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Plant Storytelling: The Creative Unveiling of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Words by
December 13, 2016
Botanical gardens may seem like neatly curated natural playgrounds for city dwellers seeking a bit of green, but in fact, early botanic gardens (known as physic gardens and first established in 16th and 17th century Italy), were initially created with an eye towards scientific research, conservation and exploration of plants. A botanical garden remains, by definition, a place of scientific study rather than a simple spot of pure reverence for the plant world. But let’s be honest, often our attraction to these lush gardens is more on account of nature’s beauty rather than an urgent interest in the scientific names of plant species.

When it comes to present day botanical gardens, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew at the edge of London are at the head of the pack. Founded in 1759 and stretching across 300 acres of land, their living collection contains over 30,000 different types of plants. Meanwhile, preserved in their herbarium are over seven million plant specimens making it one of the largest in the world. Not only is it one of London’s top tourist attractions, but this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a leader in plant and fungal research. Their mission? “To be the global resource for plant and fungal knowledge, building an understanding of the world’s plants and fungi upon which all our lives depend.”
The Creative Unveiling of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
photo © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew by Lonelyleap
It’s a big task they’ve taken on, but perhaps a bigger challenge is broadcasting the abundant knowledge stored behind the scenes at Kew. With around 250 scientists and 100 or more PhD students and research fellows, Kew is producing information that reaches far beyond what the average garden visitor sees. That’s why, in 2012, Kew reached out to Lonelyleap, a creative studio that specialises in storytelling through film. The collaboration produced a five-part film series by the title of Beyond the Gardens. The aim was to invite the general audience into the realm of valuable work that Kew is doing in the name of plant cataloguing and conservation.

If you don’t know how many species you have, you cannot begin to conserve them.
The videos are short but captivating, allowing a mesmerising glimpse into a world so few know exist. Together, the five episodes, The Fungarium, The Forgotten Home of Coffee, The Plant Family Tree, Crop Wild Relatives and The Future of Taxonomy bring to life a story that begins 500 million years ago and continues today, thanks in part to the work being done at Kew. The present-day botanical world was built on foundations of green as algae slowly made its way from sea to land. It’s difficult to grasp today’s botanical diversity (accepted estimates guess at around 400,000 species) which means that it’s also difficult to understand the alarmingly quick rate at which we are losing species (again, a conservative estimate would be that 1 in 5 plant species are endangered). Laura Martinez, a postdoctoral researcher at Kew points out, “If you don’t know how many species you have, you cannot begin to conserve them.”
Live plants have enough of a tough time attracting human interest so the cataloguing of dead specimens might not seem the most appealing. But Lonelyleap will change your mind. The five different episodes explore vastly different concepts yet manage always to make their focus relevant to human interest by framing their stories around the knowledgeable staff at Kew and our human reliance on the vegetal realm (from our collective coffee addiction to our unacknowledged gratitude to fungi in their support of plants).

The Lonelyleap team for the Beyond the Garden series consisted of Simon Waldron, co-founder and creative partner of the London branch, Shaun Spark, in creative and post-production, and Sophia Doe, producer (who has since left Lonelyleap to study Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths University London). Says Shaun, “Lonelyleap has a very collaborative approach to producing films. Many people worked across different disciplines to create the Beyond the Gardens series.” An approach that most certainly pays off.

Lonelyleap brings together the science, the people, and the plants of Kew. Their videos are much more than a mere presentation of knowledge. They are a call to collective action: To further plant awareness. To acknowledge plant evolution. To understand and appreciate each small step that goes into conserving the diversity of the global ecosystem.
The Creative Unveiling of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
photo © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew by Lonelyleap
We had a chance to talk with the Lonelyleap team about the collaborative process with Kew and what it meant for them in terms of expanding the human/plant relationship.

[illuminate] What was your reaction when Kew reached out? Did you know about the work they were doing with the cataloguing of plants?

[Lonelyleap] When Kew reached out to work with us, no one in our team knew about their long history of botanical research. These days Kew Gardens is advertised to the public primarily as a beautiful botanical garden. Sadly, their libraries and archives of knowledge are not well known outside of the scientific community. It’s difficult to describe our films with Kew to others as most people can’t believe that this catalogue exists!

