towards education and developing young peoples’ interest in botany, horticulture and sustainability. At the same time, and without creating a mood of elitism, you can find numerous reminders of the art of fine gardening and its constant engagement with the rich, the famous and the grand.
The Museum is based in, and is the long leaseholder of, the redundant and previously abandoned church of St Mary at Lambeth. The church’s original structure and the estimated 20,000 bodies interred there have to be fully protected so the new work is completely reversible if needs be. This design challenge has been most elegantly met by a series of lightweight solutions superimposed on the original structure without altering it. Engineering features have been developed to bridge protected areas and structures such as graveyards, vaults and the original structure and many features of the church.
The architects, Dow Jones, have further developed a long standing relationship with the Museum dating back to before 2008. The results of the building programme are manifested not only in individual buildings and services but also in the powerful sense of light, flow and structure that has transformed the Museum.
The lucid airy space engages visitors by its contents, displays, history and connections to the world as a whole. At a purely practical level it no longer feels cramped and random. The building is warm for the first time in ten centuries, at last possesses properly working loos, and now exudes a strong sense of purpose.
You enter the Museum through a new front garden, still under construction as this is written, and then move through the main body of the church filled with display galleries at ground and clerestory levels. You can visit a recreation of Tradescant’s original “Ark” or Museum that subsequently formed the basis of the Ashmolean. This room is fittingly resourced by a core of valuable and generous long term loans from today’s Ashmolean. These include a reconstruction of Tradescants’ collection of shells, a stuffed crocodile, original portraits, and private possessions. In the centre of the floor is a sealed glass panel covering a steep stair to the vaults of the church, where the tombs of five Archbishops of Canterbury were discovered during the building works. Elias Ashmole’s black memorial ledger slab was also discovered during the works and is on show nearby. Elsewhere in the main body of the Church is a study room, while the Archive of Garden Design, containing the works of Russell Page, Beth Chatto, John Brookes and Penelope Hobhouse amongst others, is now up and running.
You then pass into the new structures based around the old churchyard. They form a cloister of bronze clad buildings (the cladding is made of T shaped metal tiles intended to suggest the bark of neighbouring plane trees). The new work is centred on the Tradescants’ and Admiral Bligh’s tombs and set in a Dan Pearson garden of many semi-exotics that might be called a “vitrine” or “half a Wardian case”. You can see through the glass windowed buildings, including a cafe and education spaces to external roads and the world beyond the Museum. It is not too fanciful to claim that the process of looking in and out through glass corresponds to the process of global discovery and engagement by botany and horticulture through time and space. The retention and centrality of the two tombs within the garden is of the utmost importance. Both Tradescants of course won fame as explorers, plant collectors and catalysts of change in the seventeenth century. Admiral Bligh is popularly renowned as the villainous and authoritarian captain of the Bounty. However, in conversation that day I learnt that after his reinstatement he made a second successful voyage, taking breadfruit to Jamaica. He thereby provided a food source that saved the lives of many thousands of freed slaves in the 1830s.
The themes of the whole courtyard express not only the excitement of possession of plants and knowledge but also the moral ambiguity that is an inevitable consequence of setting out to understand and conquer the world. The Tradescants may have sought to create a second Eden by re-assembling all the plants they believed to have been in the first in their Lambeth house. Their successor in the Museum shows us exactly how the process of man’s interaction with nature has consequences, good and bad, far beyond the expectations of those who originally thought, almost innocently, that they might master and control it.