Australia Landscape:
Kew at the British Museum

21 April – 16 October 2011
Museum Forecourt
Admission free

The landscape forms part of Australian season – a series of exhibitions and events at the British Museum focusing on Australia from April to October 2011.

Australian season is supported by Rio Tinto.

Australia Landscape on the West Lawn of the British Museum Forecourt takes the visitor on a journey across the whole Australian continent by featuring unique and rare plants from its differing climates, and showcasing its rich biodiversity. This is the fourth landscape in a five-year partnership programme involving the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which celebrates the shared vision of both institutions to strengthen cultural understanding and support biodiversity conservation across the world.

Following on from South Africa Landscape last year, Australia Landscape transits from the vegetation of Eastern Australia‟s coastal habitat, through the red centre (the arid desert covering the southern third of the Northern Territory and the North East corner of South Australia) and culminates at a Western Australian granite outcrop. The landscape will showcase unique and highly threatened flora and will highlight how these fragile habitats and systems are under threat from land usage and climate change. This is of particular concern as Australia has one of the world‟s greatest concentrations of geographically restricted species, otherwise known as endemics. Some 90% of Australian plants are only found in Australia.

Many of the plants on view in the landscape are especially evolved to survive extreme dry spells such as the Anigozanthos flavidus (Evergreen Kangeroo paw) and the Brachychiton populneus (Kurrajong tree) both of which have developed unusual ways of storing water over long periods of time. Some have even evolved to survive and utilise bush fires, such as the Acacia dealbata (Wattle) which requires exposure to fire and smoke to prepare its seeds for germination. There are plants from western Australia which have developed unusual features in order to take advantage of the way granite rocks weather and age. Some have adapted to survive in the cracks of rocks for example, while others are able to live in seasonal rock pools.

A key figure relating to the landscape is Sir Joseph Banks, Kew‟s first unofficial Director who was also a Trustee of the British Museum. He accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage of discovery to the Pacific (1768-71), landing in 1770 at what Cook named Botany Bay (Sydney)after the botanists on the expedition led by Banks. The plant specimens that Banks brought back in person and continued to acquire through intermediaries revolutionised European botanical knowledge. One of the plants discovered by him is on display in the landscape and takes his name; the Banksia integrifolia. Its bright yellow flower is now highly valued by beekeepers because it produces large amounts of pollen and nectar during autumn and winter which helps support hives at a time when little else is flowering.

There is a focus on how these plants have been used by indigenous peoples over many centuries in their everyday lives. Casuarina Equisetifolia (Beach she-oak) was used in traditional medicine to treat digestive problems for example, while the bark of Eucalyptus globulus (Tasmanian blue gum) is used for basket making. In central Australia, Melaleuca glomerata (Tea tree) grows around salt lakes and claypans. It is possible to peel off very large sheets of the soft bark which can then used for many things including the wrapping of sacred objects and the making of babies‟ blankets, while Tea tree essential oil is produced on a commercial scale and has anti-fungal and antibiotic properties. Everlasting daisies can grow in a variety of conditions including the desert zone of central Australia known as the Red Centre. Indigenous Australians use large quantities of dry daisies to complete sand paintings, and also as body decoration for ritual participants. Swathes of bright Brachyscome iberidifolia (Swan river daisies) and Rhodanthe (Everlastings) add bursts of colour throughout the landscape.

Banksia marginata

Banksia marginata. Photo: Andrew McRobb, Tasmania 2005.
© Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Australian season

April – October 2011 – The British Museum and Rio Tinto present Australian season, a season dedicated to Australian culture featuring a broad programme of exhibitions, installations, performances, lectures and film screenings. The season is supported by Rio Tinto and includes Baskets and belonging: Indigenous Australian histories along with Out of Australia: prints and drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas, a prints and drawings exhibition featuring works by Australian artists from the 1940s to the present, Australia Landscape, a specially commissioned space presenting Australian biodiversity in the Museum’s forecourt (in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), and a rich and varied public programme.

Notes to Editors:

  • Rio Tinto is a leading international mining group headquartered in the UK, combining Rio Tinto plc, a London and NYSE listed company, and Rio Tinto Limited, which is listed on the Australian Securities Exchange. Rio Tinto's business is finding, mining, and processing mineral resources. Major products are aluminium, copper, diamonds, energy (coal and uranium), gold, industrial minerals (borax, titanium dioxide, salt, talc) and iron ore. Activities span the world but are strongly represented in Australia and North America with significant businesses in South America, Asia, Europe and southern Africa. Rio Tinto acknowledges that the conservation and responsible management of the environment and natural resources – such as land, water, biodiversity and air – are important business and societal issues. The Group‟s biodiversity strategy commits Rio Tinto to achieving the goal of a “net positive impact” on biodiversity – ensuring that biodiversity ultimately benefits as a result of company‟s activities in a region. Rio Tinto is the largest private sector employer of Indigenous Australians, currently representing [8] per cent of the Group‟s Australian workforce.

  • Royal Botanic Gardens, 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. Kew Gardens is a major international visitor attraction. Its landscaped 132 hectares and RBG Kew‟s country estate, Wakehurst Place, attract nearly 2 million visitors every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst Place is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. RBG Kew and its partners have collected and conserved seed from 10 per cent of the world's wild flowering plant species (c.30, 000 species). The aim is to conserve 25% by 2020 and funds are being actively sought in order to continue this vital work. Support the work of Kew‟s Millennium Seed Bank partnership by getting involved with the „Adopt a Seed, Save a Species' campaign

  • There will be a British Museum/Kew debate: Landscape: longing and livelihoods, Tuesday 6 September, 18.30, £5, Members and concessions £3. A high-profile panel discussion will investigate the tensions between exploitation and preservation of Australian landscapes and the economic, spiritual and cultural value of both the landscape and its biodiversity.


Esme Wilson: or 020 7323 8394