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Evaluation and Research: The Key to Support

Number 15 - December 1997

L. Sutherland


Do the phrases "doing more with less" or "economic rationalisation" sound familiar? Changing times have brought increased accountability, enhanced awareness, greater competition and a need to demonstrate economic return (Stevens 1989). The funding of botanic garden operations is a major issue in today's economic climate. At times, it is visitor, interpretive and educational services that are "trimmed" when the budget is effected. This is often due to a lack of understanding by decision makers as to the role, importance and value of these services.

Management agencies need to understand the visitor and see the botanic gardens through their eyes. A better understanding of visitors' expectations and motivations assists in ensuring community use, support and allocation of funds by being able to develop the garden's services. It is important to take into account where visitors' understanding of botanic gardens is poor and their expectations inappropriate.

To deal with economic rationalisation and "cuts", botanic garden educators and interpreters need to use evaluation and research techniques to their own advantage, as well as for the benefit of the community, the gardens and their visitors.

How Should We Approach Evaluation and Research?

People like Lewis (1986) considered that informal evaluation techniques were satisfactory because 'One just "knows" when one has done well ' (plO7). Lewis's "gut feeling" approach has its limitations, but combined with more formal evaluation techniques, allows those managing interpretive and educational services and facilities to make informed decisions on planning, management and budget allocation and those actively providing the services to achieve a balance between visitor needs and the overall mission of the botanic garden. Of equal importance, "facts and figures" help to justify the value and importance of visitor, interpretive and educational services to the major decision makers.

What's Happening in Australia?

A national survey of Australian botanic gardens in 1994 (Sutherland 1996) revealed that although two thirds (65%) evaluated their visitor, interpretive and educational services, the most popular forms of evaluation were informal techniques such as verbal feedback, visitor comments books and visitor numbers.

These informal techniques have obvious limitations, and do not reveal information about the visitor's understanding of the role of botanic gardens, their motivation for visiting, whether they learnt anything on their visit, their expectations of, or satisfaction . with, services and facilities or whether they visit regularly. All of which will effect the type of services provided, the content and the way they are delivered.

What Did Evaluation and Research Reveal in Australia's Regional Botanic Gardens?

A study conducted at Gladstone Tondoon Botanic Gardens (Tondoon) in Gladstone Queensland, and North Coast Regional Botanic Gardens (NCRBG) in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, set out to investigate the visitors perceptions of the roles of botanic gardens and expectations of facilities and services.


Table 1

How can Educators and Interpreters Use the Results of Their Research and Evaluation?

Types of information and their potential use:

  1. visitor demographic profile (age, place of residence, gender, level of education)
    - at what age and level to target visitor and educational services .
    - which types of activities to provide and the frequency i.e. whether to repeat activities for new visitors or provide a range to cater for regular visitors
  2. expectations of services and facilities
    - determines what is necessary to interpret programs, publications and promotion to set expectations
    - interpret the appropriateness and inappropriateness of certain services and facilities to botanic gardens
  3. perceptions of the roles of botanic gardens
    - determines themes and topics to be addressed in visitor, interpretive and educational services and staff training requirements
    - use to set direction of marketing and promotion
  4. expectations of types of plants featured
    - determines themes and topics to be addressed in visitor, interpretive and educational services and staff training requirements
    - of particular importance where gardens specialise in regional or native plants
  5. attitudes and motivation towards environmental issues
    - determines themes and topics to be addressed in visitor, interpretive and educational services.
    - determines at which level to pitch the information

Similarly to other botanic gardens, most visitors (71%) were motivated to visit Tondoon and NCRBG for recreational opportunities and the aesthetic experience, few (11%) were specificallv interested in plants or the educational aspects.

Regardless, visitors recognised that botanic gardens had many roles. Greater than 89% thought botanic gardens had a role in each of the following:

  • conserving plant species
  • educating the visitor and school groups
  • increasing environmental awareness of the visitor and the community
  • displaying and promoting plants from the local region
  • carrying out botanical and scientific research.

Areas that were more poorly understood were the role of botanic gardens in educating botanists and other professionals, and displaying plants from all over the world, where a third of visitors responding did not see these as the role of botanic gardens.

Further investigation revealed that a fifth (20%) of those recognising the role of botanic gardens in plant conservation, did not think botanical and scientific research, or researching horticulture were roles. On the surface the research findings revealed one level of information, but further investigation questioned the true understanding of, and the depth of understanding by, visitors.

Botanic gardens have a role in nurturing the visitors' interest and encouraging them to 'act' in a conservation sense. Their challenge is to ' how a collection of plants is inherently part of something much bigger and more complex' (Fletcher 1993, p 1). Therefore investigating the environmental awareness of visitors is worthwhile. Visitors to Tondoon and NCRBG appeared to be environmentally aware. Most were 'very interested' in recycling with more than three quarters a 'bit active' to 'active'. Although not active in the cause, these visitors were very interested in the conservation of native plants and pest animal control. Interestingly, there was no significant correlation between gender, age or educational qualifications, and interest and motivation in environmental issues.