Did they have a vision or were you given a blank slate?

Our first project with them was for an exhibition inside their botanical gardens, about the Millennium Seed Bank, a giant underground archive of over a billion seeds. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to explore the depth of the institution and bring to focus just how vital Kew’s work is in conserving the world’s plants today. We didn’t want to make pretty films with no substance! Kew agreed with us that the beauty of these films should come from honest interviews that get to the heart of the matter.

How did you decide on what aspects of their work to focus on (it's such a large undertaking) for your series?

We worked closely with Kew to decide which areas of their institution needed our spotlight. They have many departments and all of them are busy cataloguing and exchanging knowledge with industry and scientists. We wouldn’t say that there is a single reason that we developed the series of films we did, they all serve different purposes and we approached each one with fresh eyes. Whatever that particular story needed, that’s how the project unfolds. We’re sure there are many more films worth making with Kew!
What’s fascinating about plant conservation is how broad and mysterious it still is. Humans tend to care more about animal conservation because we love the idea of protecting cute panda bears, but plants are just as important to the eco-system.
What do you find fascinating about plant conservation?

What’s fascinating about plant conservation is how broad and mysterious it still is. Humans tend to care more about animal conservation because we love the idea of protecting cute panda bears, but plants are just as important to the eco-system and are being destroyed at a faster rate than we can keep track of. Last year, in 2015, over 2,000 new species of plant were recorded! Some of these new specimens could help us find new properties for medicines. If an institution like Kew isn’t supported fully, then we risk losing knowledge of our world as we know it.

How do you see your stories playing a role in the interaction between plants and humans?

What we tried to do with this series was invite the audience into the world of plant conservation through close portraits of the staff that work there. For instance, the Mycology assistant Begoña, who catalogued thousands of specimens in our Fungarium film still had a real sense of excitement about what she did. By spending time with her and allowing those eccentricities into the film, a barrier is broken down and the audience can relate to the gardens much easier. Ultimately, we are all fascinated by how strange and wonderful the natural world is, whether you’re the manager of Kew Gardens or a child watching our films.

The Creative Unveiling of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
photo © Royal Botanic Gardens Kew by Lonelyleap
Why is it important for a broad, general audience to understand this work that goes on behind the scenes at Kew?

We want to be realistic about the goals of our filmmaking. We’re not expecting a sudden million person rush to Kew’s website to donate money. It’s more about changing attitudes over time, creating a platform for Kew to simply explain that they are much more than just a pretty garden. Our films have already made impacts on a governmental, policy making level. The coffee conservation film The Forgotten Home of Coffee was played to a council at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last year!

What was most difficult in telling the Beyond the Garden story?

As always, the difficulty in telling the story was the balance of showing against telling. The topics are always very rich visually, we all love the look of plants and flowers, but also very complex and layered. How far do you go in explaining the scientific endeavours in detail? Do you risk losing parts of your audience? Some of the films were lighter and more stylistically driven than others, like The Plant Family Tree. Whereas The Forgotten Home Of Coffee, for example, relied upon the audience already enjoying coffee to carry them through the more academic sections.

What was your main goal in the Beyond the Garden stories?

Our main goal with the Beyond the Garden series is to change perceptions of who Kew Gardens are, bringing new audiences to an often overlooked institution. As we mentioned earlier, only those in the scientific community really understand that Kew is providing such a vital service to the world. They are actually going through a funding crisis at the moment, struggling to raise enough money to continue their research across the world. We hope that our series of films can reach new networks of audiences and that those may then keep it alive when a petition needs signing. Knowledge is power!

The Creative Unveiling of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Do you look at plants differently now?

Of course! We have thousands of beautiful illustrations sent to us by Kew, drawn as that species was first discovered. Our research has led us to some amazing discoveries. There are over 100 species of coffee in Ethiopia alone, and we only use two of them in the rest of the world to make the drink. We have a large print in our studio of the plant family tree we illustrated for our Kew film! It lives with us every day.