Digital strategies and tools in use for museum collections and built heritage are extremely well documented. But what are best practices when an institution’s collection is living, and its story changes with the seasons? Here’s an overview of tactics used by gardens and historic landscapes for collections management, on-site technology and online outreach at institutions with a core mission built around gardens and historic landscapes.
As part of Harvard University, Arnold Arboretum’s mission is to “increase knowledge of the evolution and biology of woody plants.”
The institution uses BG-BASE with several other platforms to achieve a high-quality records search experience. This includes the following features:
- User ability to favorite records with “My Visit” functionality. Includes the ability to print results or export to a CSV file.
- Map zooming capability tying in Arc-GIS and Google Maps.
Arnold Arboretum Resources
The website is based on WordPress. It has a modern design that balances imagery between plants and people. The navigation lacks contrast between the text and background, but otherwise works very well, empowering the user to find a lot of information quickly.
Arnold Arboretum has a Flickr image pool which encourages people to upload photos from their visit. Flickr is also the platform powering the image search capability on their website.
Arnold Arboretum has four blogs, which are essentially categories of a common blog. Posts from the Collections is written by Director William Friedman and highlights ephemeral moments in the life cycles of plants at the Arnold Arboretum. Library Leaves is published online by the staff of the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library. Plant Profiles describes various plants. The ARBlog is a aggregation of all blog content. These are valuable institutional memory sources that can be continually updated and reused as social media fodder.
This page has a following of about 25,000 people. Engagement averages about 50 per post, but can range from 16 to nearly 800. The most popular posts were images that were updated to be the page’s profile photos, such as the image below.
Arnold Arboretum began using the platform because so many visitors were tagging them in pictures they posted on Instagram. They currently have 960 followers about average 70 favorites per post. Videos, which show people or animals in the gardens, routinely receive twice as many favorites as images.
The problem Arnold Arboretum sees with this platform is the institution cannot post links, so there is no way to drive traffic back to their website and blog.
Though content is posted to Twitter almost daily, it is not suited to the conversational nature of the platform and only receives about two engagements per post.
The channel was last updated a year ago. Its most popular uploads include scholarly presentations, demonstrations of plant care, tutorials on using their GIS plant map.
There is a large monitor in the visitors center. Explorer is on it, so people can interact with the map to provide context for their experience in the gardens.
Chicago Botanic Garden
The mission of CBG is to cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life. The Garden today is an example of a successful public-private partnership. It is owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and operated by the Chicago Horticultural Society.
The CBG Plant Collections Department acquires, documents, and studies all of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s permanent plants and their associated environments. Their “Plant Finder” page integrates living collections search into its main website, which is built on the Drupal CMS. The search form overflows into the website’s footer in some browsers.
Results (example: Corpse Flower) are attractively rendered, with information desirable to the general public or gardening enthusiasts. Map locations and related photos are linked as well.
Chicago Botanic Gardens also has a science-based plant conservation database. As part of a National Science Foundation-funded Conservation GIS Laboratory in the Plant Conservation Science Center, the program partners with Seiler Instruments, Trimble GPS, and CartoPac Field Solutions to automate and streamline its field data collection procedure for its Seed Bank. This helps them manage, and visually map within a GIS environment, the data-intensive information associated with its 300-plus yearly seed collections. Data is collected in the field with Trimble Juno GPS devices and directly uploaded to the database online.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, CBG created a website with a timeline of significant events from its history.
Another website functions as the organization’s “digital annual report,” which integrates its strategic plan, and is illustrated with YouTube videos.
CBG’s Pinterest page has more than 10,000 followers. It’s most successful boards feature DIY gardening tips.
On Instagram, their approach is to showcase high-quality close-up photographs of flowers and plants. They have 19,000 followers there and average 500-600 likes per post, but generally fewer that 10 comments for each. Engagement typically doubles when video content (such as this video) is posted.
On Flickr, CBG created a group photo pool, which has 600 members and more than 14,000 contributions. It includes a map, which shows where the images were taken.
Its Twitter page employs a similar emphasis on gardening tips and has 19,000 followers. The posts there include high-quality photos of people interacting in the gardens. Hashtags are generally overused, including uses in mundane words or marketing terms that are unlikely to trend. It frequently retweets appropriate posts other accounts.
