New Perspectives on Botanical Gardens


Organised in partnership with The Gardens Trust.

This weekend will seek to explore and debate the contribution of botanical gardens to research, education, conservation, well-being and commerce from the 17th century to the present day.

New scholarship will be presented to illuminate the involvement of designers, plant hunters, gardeners, scientists, artists, governments and local communities – and to tell the forgotten stories of those who suffered as plants became commodities in global trade.

The weekend will include tours of the Oxford Botanic Garden (the oldest such garden in the country). 

Please note: this event will close to enrolments at 23:59 BST on 27 May 2024.

Programme details

Friday 31 May 2024

6.00pm: Registration (for those who have booked for dinner)

6.30pm: Dinner

7.45pm: Registration (for those who have not booked for dinner)

8.00pm: Simon Hiscock, 'Oxford Botanic Garden at 400: reflecting on the past, celebrating the present and looking forward to the future'

Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in Britain and one of the oldest in the world. Founded in 1621 as a physic garden for teaching medical students how to identify plants used in herbal medicines it is the birthplace of the botanical sciences at Oxford. Today it is an important centre of botanical research and teaching, plant conservation and public engagement. Current research is focused on plant evolution and adaptation, animal-plant interactions, parasitic plants, and the new cross-disciplinary science of biomimetics. Looking to the future and embracing the challenges all botanic gardens face, exciting plans have been developed for state-of-the art new glasshouses, new facilities for research and teaching, and new displays focused on gardening and farming for the future as the Botanic Garden moves confidently into its next century, an era when plants will be critical in addressing global challenges.

9.15pm: End of day

Saturday 1 June 2024

8.00am: Breakfast (residents only)

9.00am: India Cole, 'The Duchess of Botany: Mary Somerset’s botanical collecting, cultivating, and curating c.1680-1715'

This talk will examine the botanical and horticultural legacy of Mary Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715). Somerset’s gardens (at Beaufort House in London, and at Badminton, her stately home in Gloucestershire) were renowned for their horticultural accomplishment; and her monumental herbarium and florilegium are testaments to her botanical acumen.

10.00am: Clare Hickman, '"Esteemed for eminent skill in his profession": gardeners and botanic collections in late Georgian Britain'

Expert gardeners were crucial in the creation, maintenance and use of botanic collections and performed roles as scientific technicians in the University garden as well as managers of private scientific gardens. This talk will explore their centrality to a range of eighteenth-century activities, from the teaching of botany to domestic botanic collecting, with examples from the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and from private gardens owned by medical practitioners.

11.00am: Coffee/tea

11.30am: Sharon Willoughby, 'Prisms and palimpsests: new voices and hidden histories in botanic gardens'

The modern botanic garden has many roles, operating as a scientific research and collecting organisation, a pleasure garden offering a place of connection to the natural world and public institution engaged in the quest to create botanically rich and sustainable futures. If we peel back the layers, it is possible to see that gardens concentrate, reflect and refract the ideas of the peoples that created and visit them - framing places of meaning and memory. These storied landscapes and living plant collections have many tales to tell but whose voices and which stories do we hear and how will traversing this complexity help us navigate the modern world?

12.30pm: Break

12.45pm: Depart for tour of Oxford Botanic Garden

Packed lunches are provided for those who have booked and paid for them in advance. Please bring your own packed lunch if you wish, and outdoor footwear suitable for walking and clothing for all weathers.

4.30pm: Arrive back at Rewley House (approx.) - free time until dinner

6.30pm: Dinner

8.00pm: Lindsay Sekulowicz, 'Pigment and earth: ethnobotany and art in the northwest Amazon'

As an artist, Lindsay uses drawing and ceramics to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities of the Northwest Amazon. Through investigations of clay, pigments derived from plants and material processes, her work generates new insights into historical and biocultural collections, and considers the way that knowledge is transmitted over time. In this discussion she will explore how artistic practice can be a tool to engage with Indigenous cosmovisions.

9.15pm: End of day

Sunday 2 June 2024

8.00am: Breakfast (residents only)

9.00am: Caroline Cornish, 'Convicts, Vagrants and Luantics: Captive Labour and the Botanic Garden'

The infamous role of slavery, and slavery’s successor, indentured labour, in the history of economic botany is well documented. From the 17th to the 20th century, and from the sugar plantations of the Caribbean to the rubber plantations of SE Asia, cheap labour was an integral element in the imperial botany formula. However, in this talk, we consider other forms of captive or coerced labour – including prisoners, ‘lunatics’, and orphans - who were deployed in the creation of items in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection. Taking an object-based approach we will look at who was involved, and how, and what this can tell us about economic botany as it evolved over the 19th and early 20th centuries.

10.00am: Seamus O’Brien, 'Historic and modern plant hunting for Kilmacurragh'

The talk will trace the story of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, Kilmacurragh from a monastic settlement to the arrival of the Acton family in the mid 17th century and the creation of a great estate. This includes the laying out of a formal Dutch park, later replaced by a wild-style garden in the 19th century. Planted during the heyday of the great plant hunters, Kilmacurragh was abandoned following the Great War, and has been restored with recent travels to Chile, China and Tasmania to restock the gardens.

