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Valuing A National Collection – A Work In Progress At The Australian National Botanic Gardens

Volume 7 Number 1 - January 2010

Lucy Sutherland and Craig Cosgrove

How can botanic gardens ensure the continuing relevance and importance of their plant collections in rapidly changing times?


Many botanic gardens around the world are challenged for resources to adequately secure and maintain their collections. However, as similarly argued by Suarez and Tsutsui (2004) in relation to museum collections, the maintenance of collections is inexpensive compared with the potential costs of their absence. It is suggested that beyond botanic gardens staff, there is often little understanding of the relevance and critical value of botanic gardens to conservation. Nevertheless, with ongoing cross cutting issues such as habitat loss and climate change threatening the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, the value of these ex situ collections is increasing in importance. Australia’s botanic gardens, for example, have significant planted living collections, seed banks and gene banks that are essential for managing the risk of species and associated ecosystem loss in the wild (Council of Heads of Australian Botanic Gardens (CHABG) 2009:7). Furthermore, these living collections can and do support valuable research on seed biology and storage, taxonomy and systematics, ecosystem restoration and horticultural and/or threatened species (CHABG 2008:19).

The potential for botanic gardens to provide greater value to biodiversity efforts is large. This will require individual institutions to reflect and evaluate their collections in terms of critical values that link to conservation, together with the other key functions of the botanic garden.

Valuing any collection is challenging, but it has been more commonly done in relation to museum collections (e.g. Morgan 2002; Ponder et al., 2001; Suarez and Tsutsui, 2004). Available literature addressing the challenge of valuing a botanical institution’s living collection appears to be inadequate. Nevertheless, there are valuable studies on the conservation value of palm collections (Maunder et al., 2001) and the effectiveness of European botanic garden collections in supporting conservation (Maunder, Higgens and Culham, 2001).

“Living collections support valuable research, restoration, horticultural and educational activities.”

The purpose of this article is to describe the process being undertaken at the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) to value its living collection. The article will also highlight some of the key challenges being faced by the ANBG during this process. The authors acknowledge that this is a trial process in its early stages which is still undergoing discussion and review. The authors welcome communications, as well as examples of reviews that other botanical institutions have undertaken.

For the purpose of the review, the Living Collection refers to all of the living plant material held by the ANBG, including its display garden collections, its glasshouse display collection, its glasshouse research collection, its nursery collection and its seed bank.

Challenges for a national institution

Based in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, the Australian National Botanic Gardens is a unique institution in the history of Australian botany and possesses the largest single collection of Australian native flora in the world. This collection has added value because it is a national living collection with known provenance. The institution’s leading work in native plant horticulture has provided a catalyst for the development of regional botanic gardens cultivating Australian plants throughout the country. In addition, since the late 1940s, it has challenged previous thinking about botanic garden landscapes in Australia (Lester Firth Associates, 1987; National Capital Planning Authority, 1995) by moving away from the previously common colonial model.

Since its establishment, the ANBG’s Living Collection has had two key foci that have successfully generated interest at a national and international level during different times. The first was in relation to the cultivation of Australian plants during the 1960s and 1970s and the second was plant conservation in the 1980s and 1990s.

“The Australian National Botanic Garden possesses the largest single collection of Australian native flora in the world.”

Since the early 1980’s, the ANBG has been a major contributor to developing the role of botanic gardens in plant conservation. The ANBG Living Collection has played an important part in this work. The ANBG conservation work was commenced with the establishment of the Rare and Threatened Collection in an effort to develop its role in ex situ conservation. Not only were a large number of threatened species brought into cultivation, but an effort was made to ensure that any species was represented by a broad range of genetic samples so as to make them useful for research work (Richardson, 2008), and for the species as an entity to survive long term.

In the 21st century, several factors have resulted in the drive to review the ANBG’s living collection and thereby support the repositioning of the institution in coming years to ensure its continuing relevance and importance in rapidly changing times. One such factor was the need to revise the aim of the collection as the original goal for the ANBG as a comprehensive national collection is no longer being achieved in one botanic garden, but rather by a number of botanic gardens across different climatic conditions in Australia (Richardson, 2008). Another driving factor has been the drier climatic conditions being experienced in Canberra over the past decade, presenting challenges when trying to align the institution with the principles of environmental sustainability. In addition, there are also the challenges of continuing to secure, maintain and develop the collection without greatly increasing financial resources.

The ANBG’s review of its living collection

Historically the ANBG has primarily taken a ‘stamp collecting’ approach to building its living collection aiming to have as full a representation as possible of the Australian flora. Previous Living Collection reviews were largely a part of the ongoing effort to achieve this aim and tended to focus on determining the success of the plantings in any one of the thematic or systematic collections (ANBG, 2002).

