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Plant Collection Policies - are Guidelines Needed?

Volume 2 Number 6 - June 1996

David Rae

The need for a document to guide managers in the formation of plant collection policies was the overwhelming opinion of participants at a training session addressing this issue at the 4th International Botanic Gardens Conservation Congress in Perth last year. "We will need collection policies to survive in the future" was the majority verdict.

The results from Perth clearly demonstrated that there are both areas of divergence and consensus on fundamental questions of how to develop, apply and monitor plant collection policies. This was not surprising given the complexity of the subject and the diversity of botanical institutes represented at the congress. To help botanic garden managers resolve these often pivotal questions, BGCI will coordinate the production of a handbook that will aim to provide practical guidelines for developing individual strategies. It will follow the model provided by their publications on CITES, Reintroductions and Environmental Education in 1994 and 1995.

From the results of the training session at Perth it is evident that the guidelines will need to encompass a review of:

  • the context and purpose of plant collection policies
  • their preparation and content
  • how to implement, monitor and review them
  • the value of linking live plant collection policies with those for the herbarium, seed, spore and other research collections
  • the role of network collection policies
  • practical steps towards formulation
  • references including a list of institutes with collection policies.

How Can You Help?

Continued participation from the kaleidoscope of botanic gardens in the development of the guidelines is required to ensure that they are objective and relevant to our diverse needs. Your participation in this process would be greatly valued. Please could you complete the brief questionnaire which is inserted in this issue as a loose A4 sheet. Results of the questionnaire will commence the production of the guidelines which has a publication target of 1998.

A Summary of Results from Perth

The value of "brain storming" at an international congress is the diversity of viewpoints and the collective experience of its participants. At the Collection Policies session, 71 participants represented 48 institutes from 20 countries. In order to manage this number of contributors and to maximise the exchange of ideas, 6 subgroups were chaired by Tim Walker (Oxford, U.K.), Philip Moors (Melbourne, Australia), Daniel Botha (Kirstenbosch, South Africa), Patrick Muthoka (Nairobi, Kenya), David Hardman (Kew, U.K.) and Bert van den Wollenberg (Utrecht, The Netherlands).

To use the limited time effectively, the following definitions were provided for a Collection and a Collection Policy.

A Collection could include living plants and fungi including seed, pollen and spores; herbarium specimens; DNA; reference material derived from scientific study, e.g. chromosome slides; economic botany artefacts; accompanying literature, i.e. libraries and archives. The collection could be as large as the entire holdings of a botanic garden with an institute mission and linked to a national or international network. Alternatively, it may be just one of several collections in a botanic garden. Its purpose could be singular or multi-disciplinary. It could be historical, recent or proposed and be of varying size and resources.

A Collection Policy is a written document which acts as a practical management tool by defining the limits of the collection and guiding the actions of its manager through future developments. It should embrace the remit of the organisation; be formulated using a clear methodology; be practical, achievable and flexible; be subjected to constant review and, if necessary, revision.

A questionnaire provided the structure and focus for the discussions and covered:

  • the value of a plant collection policy - why do it?
  • their formulation - what, how and who?
  • their implementation and review.

Of the 48 institutes represented, 56% had either a full or part policy whilst 27% had no policy at all. One botanic garden was in the process of developing a policy and seven others, with representatives in several subgroups, gave varying results from no policy to a full policy. This latter response indicates a need to maximise communication within an institute to prevent misunderstandings on fundamental questions.

These results correlate with a 1992 survey, conducted by David Rae and published by the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, U.K. which indicates that 65% of botanic gardens had a collection policy whilst 32% did not.

The following results are a sample of some of the replies, given by the session participants, to questions relevant to the formulation of future guidelines. They should not be regarded as statistically representative of all botanic gardens.

The Value of a Plant Collection Policy - Why Write One?

        97%     To help integrate organisational activities
        88%     To be used as a public relations document
        86%     It will help deaccessioning
        83%     The institute wants a policy
        75%     To identify network potential
        73%     Resource planning will be assisted by it
        72%     A policy is needed to survive
        54%     The management are demanding it
        56%     The staff/internal users are asking for it


The Formulation of a Plant Collection Policy - What, How, Who?

        99%     Collections in other botanic gardens should be considered
        87%     Only broad guidelines need to be stated in the policy
        70%     All international legislation should be incorporated
        61%     A collection policy can be written in the absence of a strategic plan
        56%     One document should communicate to all stakeholders
        55%     A collection policy cannot be written without a mission statement
        48%     All collections should be networked
        46%     An internal committee should write the policy
        34%     The collection manager should write the policy


Implementation and Review of a Plant Collection Policy

        93%     The policy should be reviewed within 5 years
        50%     A panel should review the policy


No conclusions can be drawn from many other questions which the participants were ambivalent about. For some questions there are many potential answers which will suit different organisations and their modus operandi. This is the greatest challenge for the handbook - to provide practical guidelines for developing individual strategies.