Upcoming events will fund plant research, says Heather Jackson
While the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is privileged to occupy a special place in the affections of those who recognise it as a place of peace and beauty, those who work within the wider organisation have a different perspective. Life in the natural world is not rosy; times are tough and robust measures are required in the battle to resolve key environmental issues before it is too late.
Now is not the time to be quiet about the need for income generation.
The reality is complex. RBGE is a world-renowned centre of scientific and horticultural excellence that also happens to have evolved into a major free attraction which welcomes almost 800,000 visitors a year.
At the same time, it is a registered charity obtaining 70 per cent of its funding from the Scottish Government.
In fact, despite its singular title, RBGE is not one garden but four. Along with the main Edinburgh site, it cares for Benmore, in Argyll; Logan, in Dumfries & Galloway; and Dawyck, in the Scottish Borders. Between them, these four sites hold an internationally important collection of plants crucial to our research and conservation projects around the world. But they are costly to run and, as a charity, RBGE must generate an element of its own income.
That has long been the case. Since its founding in 1670, the garden has a traceable history of surviving and developing by nurturing an ability to make friends and encourage support for its core interests of taxonomy and horticulture. Welcoming visitors is nothing new. Records of 1719 show that the lease renewal for the garden’s second site within the grounds of Trinity Hospital – better known today as platform 11 at Waverley Station – makes provision for the patients to “walk at their pleasure”.
But we live in increasingly challenging times. So, while the words “raising revenue” may not appear to sit easily alongside “scientific research institute”, the stark reality is that we must become increasingly clever at monetising our assets. We must continue to look towards engaging with a wider public and provoking a desire to engage. At RBGE we are fortunate to have an outstandingly beautiful Living Collection of plant species from around the world. We also have amazing Herbarium, Library and Archive Collections. Not forgetting our “fifth collection”, a very driven workforce with a commitment to working for the environment.
So far we have not done badly. In Edinburgh alone we have achieved a five-star quality tourism award from VisitScotland and various other awards. In conjunction with our retail partner, Event Network, the John Hope Gateway shop continues to expand its products and performance. Such initiatives work alongside the operations of our catering franchise partner, Sodexo Prestige, which has established a reputation for the Gateway Restaurant as a quality dining experience.
We continue to engage with our visitors through a varied programme of events and exhibitions. And we must continually push boundaries. That is why we are stretching further with yet more high-profile events such as our forthcoming Botanic Lights: Night in the Garden event: a magical outdoor experience featuring a combination of light and nature. Running from Thursday 30 October until Sunday 23 November, this is by far the biggest scale event we have ever undertaken. All profits will be gifted back to the Garden to fund plant research and conservation projects.
Our enthusiasm for engaging new audiences through the creation of excitingly diverse initiatives will not wane. But this does not mean we will turn our backs on our raison d’être. Far from it. As environmental challenges heighten, the demands on RBGE’s resources will continue to increase.
The work of RBGE is central to conservation projects in Scotland and some 80 other countries around the world – and these demands will not go away. The role of self-generation of revenue can only intensify. Never before has the case been stronger for communicating our message and bringing on board the support of a wider public.
• Heather Jackson is director of enterprise at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh