Zewditu Gebreyohanes

Head of History Matters Read Full Bio

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Kew Gardens’ move to scrap “decolonisation” initiative welcomed, after Policy Exchange report

Jan 18, 2022

 

On Saturday (15 January) Richard Deverell, Director of RBG Kew, announced that Kew would be abandoning the “decolonisation” agenda to which it had committed soon after the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. This welcome announcement comes just a fortnight after the publication of a Policy Exchange report—Politicising Plants: Does “decolonising” the botanical collections at Kew undermine its core mission?—which I co-authored with the celebrated garden historian and writer (and Kew diploma-holder) Ursula Buchan and the Cambridge legal scholar Professor Christopher Forsyth QC (Hon.).

Our paper highlights the clear stipulation in the National Heritage Act 1983, which established the current structure and governance of RBG Kew, that all of Kew’s activities must pertain to the “science of plants”. By definition, exploration of the history behind the collection of plants (such as in the form of new notice boards for sugar cane exploring its historic links to slavery, as had been proposed by Deverell in March 2021), or moral analysis of the means by which some of the plants were collected or of the botanists themselves—let alone the publication of politically-charged statements supporting controversial movements such as Black Lives Matter—has nothing to do with the “science of plants”, making any such activity on the part of Kew ultra vires.

All institutions funded by public money must remain accountable to the taxpayer and true to their founding values and principles, which means that Kew is right to scrap its decolonisation agenda, albeit far too late in doing so. Kew is the world’s leading botanical institution, whose prestige depends on its unique ability to preserve its unparalleled plant collections, and to research and educate the public about the science of plants—not on absurd, irrelevant and politically charged initiatives.

Relatedly, in a press release last Monday (10 January) Kew Gardens announced a new pricing concession for Universal and Pension Credit recipients, who will henceforth be able to visit Kew for a mere £1, as compared to the usual £19.50 for a standard adult ticket purchased at the door. The reformed pricing strategy may be a step in the right direction when it comes to making Kew more accessible to all, irrespective of ethnic background: one of the three recommendations in our paper was that “RBG Kew should review its pricing strategy to ensure that it is affordable and inclusive”. Our reasoning was that, given Kew’s claim that its drive to decolonise its plant collections is to achieve greater inclusivity, it could more effectively achieve this aim by lowering its prohibitively high ticket prices.

There is, however, undeniably more to be done, as Kew’s old entry prices still apply to those between the ages of 24 and 65 who are not benefits recipients. As Ursula Buchan recalls from her time there in the 1970s, entry to Kew used to be a mere penny then. Adjusted for inflation, therefore, the cost of entry has increased almost fifty-fold since then.

It is a positive sign that Kew Gardens has been receptive to our criticisms and recommendations, and has acted so swiftly to put an end to its unlawful activity. Pertinent questions still remain, however. Why did it take an independently-conducted report to make Kew’s leadership realise that what they were doing was unlawful? Were Kew’s Trustees made aware of, and given the opportunity to have a say on, the activities that took place in relation to decolonisation? If not, why not? And why has Kew been so opaque about its decolonisation activities (to give one example, Kew’s World Heritage Site Management Plan 2020–2025 makes a fleeting reference to the establishment of a ‘Decolonising Kew’ working group “in response to the events of 2020”, yet there are no publicly-available documents explaining who set up this working group; of whom it consists; what its objectives are; or how much public funding has gone towards it)?

It is time for some much-needed self-reflection on the part of Kew, and the answers to these questions should inform the way in which Kew progresses as an institution; there are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt to prevent Kew, and indeed similar institutions, from falling foul of their statutory obligations.

Zewditu Gebreyohanes

Head of History Matters Read Full Bio

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