Groundbreakers: Evoking Garden History

Author: admin  //  Category: landscaping ideas

Karen Daubmann is NYBG’s AVP for Exhibitions. She has researched, planned, and installed over 50 exhibitions in her seven years at the Garden.


The moon gate in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden

The Free Dictionary defines “evocation” as the creation anew through the power of the memory or imagination. In the exhibitions department at The New York Botanical Garden we craft exhibitions years in advance with the intent of bringing to life distant lands, famous people, interesting plants, rarely seen gardens, and fantastical landscapes. Creating evocations is our job, and one that we take great pride in doing.

Not only do we bring the visual (garden composition) to the visitor, we also bring content to enrich their experience—including catalogs, signage, audio tours, plant tours, iPhone apps, related poetry tours, and programming. Our goals are to transport you, to immerse you, to educate you, and maybe, just for a moment, to help you forget about your life outside the Garden gates. Using our upcoming exhibition as an example, Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and The Women Who Designed Them, I’d like to show you some of the behind the scenes of how we put together the exhibitions.

Starting with an exhibition idea, we begin to plot the idea on our calendar and determine which exhibitions will come before and after it. Initial themes are developed and concepts for the designs are discussed. Early in the process, a scouting mission is planned, so that any physical locations relating to the topic can be photographed and documented. Later, visits to libraries and archives are planned so that assets for the galleries and related collateral can be gathered.

Initial visits to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine were incredibly promising. Though Seal Harbor is difficult to access and the Rockefeller Garden has restricted access, it is a phenomenal garden that inspires with its plant palette, site, hardscape, and maturity. Here are a few of my photos from the trip.

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While visiting I imagined Abby and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. walking the site with Beatrix Farrand, talking about the guests that they hosted in July and August, and about the wonderful statuary that they’d acquired during their travels in Asia. I picture Farrand feverishly sketching, noting the clear blue skies, the rocky shores, and tall stands of evergreens. When I visit these historic sites I always feel like I walk in the footsteps of those who went before me. These visionaries took the time to create a legacy that represents them, they selected the site, the collaborators, the plants, and the stewards who have kept the gardens steady through time.

My visit was on a bright August day, when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Lilies flowered next to delphinium and foxglove. Outside the pink boundary wall mixed plantings of blueberries, cranberries, winterberry, and fern sprung up through dense carpets of moss.

An early sketch of the Groundbreakers exhibition plan

An early sketch of the Groundbreakers exhibition plan

Once the site visit concludes, exhibition planning kicks into high gear with creation of initial plant lists, conceptual designs, and exhibit descriptions, all of which typically feed into grant proposals. As we move forward, the imagery that is gathered is sent to our set designers and they meet with our team onsite so that we can determine how best to showcase the actual garden’s site features within our own spaces. We begin to see shop drawings from the set designers and then we see images from their shop as the construction starts to take shape. Months go by as we continually plug along creating text for many of our interpretive uses. As we near the opening, we begin to schedule all of the pieces of the installation—from bringing in the set pieces, then the trees, shrubs, flowers, signs, and labels.

I have to say, my favorite moment is the moment just before an exhibition opens. It is crisp, dewy, and picture perfect. I stand there with my colleagues placing the last labels and signs. We feel transported back to the place we visited years before, and yes, we feel Seal Harbor, Maine in our evocation.

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