It’s Facebook page has over 104,000 likes and leverages holidays related to plants and animals for content. Most recently, it has begun featuring PokemonGo-related cross-marketing. It attracts some likes, but relatively few comments from page followers.
On YouTube, CBG has a highly respectable subscriber count of more than 5,000. Videos are uploaded multiple times each month and curated into playlists. The most unique playlist includes video annual reports that are hosted by the organization’s president. Their most popular videos are gardening how-to demonstrations such as “How to Repot an Orchid” (251,000 views). Other popular approaches include the use of timelapse photography of its famous corpse flower, a tactic that has been frequently employed by numerous other botanic gardens as noted in this Wikipedia entry.
Launched in 2013, the GardenGuide app features an interactive map, tour guide, event calendar, What’s in Bloom, Garden plant finder, and general plant guide.The app works on iOS and Android. Visitors without smartphones can also access the plant finder while they are at the Garden or at home. Visitors can pin favorite places, and mark their parking space and personalize their home screen. Search can be customized as well. It was funded by an IMLS grant.
Note: Attempts to use the plant finder feature in this app failed on several occasions in the research of this article with a reported server error message.
UC Davis Arboretum
The UC Davis Arboretum was founded in 1936 to support teaching and research at the University of California. The Arboretum occupies 100 acres along the banks of the old north channel of Putah Creek, in California’s Central Valley. Its collections include 22,000 trees and plants adapted to a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The plants are arranged in a series of gardens that represent different geographic areas, plant groups, or horticultural themes.
Access to collections is integrated into the main website through a “Collections Search” page. This search allows search of some of the more popular species with a small amount of filtering options. Results are cleanly rendered, and information is targeted to the needs of gardeners.
Living Collections can be viewed through the Esri ArcGIS Collections Mapper. In this experience, living collections are pinpointed on a map. Clicking a point will result in a pop-up screen with summary collections data.
U.C. Davis is relatively strong and consistent with its online media. The Arboretum’s website is a subsite of the U.C. Davis website. It is primarily a list of resource links. It prominently features links to its social media in the top half of its homepage, including a preview to its YouTube “How To” series. The Arboretum’s blog is based on WordPress, and features news items, calendar events, and previews of social media feeds. Examples of blog content include:
- Garden enhancement
- Job announcements
- Grounds maps
- Charitable involvement
Approach is focused on marketing, with plant sales advertised in the header, Facebook events throughout, and posts about volunteer and employment opportunities. Posts usually generated 30-40 likes, with shared video generating the most likes and an updated visitor map generating the most conversation.
This account has over 3,000 followers and features close-ups for flowers and animals in the garden. It recently began to post PokemonGo images.
Overall engagement on Instagram is stronger than Facebook with average post favorites of 150. Video posts (which usually feature animals) have been favorited up to 900 times.
Linkedin is used for updates about project updates and for employment opportunities, which is an appropriate use of this platform.
The YouTube channel features interpretive videos featuring Arboretum staff. Videos are uploaded every 2-3 months and often examine the characteristics of a specific plant species. The most popular video on the channel is about Salvia (6,000+ views). These videos are sometimes repurposed and shared on other social media channels.
Missouri Botanical Gardens
Founded in 1859, the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) is the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation and a National Historic Landmark. The Garden is a center for botanical research and science education, as well as an oasis in the city of St. Louis. The Garden offers 79 acres of horticultural display, including a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, Henry Shaw’s original 1850 estate home, and one of the world’s largest collections of rare and endangered orchids.
Until 2012, MBG was using an outdated database system, which after years of iterative development, reached the stage where an entirely new platform was needed. They developed a web-based “Living Collections Management System” (LCMS). This is a cloud-based system that is built to facilitate curation, documentation, inventory control, plant care, and interpretation to meet the needs of research, conservation, and education.
In 2013, MBG received a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) to modernize its data collection system. This system advances the process of data collection using technology to solve many of the challenges and issues with paper-based methods. Utilizing mobile tablet computers and QR code technology, the data collection system interfaces directly with the LCMS. Eight wi-fi hotspots were installed throughout the gardens to accommodate data collection and 30 iPad Minis were purchased so that every horticulturist could have one.
The MBOT System powers Tropicos, which was made available to the world’s scientific community. All of the nomenclatural, bibliographic, and specimen data accumulated in MBG’s electronic databases during the past 30 years are publicly available here. This system has nearly 1.3 million scientific names and over 4.4 million specimen records.