11.00am: Coffee/tea

11.30am: Sarah Edwards, 'Ethnobotany: plants, peoples & perspectives'

Ethnobotany first developed as a formal academic discipline in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, initially concerned with ‘discovering’ plants of economic value used by Indigenous peoples. Since then, Ethnobotany has evolved as an interdisciplinary field that draws on elements across the social and natural sciences, studying the dynamic interactions and interrelationships between plants and people as mediated through culture. Today ethnobotanists work collaboratively and equitably with local peoples to conserve biocultural diversity. This talk will explore how as a bridge between different traditions and disciplines, Ethnobotany can offer us unique insights to help address the current ecological crises.

12.30pm: Break/bar opens

12.45pm: Lunch and course disperses


Description Costs
Course Fee (includes tea/coffee) £220.00
Friday dinner £26.00
Saturday dinner £26.00
Saturday packed lunch £8.85
Single B&B (Friday and Saturday night) £202.80
Single room only (Friday and Saturday night) £174.40
Sunday baguette lunch £6.50
Sunday hot lunch (3 courses) £17.60


Prof Simon Hiscock


Simon Hiscock is a Professor of Botany and Director of the Botanic Garden and Arboretum at the University of Oxford. He studied Botany as an undergraduate at Oxford and subsequently carried out research for his DPhil at Oxford. Later he was awarded a David Phillips Research Fellowship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and then moved to a Lectureship at the University of Bristol. He remained at Bristol for 15 years becoming Director of the University Botanic Garden and Professor of Botany. In 2015 he moved back to Oxford to become Director of the Botanic Garden and Arboretum. He oversaw the celebrations of the Garden’s 400th anniversary in 2021 and leads a fundraising campaign to raise money for new glasshouses.

Ms India Cole


India Cole is an AHRC-CDP PhD-researcher based between Queen Mary University of London and Oxford Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on the botanist Mary Somerset, the first Duchess of Beaufort (1630-1715), and more broadly she is interested in the history of botany, horticulture, and natural history in the early-modern period.

Dr Clare Hickman


Clare is Reader in Environmental and Medical History at Newcastle University. She is the author of The Doctor’s Garden: Medicine, Science, and Horticulture in Britain (Yale University Press, 2021) and Therapeutic Landscapes: A History of Hospital Gardens Since 1800 (Manchester University Press, 2023). She has also run projects on inclusive approaches to historic landscape interpretation (Unlocking Landscapes) and is a Co-Investigator on the AHRC funded project, ‘In All Our Footsteps: Tracking, Mapping and Experiencing Rights of Way in Post-War Britain’ (2021-2024), and ‘Connected Treescapes’ (2021-2024) funded by NERC. Clare is also a Trustee of The Gardens Trust. 

Dr Sharon Willoughby


Sharon Willoughby is currently the Head of Interpretation at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where she has worked on projects such as the Temperate House renovation. From 1999 to 2017 Sharon worked for the RBG Melbourne in Australia as Manager of Public Programmes at the Australian Garden, Cranbourne. Sharon’s PhD explored gardening the Australian landscape and she continues to research botanic gardens landscapes and what they tell us about creating sustainable futures.

Ms Lindsay Sekulowicz


Lindsay Sekulowicz (PhD candidate at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and University of Brighton). As an artist, Lindsay uses drawing and ceramics to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities of the Northwest Amazon. Through investigations of clay, pigments derived from plants and material processes, her work generates new insights into historical and biocultural collections, and considers the way that knowledge is transmitted over time. In this discussion she will explore how artistic practice can be a tool to engage with Indigenous cosmovisions.

Dr Caroline Cornish


Dr Caroline Cornish is Humanities Research Coordinator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Her research interests include history of science, of empire and colonialism, of botanic gardens, museums, and collections. Her PhD thesis, ‘Curating Science in an Age of Empire’, was a history of Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany and she has published widely on aspects of Kew’s history, particularly in relation to the history of economic botany in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Seamus O'Brien


Head Gardener at the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland, Kilmacurragh

Dr Sarah Edwards


Dr Sarah Edwards is a ethnobotanist and biodiversity informaticist whose career has included working for the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and on participatory research projects with First Nations communities in northern Australia. She is currently Plant Records Officer at Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum and teaches Ethnobiology and Biological Conservation for the Institute of Human Sciences at the University of Oxford. Recently she has been collaborating with artists through the London Borough of Richmond’s Arts Service on their Cultural Reforesting programme, to help renew young people’s connections with the natural world. Her latest book, The Ethnobotanical (published by Kew Publishing), explores humanity’s relationships with plants that have played significant roles within different societies from across the globe.

Mrs Jill Sinclair

Course Director

Jill Sinclair trained in landscape history and design at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. She is a director of the Historic Gardens Foundation and has been editor of its journal, Historic Gardens Review. Her book Fresh Pond: the History of a Cambridge Landscape was published by the MIT Press and she regularly writes and lectures on aspects of English and international garden history.


Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please contact us to obtain an application form.


Accommodation for this weekend is at Rewley House for Friday and Saturday nights. If you would like to book a double or a twin room, please email

Depending on availability it may also be possible to extend your stay: please enquire at the time of booking for availability and prices.

All bedrooms are modern, comfortably furnished and each room has tea and coffee making facilities, Freeview television, and Free WiFi and private bath or shower rooms.