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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Berlin Botanic Garden: the Urgent Need for Renewal


Berlin Botanic Garden: the urgent need for renewal

The Berlin Botanical Garden is an institution dedicated to the study and preservation of plant biodiversity. Due to constant renovations, budget cuts and a focus on events, its gradual decline can only be halted if the scientific community pulls together.


A Visit to the Berlin Botanical Garden is Optional.


In the 19th century, the industrialization and unification of the German states led the new German Empire to take a close look at the colonial question. The stakes were both economic and geopolitical: acquiring raw materials and countering French and British influence on the international scene.


Decided in 1899, the foundation of a botanical garden in the German capital was part of this imperial project. Through observation and study, scientific research was to pave the way for the development of the newly conquered African lands. At the same time, the regime encouraged the creation of a botanical center for the German colonies. First the outdoor gardens in 1904, then the inauguration of the large greenhouses in 1910 established the institution.


With the abandonment of the German colonies after 1918, the Berlin Botanical Garden lost its imperial vocation and became exclusively a place for study and observation. During the Second World War, this unique scientific heritage and part of the plant collections were destroyed. Reconstruction took several decades. In partnership with the Free University of Berlin, the Botanical Garden continues its research work and now welcomes several hundred thousand visitors a year.

The impressive tropical greenhouses at the Berlin Botanic Garden.

A Difficult Visit


The Berlin Botanical Garden is a gigantic complex covering several dozen hectares. It comprises three distinct areas: the outdoor gardens, the large greenhouses and the museum. Unfortunately, the museum will remain closed for the next few years as it undergoes extensive renovation.


The architecture of the original greenhouses is particularly impressive. The steel framework is visible, while the glass panels face inwards to conserve heat. The interior of the greenhouses is dedicated to dry and humid flora, according to the climatic particularities of each. The Great Tropical Greenhouse overlooks this retro-futuristic complex and is clearly its centerpiece.


Unfortunately, the interior layout was not designed with tourism in mind. The greenhouses form a star around the Grande Serre Tropicale, the branches of which are not interconnected. The result is numerous dead ends and repeated round trips. This is all the more problematic as there is no sense of direction, and the lack of signage makes the path rather counter-intuitive. Added to this is the poor dissemination of information, due to the absence or deterioration of explanatory panels. This qualitative and quantitative shortcoming is likely to be a real turn-off for visitors.


The problem is most obvious in the outdoor spaces. The landscape garden, which is supposed to showcase plants from different parts of the world, is singularly lacking in educational support, and many of the informative labels are visually inaccessible. What's more, the very haphazard maintenance of the natural environments leaves a taste of unfinished business. A stroll through the arboretum is nice, but does it justify a visit to the Botanical Garden on its own?

The outdoor areas of the Berlin Botanic Garden.

An Inexorable Decline?


Since the 2000s, the Berlin Botanical Garden has been suffering from politically-imposed budget cuts. This probably explains most of its current woes: incessant renovation work, understaffed gardening and educational staff, and a lack of maintenance that was exacerbated during the 2020-2022 health crisis. However, this sad fact contrasts with the implementation of a dynamic commercial policy, focused essentially on events, which relegates botany to the background.


The Berlin Botanical Garden is a research center, where study and observation are essential to understanding the plant world. The collections and accumulated knowledge constitute an important heritage that must be preserved and passed on to as many people as possible. The university college must therefore assume its responsibilities in terms of site conservation, staff training and educational support. Science and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Learning can be entertaining as well as enriching.


More generally, politicians and scientists will have to rethink the role and place of botanical gardens in today's world. In this respect, the debates on climate change and the protection of biodiversity open up perspectives that can no longer be ignored by the general public, and which will meet with their full support in an educational context.

Tropical greenhouses for wet collections at the Berlin Botanic Garden.

Pro

  • Some impressive greenhouses

  • A huge outdoor area

  • Retro-futuristic architectural style

Contra

  • Disappointing landscaped gardens

  • Lack of intelligible information

  • Missing intuitive itinerary

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