MBG’s website is attractively designed, though weighted down with navigation options. It responsively reformats its content for mobile devices. It is a custom design.
The Home Gardening blog is updated monthly. It features a mix of gardening tips, and content is categorized by season with appropriate tags applied to each post. Views per post range from a few hundred to about 3,000. Options for sharing to social media are added to the end of each post. Interestingly, the commenting function is not enabled on the blog.
Nearly 120,000 people like this page. Content is posted almost daily. MBG does respond to audience comments, specifically to clarify information on events. PokemonGo events are promoted, though response through comments is very mixed. Likes per post typically range from 100-300.
The MBG Flickr photostream was established in 2006 and contains more than 7,000 images. The profile page is optimized to point visitors to engagement opportunities, including group photo pools. It primarily serves as a repository for images related to events and projects at the garden.
The Twitter feed is embedded in the right sidebar of MBG’s website. The feed frequently retweets its visitors, resulting in more engagement on this platform than other gardens. There are about 34,000 followers for this account. They also retweet content from other gardens to build an online network. Garden events are thoroughly publicized, with a balanced mix of institutional and visitor tweets. They don’t consistently use a unifying hashtag in these cases, which could confuse current and potential followers.
MBG supports an active presence on YouTube, though its usage appears to be based on providing content for embedding to other platforms rather than engaging the YouTube community. It has relatively low 480 subscriber count. The channel is not optimized with playlists or institutional branding. Content uploads seem to be based on frequency of events at the garden. Commenting is disabled for videos. Most popular uploads include the following:
More than 23,000 people follow this account. Engagement averages 500-600 likes per post, and posting is daily. The account features mostly landscape imagery. The most liked post is the Corpse Flower, with 900+ likes. The plant was also timelapsed on YouTube. MBC altered its “About” language on Instagram to specifically promote its Japanse Festival.
This Pinterest account has more than 4,000 followers, 39 pins and more than 2,000 pins. The boards are extremely well conceptualized: clearly labeled with excellent images. Among them is a collaborative board with 15 participating gardens, which has 32,000 followers. Vizcaya could request to be added to this board and be seen by new audiences through its posts there. Other popular boards include:
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
Fairchild is dedicated to exploring, explaining and conserving the world of tropical plants. Currently Fairchild has field programs in over 20 countries including support to protected areas in Madagascar and Africa and botanic garden development and renovation projects in South and Central America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. It has 45,000 members and over 1,200 volunteers. Its roles include museum, laboratory, learning center and conservation research facility, but its greatest role is preserving biodiversity.
Fairchild uses BG-BASE as its collections management system, but does not offer public collections access through its website. Instead, a downloadable PDF list of living plants is offered.
Fairchild’s website is built on the DotNetNuke CMS. The Twitter feed is incorporated into the sidebar of the website. Their blog is incorporated into the site. It is updated weekly, but less frequently during the summer. The blog uses the Disqus tool for managing comments. Content is focused on project updates and garden how-to tips.
Nearly 46,000 people like this page. Content is visually very modest. They do ask questions of followers to increase engagement, but are not making use of hashtags and rarely respond to comments. Likes per post range from single digits to more than 200. Among the most popular recent posts is one about water lilies getting ready to bloom, which had more than 400 likes and 89 shares.
In contrast to Facebook, Fairchild’s Twitter stream is very visually engaging. It has a follower count of 7,700, and followers are frequently retweeted. Hashtags such as #bloomingnow, #funfact, #DailyView and #OrchidOdyssey are used often.
About 9,500 people follow this page. Content is landscape flora and fauna, average 300 favorites per post. The most popular post is a timelapse of the making of mango salsa, with more than 1,200 favorites.
This channel is used as a video repository and not an engagement platform. The channel has not been optimized with custom playlists or channel art. It was last actively updated 2-3 years ago. The video that is there was largely successful, with several thousand views on several of the posts. The most popular video is “Veneer Grafting” with 207,000+ views. The channel has more than 3,000 subscribers.
More than 600 people follow this Pinterest account. It contains 28 boards. Several are flowers organized by peak blooming months.
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden App
The Fairchild App replicates much of the feature set of their website. Including the following:
- Membership information
- Google Map identifying garden names, locations, Wi-Fi hotspots, food and beverage,etc. This does not include interpretive information.
