Kew and British Museum combine to cultivate China in the heart of London

Sponsored by Bank of Beijing

3 May – 26 October 2008
British Museum Forecourt
Admission free

In a unique partnership, the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew will conjure up a stunning China landscape in the forecourt of the British Museum this summer. The landscape will celebrate the two institutions shared vision to strengthen cultural understanding and support biodiversity conservation across the world. The experts at Kew will select and provide the plants and design, the British Museum will provide curatorial expertise and the location. The landscape follows on from the successful Africa Garden created in 2005, and future collaborative projects are planned.

Inspired by the collections of both Kew and the British Museum, the landscape will reveal some of the connections between China’s natural habitat and its culture. Trees, shrubs and flowers are both cultural symbols and resources, used for building materials, food, drink, clothing and medicine. The landscape will be a celebration of natural beauty and the bounty it provides. Visitors will be able to wander around the fragrant trails of wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), admire the beautiful White Mulberry (Morus alba) and historic handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata), whilst also absorbing a strong conservation and sustainability message.

Most of the plants selected by the experts at Kew are native to the mountains of Sichuan province in south-west China and will be chosen for both their natural beauty and for the active role they play in China’s cultural identity. The landscape will feature an example of a maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba), the only surviving member of the ancient group of plants which was widespread at the same time as the dinosaurs, 180-200 million years ago. They have only been saved from extinction through cultivation and today provide a range of medicinal benefits; they are used for treating chronic coughs and asthma and leaf extracts are used to treat circulatory problems and memory loss.

Conservation is a strong theme in the landscape. The handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata) is beautiful but also vulnerable in the wild; in 1899, an amateur British botanist in China alerted Kew to the alarming impact that the charcoal industry was having on the forests of Yunnan province, home of the handkerchief tree. Although now widespread in cultivation as an ornamental, thanks to botanists and horticulturalists worldwide, the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata) continues to be classified as a rare tree in the wild.

Visitors will also be able to learn about the economic properties of plants in this beautiful landscape. Bamboo (notably Phyllostachys aurea and P. nigra) is one of the fastest-growing plants on earth and treated bamboo is strong and lightweight. In China it is used to make everything from chopsticks, hats and musical instruments to houses, bridges and scaffolding. Its fibres are used for paper, fabric and medicine. The young shoots are edible, the sap is made into sweet wine and the leaves are used as food wrappers. Bamboo features in Chinese culture as a symbol of integrity and outstanding character, it bends in the wind but never breaks. A lacquer tree (Rhus verniciflua) will also be on display. These are cultivated for their sap, which is used to make a durable coating called lacquer. Lacquer can be polished to a high gloss, and the sap can be coloured by adding the mineral cinnabar or carbon black to make red and black. The seeds and leaves are used in Chinese medicine to treat internal parasites and to stop bleeding

China is famous for its classical scholar’s gardens – picturesque places suited for social gatherings and silent contemplation. This tradition will be reflected in the landscape by the inclusion of a trellis, a scholar’s rock that symbolically evokes the power of a mountain, and a rock inscribed with calligraphy because no Chinese landscape is complete without a touch of poetry. The landscape will also direct visitors to the Museum’s Chinese collections where it is possible to see some of the plants used to make objects (lacquer and bamboo) or to see them as art motifs (chrysanthemums, willow trees and peonies) depicted on a range of ceramic objects. A huge contemporary rock sculpture by the artist Zhan Wang on display in the Great Court will compliment the garden alongside the temporary exhibition ‘Fascination with Nature’ in room 91, featuring wonderful examples of Chinese nature paintings.

At the completion of the landscape, Camden Council will relocate many of the plants to Brunswick Square and Kew Gardens as a lasting legacy of the China Landscape. The Landscape is in association with China Now.

The British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have strong existing links with China. Both are partners in the World Collections Programme, funded by DCMS, which aims to share London’s world collections with Africa and Asia. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank’s conservation network spread to East Asia with the development of the partnership with China in 2004. China is regarded as the third most biodiverse country in the world. It is home to over 30,000 vascular plants and around half of these are endemic. Kew’s scientists worked with Chinese colleagues at the new Chinese seed bank in Yunnan province to strengthen China's biodiversity conservation and scientific researches. The British Museum has multiple agreements with Chinese museums which have resulted in successful reciprocal touring exhibitions and loans, curatorial exchanges and skill-sharing.

For further information please contact:

Kew – Catherine Owen, Bronwyn Friedlander or Anna Quenby in the Kew Gardens press office on +44 (0)20 8332 5607 or email pr@kew.org. Images are available at www.kew.org/press/images, please contact the press office for the username and password.

British Museum – Hannah Boulton or Katrina Whenham on +44 (0)20 7323 8522 / 8583 or email hboulton@britishmuseum.org or kwhenham@britishmuseum.org

Notes to editors

  • Save the date: Press launch/photocall 1 May 2008
  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
    Kew Gardens is a major international visitor attraction and its 132 hectares of landscaped gardens attract over one million visitors per year.  Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and represents over 250 years of historical landscape. The site houses over 40 listed buildings and other structures including the Palm House, Temperate House, Orangery and Pagoda as well as two ancient monuments, Queen Charlotte's Cottage and Kew Palace.  RBG, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. www.kew.org.
  • Up until the 9 February 2008 the Gardens open from 9.30 and close at 16.15. From the 10 February until the 29 March 2008 Kew Gardens will close at 17.30. From the 30 March 2008 Monday to Friday the gates will close at 18.30 and 19.30 on weekdays. Until 31 March 2008, admission is £12.25 adults, £10.25 concessions and FREE to children under the age of 17. From the 1 April 08 until the 31 March 09 admission will be £13 for adults and £12 for concession and FREE to children under the age of 17. Further visitor information can be gained by visiting www.kew.org, calling 020 8332 5655 or emailing info@kew.org.
  • British Museum
    The British Museum holds in trust for the nation and the world a collection of art and antiquities from ancient and living cultures. Housed in one of Britain's architectural landmarks, the collection is one of the finest in existence, spanning two million years of human history. Access to the collection is free. The Museum was based on the practical principle that the collection should be put to public use and be freely accessible. It was also grounded in the Enlightenment idea that human cultures can, despite their differences, understand one another through mutual engagement. The Museum aims to reach a broader worldwide audience by extending engagement with this audience. This is engagement not only with the collections that the Museum has, but the cultures and territories that they represent, the stories that can be told through them, the diversity of truths that they can unlock and their meaning in the world today.