Gardens As Museums

A museum is a collection of people’s ideas and beliefs over time. The objects that make up a museum collection present a picture of what was important during the particular time period of the collected objects. Collected objects can be --- building parts, textiles, art, objects of daily use, documents, architecture, plants, animals, recordings, photographs, etc.  

Objects in a museum collection can also tell something of the people who collected them and of the times in which they (the collectors) lived. Think about it --- collectors select things that are important to them. Sometimes learning about the collector is just as important as learning about the collections.

But gardens? Really? Plants as collections? Really? What is to be learned from a collection of plants? I mean, come on ---!

Think about George Washington, the first President of the United States and the gardens at Mount Vernon, his home in the colony of Virginia. Washington’s gardens were, for the most part, French parterres --- formal gardens constructed on flat ground, with symmetrical planting beds and clipped boxwood, separated and connected by gravel pathways (think Versailles). Parterre gardens had been created in France in the 16th century and had gone in and out of favor in Europe over the centuries since then.


But here we are in the late 18th century and George Washington thought parterre gardens were wonderful. Why?  Well, the American colonies had recently defeated the British (in America’s Revolutionary War), winning their freedom from the king’s rule and allowing the colonists to create a new, independent nation. They did this with great help from the French, in particular with help from the Marquis de Lafayette. After the war George and the Marque remained good friends and colleagues. Lafayette even named his son after George. So, it is easy to see why Mount Vernon had parterres rather than the more popular English landscape gardens. 

(English landscape gardens usually included a lake, sweeps of gently rolling lawns set against groves of trees, and recreations of classical temples, Gothic ruins, bridges, and other picturesque architecture, designed to recreate an idyllic pastoral landscape.)

Objects in a garden collection often have stories to tell that are not always obvious but they are always fascinating once discovered!