The current review of the living collection aims to revisit the original basic principles of the major underlying reason for the ANBG’s Living Collection and evaluate the collection in terms of the ANBG’s role as a national institution and its vision and mission, its diverse stakeholders, its sustainability and the collections role in supporting science and education, as well as Australia’s priorities in biodiversity conservation.

The broad outcome of the review aims to be a long term (50 year) vision for the ANBG Living Collection, including recommendations on its content and management. The review will also produce:

  • A strategic report that can be used to better reflect and promote the value of the Living Collection, both nationally and internationally.
  • An accurate record of what is currently in the Living Collection, together with comparative data from previous censuses.
  • A reliable and valid tool that can be used to value the collections and has the potential to be transferable to other institutions.

The ANBG management decided to undertake most of the review process internally and use this opportunity to draw on existing corporate knowledge and further build capacity within the institution. The review is supported by botanic garden consultant, Mark Richardson and a Panel of External Experts from such fields as horticulture, ecology, landscape architecture and botanic gardens.

The review process

The review process involves four key phases:

1) Phase one (completed)

Preliminary work for the review involved:

  • development of a proposal for the living collection review (Richardson, 2008);
  • an in-depth stock-take of the ANBG living collections;
  • facilitating 10 focus group discussions with community members associated with botanic gardens in 7 state capital cities and two regional areas to gain insight into what people want and expect of a living collection from a national institution (i.e. ANBG).

2) Phase two (nearing completion):

  • undertaking a comparison of the latest stock-take findings with information from the 2002-2008 Thematic Planting Plan;
  • running reports on the Integrated Botanical Database System (IBIS) to build statistical data on the living collection;
  • developing criteria and a system for assigning values to the living collections;
  • first trial of the ‘value’ system with several collections including permanent pots, display glasshouse and two display garden collections; followed by a revision of the value system;
  • second trial of ‘value’ system on 20 collections; followed by further revision of the value system;
  • investigation of options for integrating the new classification into the IBIS.

3) Phase three (progressing):

  • rapid assessment of all display garden and nursery collections to provide initial information on the values of each collection against the assessment criteria;
  • use of data to inform and set priorities for management, including maintenance and development/redevelopment programmes.

4) Phase four (yet to be initiated) – focus on individual plants:

  • develop criteria and a system for assigning values to individual plants in the living collection;
  • trial the ‘value’ system on individual plants; followed by a revision of the value system;
  • detailed assessment of all collections, focussing on priorities identified during phase three (see above), to evaluate individual plantings according to the criteria (this will be a major undertaking conducted over a number of years);
  • use of the data to inform the development of collection management plans and new developments.

The ‘valuing’ tool

Attributing a value to each ANBG living collection involves developing an evaluative scoring system that produces an ‘end’ score when each collection is assessed against criteria (Table 1; Box 1). Noteworthy is that a low aggregate score can be used to guide management decisions in various ways e.g. adding plants with a conservation value to the collection can increase its value, as can greater use of some collections for education.

The process of developing objective criteria that are reliable (i.e. the application of the criteria yields the same result on repeated trials) and have validity (i.e. accurately assess the value) is challenging (Table 1). The criteria have initially been developed by a consultant and are currently being critiqued by staff, Friends and external experts. A trial process, as part of Phase two (see above), involves 2 stages to fine tune the measuring instrument for valuing the collections (Box 1) and it will also be the basis for the value assessment tool for individual plantings in the longer term.

This rapid assessment of collections will provide vital information for setting priorities for management, including maintenance schedules and developments. In addition, it will provide an immediate indication of how well the current Living Collection is meeting the aims of the ANBG.

The finalisation of the assessment tool is still a work in progress. At the time of publication, the criteria are being critically reviewed and subsequently fine tuned following the trial outcomes. There are also discussions focusing on developing additional criteria for measuring sustainable horticulture to address the need to align with sustainability principles. Furthermore, there is ongoing debate relating to the use of subjective criteria such as valuing the aesthetic and landscape appeal of individual collections.

An emerging initiative supported by the federal environment department (Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts ) is to approach the valuation of collections from an environmental economics viewpoint. An early career researcher begins a one-year Postdoctoral fellowship in December 2009 to research the means of identifying and realising the social and environmental benefits of collections, such as specimens housed in herbaria and museums. It is envisaged the outcomes of the Department’s project will further inform the ANBG’s Living Collection review.

“Assessing collections will provide vital information for priority setting and awareness raising.”


Box 1: Assessment Example

Using the criteria outlined in Table 1, a collection that has: a clear theme (2); a theme generally related to the ANBG mission (1); the majority of plantings relevant to the stated theme (2); labelled plants (1); interpretive guide use (1); occasional use for formal education (1); some use for conservation (1); and been regularly audited (1) would score 11. On that basis, any collection scoring at least 11 could perhaps be considered to be effectively contributing to the aims of the Living Collection and the mission of the ANBG. The highest score would be 17.

