How many of you, I wonder, have visited the wildlife garden, nestled in the western corner of the grounds of the Natural History Museum? I must admit I hadn’t until last week, and was amazed at what I found. Created exactly twenty years ago as the Museum’s ‘first living exhibition’, it boasts a miniature chalk down, a tiny, sheep-grazed meadow, worked hazel coppice and perhaps the best clear pond in central London, all within a single acre. A true urban oasis, it is used by bats, frogs and newts, is brightened in early summer by cowslips, bee orchids and burnet moths, and has a bird list of more than fifty species. All told an incredible 3,000 species of wild plants, animals and insects have been recorded by museum staff. The garden hosts educational visits by thousands of schoolchildren annually. For the rest of us it offers a restorative walk among living things after all the non-living exhibits inside.
Now the garden is under threat by a scheme to alleviate queues during busy times. The plan is to drive a ‘metres-wide’ concrete path straight through the garden. It will entail levelling the ground by up to two metres, draining the pond and bulldozing away the miniature down and meadow. In their place we are promised some concrete terracing on which the Museum proposes to plant fruit trees and maybe a herb garden. A new ‘dew pond’ will be created using water from the Museum’s roof. All this, we are assured, will ‘allow visitors to interact with the natural environment’.
The new garden will be the work of the winning contractor, the landscape architect Kim Wilkie. Some of the other bids were less destructive of the existing garden (and less expensive) than his, but it was Wilkie’s radical solution that won the favour of the Museum’s director, Sir Michael Dixon, his Board of Trustees and his new ‘head of public engagement’, Justin Morris. Wilkie himself is dismissive of the garden’s value. It is “indistinguishable from any municipal garden anywhere in the country”, he sniffs (this garden with 3,000 species). He admits it has some “hardcore fans” but thinks they can all be won over by “imaginative replacements”.
Far be it for me to doubt such an authority but it seems to me that an ordinary municipal garden is exactly what is being proposed here. It will be little more than a designed urban thoroughfare built largely of concrete. There are plans to ‘translocate’ some of the waterweeds and beasties from the doomed pond, as if biodiversity is something you can parcel up and move about willy-nilly. In fact it took fifteen years for this pond to reach maturity. Trees sheltering the Museum grounds from the main road will also be preserved. The Museum has no choice for they are protected by a Tree Preservation Order.
The Museum claims that it has consulted its 300 staff and that they have “responded positively”. In fact it would be hard to find anyone who supports the proposal, unless it was the naïve botanist who looked forward “to monitoring the recovery”. At a recent packed staff meeting not a single member of staff spoke out in support. They seem in fact to be thoroughly ashamed of the plan. But of course they are not going to say so in public. It is as much as their jobs are worth.
Those in the know tell me that this destruction is completely unnecessary. There are much less radical solutions available that would route the new path around rather than through the garden – as indeed some of the rival bids proposed. So why throw away such a precious facility that has taken so much hard work, over twenty years, to achieve? What kind of message will that send out to the Museum’s millions of visitors from home and overseas? That wildlife is ultimately disposable?
It is not too late to stop this vandalism. The project will need planning permission and it is through that route that we can make our feelings known. An online petition gained 2,226 signatures in a matter of a few weeks. If you agree with me, and with the majority of staff at the Museum, please consider signing Save the Wildlife Garden. You might also want to write to the director at: email@example.com
Peter Marren has contributed Guest Blogs here before (Where green objectives clash, 26 January 2015; Ashes to ashes, 7 November 2012; Wildlife NGOs, 7 October 2011) and his excellent book Rainbow Dust – three centuries of delight in British butterflies was reviewed here a while back.