Planting the seed: the botanist who harnessed the arts to grow Melbourne’s botanic gardens

As he prepares to depart after 10 years at the helm, Tim Entwisle speaks of making the gardens ‘less introverted’ while staying focused on conservation

Every morning, Prof Tim Entwisle arrives at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens just after 7am, usually in time to see the morning sun stream through the oak tree lawn.

“At that time of day the light coming through them is just spectacular,” he says.

For Entwisle, the director and chief executive of the gardens, those oaks became an obsession during the pandemic.

“They’re big, long life trees,” he says. “I think we have this affinity with things that live longer than us.”

Now, after a decade at the helm of the gardens, Entwisle is preparing to leave those sun-soaked oak trees to focus on reading, writing and public advisory roles.

Prof Tim Entwisle will leave his role as CEO in July.
Tim Entwisle will leave his role as CEO in July. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

As one of Australia’s leading botanists, Entwisle’s tenure has cemented the gardens in Melbourne’s cultural landscape by expanding its arts programs and boosting visitor numbers along the way.

Neville Walsh, a former senior botanist at the gardens, remembers when Entwisle first joined in the 1990s as a budding botanist before returning to take up the top job in 2013.

Walsh, now an honorary research assistant, recalls Entwisle’s “quirky music taste” and as being fascinated by freshwater red algae, a group of plants people “didn’t take any notice of”.

From little things …

A single botany subject at university sparked Entwisle’s interest in the plant world. His curiosity with freshwater algae, which would later become his lead research interest, was piqued by a lecturer in his third year of study.

“He showed us this world both in the sea and then rivers where there’s all the stuff to discover,” he says. “I was never really looking for a job at that time. I just thought, I want to find out more about these things.

“I suddenly discovered plants and that changed my whole life.”

His earliest childhood memories of the plant world are the “scrappy gum trees” he and his grandfather would walk through near Castlemaine.

“I didn’t probably realise it but I was being immersed into a plant world.”

Since university, Entwisle has had stints at Kew Gardens in London and Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden, and developed a reputation as a keen science communicator, contributing to ABC Radio National and writing for the Age.

An avid supporter of Melbourne’s arts scene, Entwisle has led Melbourne’s botanical gardens with a mission to elevate its public presence and expand its visitor base.

“When I started I said, look, I want us to be a cultural attraction in Melbourne, sitting alongside the NGV and MCG, but I also want us to do science-based conservation,” he says.

“I wanted the garden to look outward more, to be less introverted in the way it was doing good things.”

Visitor numbers have grown steadily at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens over the past decade.
Visitor numbers have grown steadily at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens over the past decade. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

Chris Trotman, who chairs the gardens’ board, says Entwisle’s passion is making the attraction accessible for Victorians and tourists alike.

“He comes from a science background; he’s very down to earth and very connected with the local communities,” she says.

Entwisle drew inspiration from the conservation work at Missouri Botanical Garden and the cultural programs at London’s Kew Gardens.

“When you blend those all together really, really well, there are very few other places that can do it,” he says. “Museums do it a little bit, but the fact that we have the big urban landscapes that people like to sit in makes them quite different.”

How to get people ‘sneakily interested’ in plants

When Entwisle departs his post in July, he will leave a legacy of big events at the gardens. They include an immersive flame exhibition called Fire Gardens, and Lightscape – a dazzling trail of lights as part of an after dark experience that is set to return this year. The latter boasted 200,000 visitors, a fifth of which had never visited the site before.

“I do see this as the future of the gardens,” Entwisle says.

Walsh says these cultural events serve to get visitors “sneakily interested in plants”.

“It brought them into the place to start with and then they discover something either directly or indirectly, botanically interesting after that,” Walsh says.

Tim Entwisle says the closure of the gardens during Covid helped remind people of their importance.
Tim Entwisle says the closure of the gardens during Covid helped remind people of their importance. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

The expanded arts repertoire has translated to boosted visitor numbers. Visitation rose from 1.7 million people in 2013-14 to 2.3 million in 2018-19, the year before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Visitors to the sister site in Cranbourne have grown from 224,700 people in 2018-19 to 354,000 last year, due to a rise in local visitors who found respite in the gardens during the pandemic. Last month the site won the major tourist attraction category at the Victorian Tourism awards for the third year in a row.

But the reform has not been without resistance. Entwisle says convincing the organisation of the benefits and creating the cultural change needed has taken his full decade-long tenure.

“When you have people that are really enthusiastic horticultural staff or scientists they perhaps see those things as unnecessary,” he says.

“There were people that perhaps weren’t initially keen on those things, but also understood the value that they brought in. Most people just love seeing the happy faces of people coming in.”

For Entwisle, the most vivid expression of Victorians’ love for the gardens came after the site reopened after two Covid closures. On the morning the gates swung open, staff were met with people in tears.

“People wanted to come back into their garden and perhaps we almost needed that to remind us how important they were,” he says.


Adeshola Ore

The GuardianTramp

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