Table 1: Draft assessment criteria and scale:

  • Clarity of theme 0-2
    • 0 = no clear theme given (e.g. mixed planting)
    • 1 = a mixture of unrelated themes
    • 2 = a clear theme given
  • Relevance of theme to ANBG Mission 0-2
    • 0 = theme unrelated
    • 1 = theme generally related
    • 2 = theme closely related
  • Relevance of plantings to stated theme: 0-3
    • 0 = plantings unrelated
    • 1 = a mix of related and unrelated plantings
    • 2 = the majority of plantings related
    • 3 = all of the plantings related
  • Main Use: A. Informal education/Labelling & interpretation
    • 1 = plants labelled
    • 2 = other interpretation present
  • Main Use: B. Informal education/Guides
    • 0 = no use by guides
    • 1 = used by guides
  • Main Use: C. Formal education
    • 0 = no use for formal education
    • 1 = occasional use for formal education
    • 2 = frequent use for formal education
  • Main Use: D. Conservation 0-2
    • 0 = no activity recorded
    • 1 = plants present with conservation status
    • 2 = collection of plants with conservation status
  • Main Use: E. Research 0-2
    • 0 = no activity recorded
    • 1 = plants present that have been used for research purposes
    • 2 = collection of plants for a research purpose
  • Collection audit; 0-1
    • 0 = collection stock-take (No)
    • 1 – collection stock-take (Yes)

A work in progress…

The ANBG Living Collection review is very much a work in progress. The initial phases have provided an opportunity to reconcile existing electronic information with the reality of the collection. This has been very informative because it has highlighted limitations in some procedures and the documentation of activities.

Further progress hinges on the fine tuning of the measurement tool for valuing the collection and is the immediate priority. Once finalised, we will undertake a rapid assessment of around 250 collections that form the ANBG’s Living Collection. The development of the tool for valuing individual plants within the collection is the final phase of the review process.

An important outcome from the living collection review process, thus far, has been the bringing together of staff and experts from various disciplines to critically discuss the valuing of the Living Collection. This helps to strengthen cross-institutional communications, engage staff in the process and raise awareness of its relevance and importance.


Australian National Botanic Gardens. 2002. Thematic Plan 2002-2008. Available [online], accessed 7/10/2009.

Council of Heads of Australian Botanic Gardens. 2008. National Strategy and action Plan for the Role of Australia’s Botanic Gardens in Adapting to Climate Change. Australia: Commonwealth of Australia and CHABG.

Donaldson, J.A. 2009. Botanic gardens science for conservation and global change. Trends in Plant Science 14(11):608-613.

Lester Firth Associates. 1985. ANBG Development Plan. Australia: Lester Firth Associates 1985.

Mathams, S. 2009. Biodiversity Conservation and the Australian National Botanic Gardens: strategic opportunities. An unpublished report prepared for the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Australia.

Maunder, M., Higgens, S. and Culham, A. 2001. The effectiveness of botanic gardens collections in supporting plant conservation: a European case study. Biodiversity and Conservation 10: 383-401.

Maunder, M., Lyte, B., Dransfield, J. and Baker, W. 2001 The conservation value of botanic garden palm collections. Biological Conservation 98: 259-271.

Morgan, J. 2002. Museum’s oddities brought to account. Sydney Morning Herald 27 November 2002. Available [online], accessed 27/11/2009.

National Capital Planning Authority. 1995. Draft Amendment of the National Capital Plan Amendment No.16 (Master Plan for the Australian National Botanic Gardens) and Background Report. Australian Capital Territory (planning and Land Management) Act 1988.

Ponder, W.F., Cater, G.A., Flemons, P. and Chapman, R.R. 2001. Evaluation of Museum Collection Data for Use in Biodiversity Assessment. Conservation Biology 15(3): 648-657.

Richardson, M. 2008. Living Collection Review Proposal. An unpublished report prepared for the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Australia.

Suarez, A.V. and Tsutsui, N.D. 2004. The value of museum collections for research and society. Bioscience 54(1): 66-74.


Dr Lucy A. Sutherland (Assistant Director Policy and Strategic Planning)
Craig Cosgrove (Curator)
Australian National Botanic Gardens
GPO Box 1777
Canberra, ACT, 2601 Australia
Email: and


The review of the ANBG’s Living Collection is a collaborative process and the authors acknowledge the considerable input from staff from the ANBG and the Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research, with particular mention of David Taylor, Paul Carmen and Joe McAuliffe. Contributions from consultant Mark Richardson and expert panel members Mark Fountain at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Stig Pedersen, Booderee Botanic Gardens, and Dr. Roger Good, alpine ecologist in Australia are significant.