Sustainability and wellbeing: Celebrating International Museums Day 2023

International Museums Day falls on 18 May this year, and the theme is sustainability and wellbeing.  As a botanic garden, Winterbourne has a huge role to play in promoting biodiversity and sustainable horticultural practices, and the site as a whole contributes to the wellbeing of University students and staff, visitors and volunteers. However, the themes of sustainability and wellbeing run through Winterbourne’s history from the very beginning. Curator Henrietta tells us more.

Image of John Sutton Nettlefold
John Sutton Nettlefold

In 1906, John Sutton Nettlefold gave a lecture on housing policy, during which he said:

“Do you think that we should lead blameless lives…if we were transplanted to the hovels in which so many working men in Birmingham exist today? I do say that in my opinion even the Spartan virtue of this City Council would give way under the trials and temptations to which so many of the people who live in our slums are subjected… We can, if we will, arrange for healthy, wholesome surroundings for every Birmingham adult, and, even more important, give every Birmingham child the ‘light and air’ that are so essential to its healthy development.”

Moor Pool under construction
Moor Pool Estate under construction

This quotation perfectly encapsulates the belief that John shared with many progressive thinkers of his time: that the environment in which people live has a profound effect upon their physical and emotional wellbeing, and that natural light, green space, and access to nature are essential for a healthy life.

Winterbourne itself was designed to maximise natural light in the house, and to integrate the house with the garden according to Arts and Crafts principles. John’s pioneering work on the City Council resulted in improvements to Birmingham’s famous ‘back-to-back’ courts, and his design for the Moor Pool Estate gave its tenants access to green space and fresh air. Consequently, John was a significant figure in the ‘garden city’ movement. His desire to create a healthy environment for people was passed on to his daughter, Evelyn, who campaigned on many aspects of housing including the importance of urban trees.

Open day, 1930s
Open day, 1930s

It was during John Nicolson’s time – Winterbourne’s last private owner – that the Winterbourne gardens were first opened to the public. During the 1930s hundreds of people benefitted from the beautiful gardens, paying an entrance fee which helped fundraising efforts for local hospitals. Employees from Nicolson’s company also visited for open days.

Professor Jack Hawkes
Prof Jack Hawkes with a potato specimen, 1970s

Once Winterbourne had passed into the hands of the University, scientific research projects were based here, many of which had sustainability at their heart. Professor Jack Hawkes worked on the humble potato, seeking to develop new strains resistant to drought and disease that could be grown in developing countries.

There was also an MsC course in plant genetics, which attracted students from around the world who, consequently, went on to take their horticultural skills back to their own countries. In our collections store, we still have drawers of seeds dating back to the 1970s, when a pioneering seed bank was set up here to conserve food crops to insure against environmental disaster. Seeds were exchanged with botanical gardens across the globe.

Drawers from the seed bank, 1970s
Drawers from the seed bank, 1970s

Our efforts to run a sustainable site today are built on the foundations of the past, and we still take inspiration from John Nettlefold, Jack Hawkes, and the many others who have contributed to Winterbourne’s rich and varied history.