A third of Tondoon visitors and one in six visitors to NCRBG visited the botanic gardens monthly, but for one third it was their first visit. The challenge for the botanic garden managers is to target their services on several different levels to provide information to the range of visitors i.e. first time and return visitors. In addition, with the majority of visitors only staying for 1Ä2 hours, this challenges managers to create effective ways to provide services and encourage visitors to use the services in their limited time available.

Do Visitors Expect Services and Facilities?

Visitors clearly expected certain facilities and services in botanic gardens beyond those traditionally provided in an urban park. Therefore, although recreation was a primary concern, they did recognise the differences between a botanic garden and an urban park. Greater than 90% of visitors expected labelled plants, plant identification services and botanical advice and information. They placed importance on the basic facilities such as toilets and disabled access, but the majority also considered that a visitor centre, children's play area, kiosk, displays and exhibits were 'important' or 'very important' in a botanic garden. They favoured facilities that enhanced their recreational opportunities and, because only a minority of visitors came to the botanic gardens by themselves, the social aspect of their visit was an important part of their experience, and so therefore were the facilities.

Providing the right facilities provides opportunities for visitors to appreciate and enjoy other aspects of the gardens and enables educators and interpreters to use these 'visitor hot spots' to convey the botanic gardens messages in fun, creative ways. The Tondoon Kiosk was a 'visitor hot spot' and comments such as 'to eat in nice scenery' and 'a relaxing atmosphere with great kiosk ' were reasons that as many as 15% of respondents had visited on that particular day.

Although botanic gardens have an educational role, as of 1994, only 55% provide activities for schools in Australia (Sutherland 1996). However, visitors to Tondoon and NCRBG expected interpretive and educational services to be provided by botanic gardens and 84% expected school group tours and activities. Interestingly, of those visitors who expected school activities to be provided, a quarter did not expect activities for the visitor (27%) or the local community (28%).


Communities are very mindful of where their tax and rate money is spent. For many botanic gardens, it is the community rate payers and their financial support that maintain its operations and key roles. Community support is essential and differing perceptions and expectations can create problems for botanic garden managers, and dissatisfaction in visitors. A clear vision by management, accompanied by community understanding and acceptance of this vision, can ensure ongoing community use, support and funding.

Therefore, undertaking research and conducting evaluation can lead to an understanding of the community's perceptions of the roles of botanic gardens and their expectations of services and facilities. All of which is important base line information from which to develop and manage visitor, interpretive and educational services and achieve a balance between visitor needs and expectations and the mission of the botanic garden. An understanding of visitor use, and who the visitors are, can allow managers to organise their operation to maximise interpretive potential by presenting those messages which the gardens is in the best position to communicate (Burbidge 1990), leading, hopefully to:

- increased visitor understanding

- public support

- political support

- resource allocation.

' Without community support the fate of any botanic gardens will be bleak ' (Morley 1992, p77)


Burbidge, R.B. (1990) Interpretation in Botanic Gardens, in He, Shan-An., Heywood, V.H., Ashton, P. S . (eds) Proceedings of the International Symposium on Botanical Gardens Nanjing China September 25-28 1988 pp269-277. Jiangsu Science and Technology Publishing House, Nanjing China.
Fletcher, C. (1993) Opening Address in Froggatt, P. Oates, M (eds) People, Plants and Conservation: Botanic Gardens into the 21st Century. Royal New Zealand!' Institute of Horticulture, Christchurch.
Lewis, W.J (1986) Evaluation in Interpretation, in Machlis, G. (ed) Interpretive Views - pplO7-111. National Parks and Conservation Association Washington D.C.
Morley, B (1992) Botanic Gardens as an Educational Tool. Heritage Management Parks, Heritage and Tourism National Conference Royal Australian Institute of Parks and Recreation Conference Proceedings, Hobart, Tasmania October 4-9 1992.
Stevens, T (1989) The Visitor- Who Cares? Interpretation and Consumer Relations in Uzzell, D (ed) Heritage Interpretation Volume 2 The Visitor Experience. Belham Press, London.
Sutherland, L A, De Lacy T. Beckmann, E A (1994) The Current Commitment to Visitor Services, Interpretation and Education in Australia's Botanic Gardens in Beckmann, E A. Hull, S (eds) Interpretation Attached to Heritage. Paper presented at the Third Annual Conference of Interpretation Australia Association Inc. 5th - 7th December 1994, Albury, NSW.
Sutherland, L.A. (1996) Interpretation and Visitor Services - An Evaluation of Policies and Practices in Australia's Botanic Gardens. M.App.Sc. Thesis, Charles Sturt University. Albury Australia.