Kew Gardens is right to confront its role in the history of British colonialism and racism
For those fortunate enough to live within reach of one of them, the UK’s botanical gardens have provided a remarkable escape from the travails of the pandemic. From Belfast’s Botanic Gardens to the Royal Botanic Garden in Benmore, to the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Llanarthne and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, they have given visitors precious space, greenery and fresh air. As spring arrives in its fickle fits and starts, they provide breathtaking displays of seasonal flora: at Kew, carpets of sky-blue scilla and groves of flowering magnolia; at Benmore, tides of rhododendrons.
But botanical gardens are not just green spaces for exercise and diversion. Indeed, in the past they have most frequently been framed as mainly scientific institutions, important hubs of botanical research. The appeal to “science” often lends a kind of implied political and social neutrality to these institutions. But they are far from apolitical. Science, of course, is as susceptible to prejudice and politics as any other human endeavour. And when botanical gardens are properly considered as cultural spaces, not just scientific ones, their role in history and society becomes more complex.