Kew Gardens’ plan to ‘decolonise’ its collections may be in breach of its legal obligations

Plans by Kew Gardens to “decolonise” its collections could be in breach of its legal obligations, a think tank has warned.

In a new report, Policy Exchange says that the institution may be in breach of the National Heritage Act 1983, which created the current board for Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) Kew and sets out its responsibilities.

The report calls on George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, to launch a review into whether RBG Kew is deviating from its statutory powers and duties by allegedly engaging in “forays into non-scientific, and indeed politically charged, activities”.

RBG Kew hit back at the accusations, with a spokesperson insisting that the plans were  “within the remit of our charter under the Heritage Act”.

Downing Street support

The report, written by Ursula Buchan, a journalist and former student at Kew, is understood to have support from Downing Street.  

“The paper provides a much-needed analysis of the drive to ‘decolonise’ the plant collections at RBG Kew. It is shocking that a great British public institution, funded by taxpayer money, should be at variance with the Act under which it was established,” a senior government source told The Telegraph.

“Nor is there any indication that visitors want or support this kind of change. As this paper shows, it is vital that Kew’s reputation as a world-leading centre for the study and preservation of botany will be restored," they added.

While immediate action is unlikely to be forthcoming, the report is expected to be seen as a warning shot to RBG Kew.

The Government has been attempting to rein in efforts by public institutions to pursue ‘decolonisation’ agendas and has installed a policy of “retain and explain” for controversial objects and statues.

The Kew Gardens Temperate House

Credit: Marianne Majerus/Marianne Majerus

It has also been engaged in several controversies over appointments to museum boards of trustees.

RBG Kew is an executive non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and runs Kew Gardens.

In March, it published a 10-year “Manifesto for Change”, which included a pledge to “move quickly to ‘decolonise’ our collections, re-examining them to acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies, and develop new narratives around them.”

Subsequent editions of the document have had the phrase “decolonise” replaced with “re-examine”.

At the time, Richard Deverell,  RBG Kew’s director, hit back at critics of the plans.

“Like so many other organisations, parts of Kew’s history shamefully draw from a legacy that has deep roots in colonialism and racism,” he told The Guardian.

He added: “There is no acceptable neutral position on this subject; to stay silent is to be complicit.”

Among the efforts to address the 19th-century institution’s colonial legacy are plans to update its signage for plants such as sugar cane and rubber to incorporate their historical context, including the role the plants played in the slave trade.

Review of admission prices

As well as calling for a review of RBG Kew’s activities, the report also argues that there should be greater transparency in all its activities and that admission prices should be reviewed to ensure they are accessible.

A spokesperson for RBG Kew told The Telegraph that the manifesto “represents a 10-year roadmap focused on five priorities that aim to understand and protect plants and fungi for the well-being of people and the future of all life on Earth.  

“This work covers our science, horticulture and visitor facing activities in the UK and around the world and is within the remit of our charter under the Heritage Act of 1983.  The strategy was created following extensive consultation and is, as with the reporting of all Kew finances, fully transparent and published online.

They also said that new ticket prices would be introduced in early January,  including “a £1 ticket for those who are in receipt of Universal or Pension Credit, making both gardens more accessible to people of all ages and income levels.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew is world-leading in plant science and research which is crucial in helping to end the biodiversity loss crisis.

“Defra supports and works with Kew to discover nature-based solutions to some of the biggest global challenges”.

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