- Links to social media
Though attractively designed, the app is not a visitor experience tool.
Building on the legacy collections, The Huntington’s mission is to encourage research and promote education:
- Growth and Preservation of collections
- Develop and support research with the collections
- Display and interpret the collections to the public
The Huntington has a finely managed online presence. Visual media is elegantly presented and balanced by scannable text and engaging multimedia content.
The Huntington is a long-time user of BG-BASE. Because of the amount of investment in the platform over the years, and staff comfort levels with using the software, they plan to continue use of BG-BASE in the future. The evolution of their collections management approach has been detailed in David Siversten’s presentation “Managing a Century of Botanical Collections in Southern California,” from the 2015 ESRI conference.
The Holden Arboretum has a grant to find a way to push information into BG-BASE from Arc-GIS. Arc-GIS has an excellent mobile device interface, which makes it handy for data entry.
The Huntington uses the ESRI Arc-GIS data model. There are free licenses for this for public gardens. Some gardens use volunteers to help document information for this system.
The Huntington actively curates the look and contents of its online platforms. Their design approach prioritizes clean lines and an image-centered “gallery” experience. The Huntington website features a two-level header, with the top level focused on visiting and the bottom level focused on the collecting areas of the institution. This is an elegant solution that Vizcaya could employ as well to avoid complex navigation common in other museum sites. A panoramic gallery slider includes content from across the institution. The center of the homepage promotes content from “The Huntington Channel,” which is their brand for audio and video content.
The institution uses several online media platforms to host and promote content that goes into The Huntington Channel, include a few that are unconventional.
The Verso blog is built on WordPress. It is produced by the Office of Communications. Through contributions from Huntington staff, visiting scholars, educators, and volunteers, it explores the many facets of The Huntington, a collections-based research and educational institution. Content is delicately balanced between museum, garden and library collections; imagery and text. Sometimes posts are blended with podcasts (embedded from Soundcloud) featuring staff members. The posts are added to the blog with transcription.
Items from the blog are routinely promoted on Facebook. This page also includes several image galleries. Featured blooms from the garden are intermixed with library and museum content, and are among the most popular posts. The page has 64,000 likes.
This account has about 19,000 followers. It is more garden focused than The Huntington’s other social media accounts. Posts include a mix of GIFs and video, but mostly include images. The posts get more engagement from followers than other Twitter accounts featured here, often approaching more than 20 favorites and retweets.
More than 21,000 people follow this account. Posts are evenly distributed among archival, garden and museum collections content. Video content, like the “30-second Mid-afternoon Monday Meditation” gets 4-5 times the engagement than standard image posts.
This is where scholarly insight and conversation is captured. Soundcloud is a “social” audio hosting site. Soundcloud content is embedded on the blog and website as part of other stories from The Huntington.
The Tumblr blog reflects much of the same content from the Verso blog. However, due to the platform’s “social” nature, posts are favorited or commented upon from 20-100+ times.
The Huntington has branded and optimized its channel well. Content is segmented into the following playlists:
- LOOK: Objects from The Huntington’s Collections
- Lectures and Events
- Behind the Scenes: Staff and Researchers at The Huntington
- Videre: Sights, sounds and sensing at The Huntington
- Through Artists Lenses
This online video platform is used for higher-quality content. The Huntington uses it to show museum collections stories. It does feature an interesting 10-minute introductory video for the institution that may provide a direction for Vizcaya to create something along the same lines.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Kew’s specialty Living Collections (LivColl) Database contains records of living and past accessioned specimens. The database contains 178,000 accessions, with data categorized in five areas:
Kew’s Electronic Plant Information Centre (ePIC) is a major project to bring together all of Kew’s digitized information about plants and make it easier to search. LivColl can be searched through this interface. Visitors can use it to pinpoint information of interest in Kew’s varied collections, bibliographies, nomenclatures and checklists, publications and taxonomic works, as well as links to information resources provided by external organizations.
The Kew website is a Drupal-based site. It is functional and colorful, though older in design, which may cause minor rendering issues in some browsers. Site search is powered by a Google Custom Search.
More than 117,000 people like the Kew page on Facebook. Content likes average about 100 per post. Video content is typically 500 or more. For example, a video showing horticulturists pollinating a female specimen of Dioon spinulosum in Kew’s Palm House received 582 likes and was shared 124 times.
