COVID-19 has cast a shadow that few of us could ever have imagined. Around the world, families are grieving, lives have been put on hold, finances are squeezed. The crisis is not yet over, but hopeful stories are emerging.
In Cambridge University’s Unexpected Experience Series – we hear how individuals across the University community have coped with unexpected experiences, found new opportunities and are looking to the future.
Botanic Garden Director Beverley Glover is proud of the way the Garden opened up online access to a wide audience during the lockdown – and is determined to continue that engagement with people all over the world – but admits to tears of relief on the first day that visitors came back.
Closing the Botanic Garden on 21 March felt like shutting all the life out of an institution that thrives on its interactions with hundreds or thousands of visitors each day.
Our major concerns in those first weeks were for the safety and wellbeing of our staff and for the maintenance of our precious living collection – we have 8,000 plant species on site, each needing particular care.
Our horticulture team rose to the challenge fantastically, developing a rota with the minimum necessary staff on site each day to keep the plants alive. As the national situation worsened into the full lockdown, we even had team members with bags packed ready to move onto site to look after plants in the event that travel started to be restricted!
“Closing the Botanic Garden on 21 March felt like shutting all the life out of an institution that thrives on its interactions with hundreds or thousands of visitors each day.”
Thankfully, staff stayed healthy and so did the plants, and as the weeks passed we realised that the physical structure of the Garden would survive but that without visitors it was lacking heart. That’s when we developed our new online offering.
Every week since lockdown began, our wonderful Comms team uploaded a ‘Wellness Wander’ (a short walk through the Garden, filmed by one of the horticulture team on their phone), a family activity pack, a ‘Gardening Club’ video (recorded by our Learning team in their own back gardens), some short ‘Botanic Bites’ films, and a daily plant quiz.
These have all been enormously popular, with website visitors from around the world telling us how much they enjoy it all. It was fantastic to realise how far love of the Botanic Garden could spread online, and we’re determined to continue with some of these activities into the future.
We were able to reopen the Botanic Garden to visitors on 9 June. The plants have survived, and the wildlife has thrived (particularly the muntjac I can see from my office window!), but we wondered how the visitors would be.
“Most visitors in the first days were on their own, or in pairs, and they all wanted to talk. They told us about their weeks in isolation, their fears for family and friends, and about their own health issues. They all told us that online views of the Garden had kept them going, but that they had missed the smells and sounds of the plants in real life.”
A lot of work went into preparing the site, and developing our new online ticketing system to limit visitor numbers. On the first morning I waited anxiously by our newly screened-in ticket office, to see if people would come to queue on our socially distanced spray-painted leaves outside the gate. They did, and they were all absolutely thrilled to be back!
One visitor told me of her cancer diagnosis in lockdown, and of how the thought of walking round the Garden again had kept her going through dark days. That brought on my tears – of relief that we’d been able to keep the collection alive, of gratitude to the wonderful team who’ve been on this journey with me, and of joy that the Garden means so much to so many people. I’m so glad we can share that joy with people all round the world.”
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