The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

During my California trip I spent a day at the Huntington, a collections-based educational and research institution in Southern California. What I like about this institution is its equal parity with living and non-living collections. In this case the “living” is a great assortment of plants assembled into a botanic garden, and the “non-living” consists of a great art collection and library focusing on American and European perspectives. As someone interested in the organization of collections, I’ve learned that each industry, whether horticulture, archives, or museum collections tend to gravitate to a few great databases and programs for maintaining records of the collection. The hort world has mapping and plant records software such as BGBase and IrisBG. Archives tend to use open source programs like Archivist’s Toolkit or powerful content management programs like ContentDM, and the very similar museum world is either gravitating to CollectionSpace, or sticking with old standbys like FileMaker Pro. As I tend to visit a lot of institutions that have both living and non-living collections, I am increasingly interested to see how connections can be found in maintaining these collections through shared infrastructure. It is now also becoming increasingly common for institutions to merge plant records units with the library and research departments as seen at Longwood Gardens and Mt. Cuba. So the big question is this: is there a possibility of having one interface / program / database to store and compile both living and non-living collections? I think this is a question being posited by many institutions, and it almost certainly begin with important helpers such as open source, GIS mapping integration, and a highly intelligent taxonomy / metadata scheme. Just a thought to throw out there, and I’d love to see a growing open source program like CollectionSpace take on this challenge.

Anyway, back to the topic. The Huntington is one of those perfect storms of legacy where a man got very rich (Railroad industry) at the right time and invested heavily in the arts, and had the foresight to protect his assets perpetually. The Huntington today has an endowment of over $400 million, is visited by over 600,000 annually, and is one of the wealthiest cultural institutions in the United States. By comparison, Longwood Gardens was also founded and protected by a rich man in the 20th century (Henry DuPont), has an endowment of $750 million, and receives over 1,100,000 visitors annually. I would almost certainly classify these two as peer institutions living on opposite coasts.

But enough on peer institutions and databases. Here are my most insightful thoughts and observations during my site visit:

  1. Children’s Garden. You know a children’s garden is successful when all ages are having fun and engaging in the landscape. The garden makes a true attempt for all visitors to traverse the narrow paths, tunnels, and enclosures. I think this was successful because the choreography of the space is not meant to be an individual experience, and many elements are simply enhanced when more people join in on the fun. Water can jump start this process as well! When parents can get off the benches and learn and play alongside their children, then success is has with spaces like this. The garden is also adjacent to the Brody Botanical Center and conservatory, which had incredible learning opportunities for all ages and a life changing butterfly room. Probably the best Butterfly experience in the west coast!
  2. Chinese Garden/Japanese Garden. I was lucky enough to visit traditional Japanese garden Hakone Gardens in Saratoga, California as a good benchmark comparison a few days earlier, and was truly impressed by these two separate gardens at the Huntington. As suspected from a research institution, great intentions were made to create authentic spaces that are highly interpreted and provide many informative display panels. Landscape elements such as stone, water, and trees are highly symbolic in both cultures and both spaces had the ability to transform me to Asia momentarily to classic gardens or temples we only read about like Lingering Garden or Ryoanji. Both spaces provided great variations in topography to create subsequent views and vantage points overlooking water to appreciate the light and reflections. Spectacular!
  3. Architecture. The large Beaux Arts mansion, now the Huntington Art Gallery, was designed by architect Myron Hunt and completed in 1911. Both Huntington and his wife are buried in the site’s mausoleum, designed by John Russell Pope, designer of Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  4. Desert garden. I’m not accustomed to lavish succulent gardens and was delighted to see the sheer expanse of this space, as it was probably one of the largest gardens here. I enjoyed reading plant labels to contextualize the diversity of succulents that can grow in the region, and furthermore admire the amazing texture and color combinations. Most succulent gardens I’ve visited are also flat and room-like. This garden is an attraction in its own right and a real treat with long undulating paths of diversity not just in plants, but the planting medium and accompanying rocks and boulders.
  5. And finally, I appreciated how the Institution tries to integrate the visitor experience with the library, garden, and gallery elements. This could be a challenging cohesive exercise for many organizations, but here the grounds help the visitor make these connections. For example, the connection between art and horticulture is seamless with galleries adjacent to Shakespeare, Rose, and Herb Garden. After exploring works of American and British art indoors, i find inspiration gardens sited nearby that mimic the paintings i viewed or place me in the time period that i just witnessed on canvas. With plenty of seating, it makes for a very contemplative experience.

Here are my site photos. Hope you enjoy!

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