Much of the content posted on Twitter is geared toward promoting visits to the garden or events. Kew has 82,000 followers on this platform and gets higher numbers as a result. Posts draw and average of 50 engagement interactions (favorites/retweets).
The YouTube channel has nearly 4,000 subscribers and is optimized with promotional channel art and curated playlists. Videos are uploaded on average once per month. Most popular content includes timelapses, and “top ten” lists (e.g. Top Ten Attractions at Kew Gardens — in Two Minutes)
The Kew Instagram account has 51,000, and a high degree of interactions from followers. Image-based posts usually get 1,000 to 2,000 likes. For video, this can be as high as 7,000, even when very little motion is used in the video.
Kew has a promotional video on its YouTube channel to orient viewers to use of its app. The app is elegantly designed, making use of the user’s location, and providing notifications when beacon activated “Discovery Zones” are nearby. The Discovery Zone map guides the user through the Gardens, letting them pick out landmarks and attractions, as well as adding places of interest to their “list.” The app is available for iOS and Android.
UC Botanical Gardens at Berkeley
The UC Botanical Garden is a non-profit research garden and museum for the University of California at Berkeley, having a notably diverse plant collection including many rare and endangered plants. Established in 1890, the Garden, which is open to the public year round, has over 13,000 different kinds of plants from around the world, cultivated by region in naturalistic landscapes over its 34 acres.
The Botanical Gardens extension for CollectionSpace was implemented at U.C. Berkeley. The project was documented on a wiki as part of the IMLS Leadership Grant that funded it. The collections search interface is comprehensive, allowing the user to search 24 criteria, as well as the option to only search items with images. Search results can be downloaded as a CSV file. Results can also be viewed in tabs identified by Facets, Maps and Statistics.
Similar to iNaturalist, Pl@ntNet is an app to enable crowdsourced identification of plants with pictures. It is available for both iOS and Android devices. It features 247,000 pictures illustrating more than 6,000 species. “Projects” include Western Europe, Indian Ocean, South America and North Africa. Users of the app sign up for an account, capture photos and “observations” using the app. Pictures can be categorized by species for flower, fruit, leaf, habit and bark.
Leafsnap is an electronic field guide developed in 2011 by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution. This free mobile app uses visual recognition software to help identify tree species from photographs of their leaves and is illustrated with high-resolution photographs. The City College of New York developed and tested curricular materials that use the Leafsnap app to help middle school students notice, group, and contextualize street trees in the patterns of evolution. It is available for iOS devices like iPhone and iPad.
Cultural Landscape Foundation
A non-profit established in 1998, The Cultural Landscape Foundation® (TCLF) connects people to places. TCLF educates and engages the public to make our shared landscape heritage more visible, identify its value, and empower its stewards. TCLF achieves this mission through the ongoing development of its three core programs:
- What’s Out There®, North America’s largest and most exhaustive database of cultural landscapes;
- Pioneers of American Landscape Design®, an in-depth multimedia library, inclusive of video oral histories, chronicling the lives of significant landscape architects and educators;
- Landslide®, an ongoing collection of important landscapes and landscape features that are threatened and at-risk.
BGCI Care for the Rare
Care for the Rare provides free, easy-to-use interpretation resources that any garden can use to clearly communicate conservation stories of threatened plants in their collections.
Unique Spaces GIS
Unique Places GIS & Design merges advanced spatial technologies with the power of elegant design to produce stunning and informative visual creations.
Blue Raster GIS
Blue Raster helps organizations tell their stories through interactive mapping technology. User-friendly for both mobile and web platforms.
The Garden Conservancy works to preserve and restore gardens in many ways, in both short-term and long-term partnerships.
Historic Landscapes Grants from NCPTT
The Preservation Technology and Training (PTT) Grants program provides funding for innovative research that develops new technologies or adapts existing technologies to preserve cultural resources. Grant recipients undertake innovative research and produce technical reports which respond to national needs in the field of historic preservation.
NCPTT funds projects within several overlapping disciplinary areas. These include:
- Historic Landscapes
- Materials Conservation
In order to focus research efforts, NCPTT requests innovative proposals that advance the application of science and technology to historic preservation in the following areas:
- Climate Change Impacts
- Disaster Planning and Response
- Modeling and Managing Big Data
- Innovative Techniques for Documentation
- Protective Coatings and Treatments