LONDON – Not many museums discover the tombs of five Archbishops during their renovations, but the Garden Museum overlooking the Thames is one of a kind. Not only is it the world’s first museum for garden history, but it is also housed in a deconsecrated church. From the 11th century to 1854, more than 20,000 people were buried in St. Mary-at-Lambeth and in the surrounding churchyard. When Dow Jones Architects redesigned the interior, which opened in May, they could neither touch the historic walls nor disturb these graves. New galleries and rooms from the 18-month renovation will be roofed over and divided with prefabricated wood, allowing natural light to flow in through the stained glass windows.
While the remodeling encompasses the building’s heritage, it is not being ignored. Plaques in the nave and tombs embedded on the floor feature displays of antique gardening tools, contemporary art, lawn decorations, and a free-standing shed where you can watch videos of sheds. At various stations, visitors can hear replicas of the voices of the buried dead, including Elias Ashmole, from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. A founding collection of this museum included items from The Ark that were made available to the public by 17th-century gardener John Tradescant, who also rests in the garden museum. Tradescant’s ornate grave can be seen in designer Dan Pearson’s lush new Sackler Garden, with pyramids, a hydra, and other carvings on its four sides.
Tradescant’s posthumous presence is the reason the garden museum exists. St. Mary-at-Lambeth was abandoned when John and Rosemary Nicholson traced the grave of Tradescant and his son John to the crumbling structure in 1976. Both Tradescants were known for their international plant hunt, bringing plants such as horse chestnut and apricot to the UK, and the older Tradescant served as gardener for King Charles I. Rosemary Nicholson founded the Garden Museum in 1977, saving the church and keeping that story.
In the reopened museum there is a new gallery called “The Ark”, in which artifacts from the Tradescant Museum are reunited. In the middle of the gallery is a transparent window to a dark staircase that leads to the previously unknown crypt of the archbishops. Curiosities about nature and man hang on the walls on loan from the Ashmolean Museum and Oxford University’s Natural History Museum. They range from a cast of the mummified head of a dodo to antlers that may have been collected in Virginia to an unusual “vegetable lamb”. According to lore from the 17th century, this was a half sheep, half plant being believed to grow in Tartary (part of what is now Central Asia). The myth may have been inspired by a wool fern, native to China, that looks a bit like a lamb on its back with its legs sticking out (if you might be delirious with malaria).
The 17th century Ark is recognized as the first public museum in Britain open to everyone. The Tradescants also maintained an influential garden in Lambeth. In one of the current exhibitions – Tradescant’s Orchard: A Festival of Botanical Art – contemporary botanical artists respond to a publication in which 66 types of fruit they have grown were recorded. Other areas of the garden museum focus on changing gardening trends from 1600 to the present day, with patterns for vibrant Victorian flower beds and an 18th century “red book” giving landowners a “before” and an “after” for landscaping introduced. The connection between artists and gardens is also emphasized. For example, Harold Gilman’s “Portrait of a Black Gardener” (1905) portrays gardening and the gardener as a hero, a rare representation not only of the gardener’s race but also of the dignity that is bestowed upon him and his profession. There are innovations like 17th century Tudor thumb pots used for gently watering plants and some worn pony boots designed for ponies pulling on a mower. This 19th century invention replaced the scythe. (The boots minimized hoof damage on the lawn.) Another current exhibition illuminates the art of Eileen Hogan, painted the gardens in the greater London area as “artist-not-in-residence” while the museum was closed.
The garden museum has a lot to offer a small institution, from the café’s new bronze cladding, which reacts to the layered bark of the adjacent plane trees, to its garden in the inner courtyard with a density of unusual plants. Though it may seem like an odd part of urban London to a garden museum – there’s more concrete in Lambeth than sprawling green space – it does add some botanical calm to the neighborhood through its indoor and outdoor spaces. And it shows how caring for and experimenting with plants has impacted art and museums and continues to be a bridge between human development and the natural world.
The Garden Museum is now open on Lambeth Palace Road in London.