Missouri Botanical Garden
A short walk from the leafy suburban streets of my digs in St Louis is the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Well, it looked like a short walk. I trudged through the massive Tower Grove park which, complete with fountains, follies and the kinds of shady rotunda you would expect from Missouri, could be a botanic garden of its own accord. A 200 year old wall leading up the eastern edge creates an excellent preview for what is to come as small, iron fenced sections reveal the secret garden that lies within. Entrance is via a huge 1970s disaster of a welcome centre complete with easy listening sax. Once inside the gardens, though you realise this is a particularly special place. The warm, wet Missouri weather in addition to the boundless supply of water afforded by the Mississippi makes this quite honestly one of the most spectacular parks I have visited before.
The Japanese Garden
Founded in 1959 by philanthropist Henry Shaw, the gardens are still a functioning botanical research facility. And are massive. There are several really stunning Victorian buildings on the grounds including what was originally Shaw’s house. The inside is divided into two sections, one grand wing befitting the social status of its master and the other very straightforward servant’s quarters. Also in the grounds is a Japanese garden that, largely due to its scale really makes you gasp. There’s also the “Climatron” – a huge greenhouse structure for exotic and tropical plants. It’s like the botanical gardens of the future. Actually, make anything a geodesic dome and add “tron” to the end of its name and you’ve basically got the Jetsons.
As beautiful as the gardens are though, I’m not really the type to be happy with your usual, run of the mill front of house experience. I had heard from one of the rare books librarians at the State Library of Victoria that the Missouri Botanical Gardens has its own library with a really impressive rare books collection as well. The chipper attendant at front desk of the gardens, however informed me that it was not open to the public and that I might prefer to visit the gardens’ education centre instead. I don’t think so. A quick phone call and a bit of digging around to find the right person and off I went to the Peter H. Raven Library. A heavily fortified gate was downstairs and after buzzing several times, rare books librarian Linda Oestry came down to meet me with a suspicious look on her face. After I told her the reason for my trip around the USA, however she was happy to show me the incredible collection of extremely rare botanical books the library holds. First port of call was a first edition copy of Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of the Species’ purchased at a steal for 50 pounds in the early 20th century, according to a hand written note on the inside of the cover.
Said rare book.
Also in the collection is a first American edition of the same book which was donated by a wealthy friend of the gardens some ten years ago – apparently this was just his “desk copy”. The collection itself houses several thousand rare books and manuscripts, far too many to mention here. In fact, as Linda told me they are still discovering amazing rarities they didn’t realise they had. The collection itself dates back to the original founding of the Botanical Gardens – some of the books belonged to Henry Shaw himself. Most touching is a large tome with plates from the English naturalist Mark Catesby which contain exquisitely hand drawn images of birds from the New World, many of which are now extinct.
The Parrot of Paradise of Cuba (now extinct) from Mark Catesby's 'Natural History'
Most of these were etched and hand coloured around 1730 and are such beautiful treasures – although Linda finds his style slightly amateurish and “folk arty”. Having bothered Linda enough for one afternoon, I went my own way happy that I got to see something really special few visitors get to see or even know that they exist.
Admission: $12 - bit pricey
Digital Engagement: Wayfinding is limited to a printed leaflet and physical signage. Relic of a website. The Library itself has its own nightmare of a website but is currently engaged in a digitisation project of these priceless works. Scans provided from any of the works on request for free so long as it is for research.
American Alliance of Museums Day 2
I continued attending a bunch of seminars at the American Alliance of Museums annual conference which was my main reason for visiting St Louis. Such an excellent bunch of very clever people to have in one location. One thing that struck me, though from many of the talks was a desire for activism from many of the museums’ workers given the current political climate in the USA. Granted, these people are largely left leaning liberal Democrats however the desperation to make change is palpable. The last session I attended – “Designing Outrage – Inviting Disruption into Museums” was focussed squarely on this issue. Two of the presenters had actually been pulled up by their board and attendees for acting outside the perceived remit of the museum. All of this hit a fairly sombre tone, except for Jennifer Scott, director of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago who literally gave a megaphone to those in her community who are unable to vote whose thoughts on the electoral process in America were then blasted from a second story window.