Hothouse: hot topic

As the Wright Park conservatory nears its 100th birthday, a prof and her students work to keep the iconic glass edifice relevant

by Lynda McDaniels

On a late winter afternoon in this year’s seemingly endless season of gray, scant light penetrates the glass walls and dome of the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory, a Metro Parks Tacoma facility in Wright Park. But within those walls, brilliant orchids and bromeliads, luxuriant ferns and figs—even the hungry Venus’ flytrap—remind us of life’s vigor and the promise of renewal.

Today Associate Professor of Education Amy Ryken is greeting visitors with an open-ended question: What did you think about? Most are looking for a color fix or a sneak peak at spring. Some say they came to see the glory of God in his creation.

She nods. “People have a fundamental human need to feel awe and wonder. This conservatory is a jewel, and we’re lucky to have it.”

The Wright Park conservatory turns 100 on Nov. 14, 2008, putting it in rare company. Many Victorian-style, glass, botanical conservatories were demolished after decades of inattention. Only three remain on the West Coast: The Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco (130 years old), Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle (96 years old), and the Seymour. In 2004 the City of Tacoma voted to restore its 3,000-square-foot conservatory and recommit to its mission of promoting “the connection between people and the natural world.”

To Ryken, who is chair of the conservatory’s education committee and who serves on the Conservatory Foundation Board, that mission means more than just maintaining a flower museum.

“A conservatory is a metaphor for human efforts to confine and dominate nature,” she says. “It juxtaposes awe and wonder with the more destructive ways we look at nature. Tacoma is a growing city set in the midst of great natural beauty. That leads to tension. I would like to see conservatories play a larger role and serve as places to examine our contradictory relationship with the environment.”

During a sabbatical this past year, Ryken delved deeper into this  issue. She’s winding up a six-conservatory tour that included field visits to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and the United States National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. She’s observed that the way plants are displayed provides reminders of human-plant interactions: For instance at the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle, orchids grow behind bars.
“Those orchids are behind bars to protect them from us,” she says. “That’s a good example of the tension I’m talking about.”

It’s easy to understand how conservatories started out like zoos for plants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, explorers and scientists returned from travels to exotic places with fantastic specimens to share in a time before airplanes, cameras, and television allowed real or virtual access. But that function is much less important now. These days Ryken thinks conservatories need to foster discussions about human impacts on the environment.

“I’m questioning the degree to which conservatories are challenging visitors to ask these bigger questions,” she says. “Conservatories are not like schools with a curriculum you have to use. They’re more like museums where you choose what to look at, in what order, and how long you stay. We need to make sure we engage the visitors.”

That’s a challenge. Surveys show, for example, that most people don’t read the text panels that accompany exhibits. So how can visitors be reached? Ryken is working with her UPS students and the conservatory education committee to employ more photographs and maps in exhibits. Students also have developed child-friendly labels for plant collections, lessons for grades K-8, art and plant-observation activities, and four self-guided tour books.

“We have plans to more fully integrate the Seymour Conservatory as a site for field investigation for my classes,” Ryken adds. “Students are already developing lesson plans for at least two class sessions that involve the conservatory’s plant collection.”

Which is good news for anyone visiting, but what if nobody comes? That’s not as unlikely as it sounds in an era of 24/7 information, overscheduled lives, and dwindling school budgets leading to fewer student field trips. Surveys show that attendance at libraries and museums is down 50 percent.

“How do we continue to get people to visit these informal learning environments?” Ryken asks. “School settings don’t corner the market on learning, but if students don’t have a model for out-of-school learning in community institutions, they may not come to conservatories when they grow up.”

Ryken and her students helped create new events, such as teacher night at the conservatory and field journals that young students can use to record observations. Working in a medium youngsters better understand, they also created a podcast for kids.

And connecting with nature can extend beyond the conservatory’s glass walls, into 27-acre Wright Park. A member of the education committee, Lila Transue M.A.T.’03, took a leadership role on the tree-tour subcommittee, which developed a self-guided tour of 13 of the park’s “champion trees.” (Champion trees are recognized for their large height, trunk girth, crown spread, or number of branches. Tacoma boasts 55 trees on the Washington state champion list, 28 of them in Wright Park.)

“People walking through the park are not necessarily thinking about the trees, and we believe the tour will heighten their awareness,” Transue says. “The tour will draw people in and give them a reason to stop and appreciate the beauty of nature. As they become more aware of nature, they are more inclined to take care of it.” 

When we do connect with nature, impressions can linger for a lifetime. A conservatory visitor and lifelong Tacoma resident recently shared with Ryken how much she cherishes her childhood memories of seeing the conservatory’s century plant bloom. Ryken wants to continue creating such memories, while exploring the role conservatories can play in modern, urban culture.
“Conservatories can help make what is sometimes unseen—the human manipulation and destruction of nature—more visible,” she says. “They can lead us toward a better understanding of how we think about ourselves and our relationship with nature.”