A few years ago in a meeting with the research team at Longwood Gardens, Director Paul Redman discovered that scientists from a New Jersey fragrance laboratory had been frequenting the gardens to perform headspace analysis. It is a process that allows a flower’s scent to be captured and synthesized to create perfume.
Those conversations sparked the idea for Longwood’s blockbuster exhibit, “Making Scents: the Art and Passion of Making Fragrance,” that premiered back in the spring of 2010. Longwood might have simply displayed a crop of scented plants accompanied by a series of panels explaining the exhibit. Instead, the institution sought out and partnered with perfume scholar Richard Stanelman and an outsider exhibition team to put together a more expansive, interactive show. It cost $1 million and drew rave reviews.
“So many folks come here to look at the pretty flowers, but for the first time since I’ve been here I actually saw people with their noses buried in the flowers,” Redman says with a smile. “They felt comfortable smelling and engaging with our plants. We want people to connect.”
Redman’s appointment in July 2006 signaled a mandate for a new evolution. He arrived from Franklin Park Conservatory, where he was credited with revitalizing the once struggling botanical landmark on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio.
“It was a total crisis in Columbus; at Longwood it was the exact opposite,” Redman says. Boasting an endowment in excess of $600 million, Longwood has a devoted public and is regarded as the largest and most visited conservatory in the United States.
“Steady as she goes, wouldn’t have appealed to me,” Redman, 45, acknowledges. “I wanted a big leadership challenge. We have incredible stories to tell at Longwood, and the master plan is about how we can tell more of them in a more compelling fashion.”
The story of Longwood begins in 1906, when business magnate Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954) purchased a small farm near Kennett Square to save a collection of historic trees from being sold for lumber. du Pont made it his country home, where he parlayed his passion for gardening into a stunning horticultural display.
Today, Longwood Gardens is one of the world’s great horticultural showplaces, encompassing 1,077 acres of extraordinary gardens, woodlands, meadows, fountains, and a 4.5-acre conservatory.
From January through March, 90,000 visitors enter Longwood’s steamy conservatory to see its Orchid Extravaganza. Dripping with color and fragrance, more than 4,000 wildly exotic orchids from around the globe drape the walls, flow from pedestals, and adorn beds throughout the indoor gardens.
Despite this success, Redman asked himself: “How do you take something that is already great and make it even better? We needed to bring Longwood into the 21st century while still extending the great vision of Pierre du Pont. For years we looked internally, now we’re looking globally to address these issues.”
In March 2008 Redman and the board hired Gail and Barry Lord of Lord Cultural Resources, considered the world’s oldest and largest firm specializing in cultural planning. The Lords spent two years holding meetings with the staff, the board, and horticulturists around the world, resulting in a Visionary Master Plan that will help Longwood broaden its mission within the du Pont legacy–guiding and reshaping Longwood’s gardens, buildings, and energy sources over the next four decades.
The Lords” strategic plan will be translated into a comprehensive design program by West 8, a Dutch landscape and architecture firm. Earlier this year Longwood finalized the physical site master plan that outlines ultimate strategic goals and objectives through 2015.
“We suggested a wider, fuller interpretation of what guests are looking at,” explains Barry Lord from his office in Toronto. “We looked at everything from the production of exhibit displays and the website to preserving Longwood’s heritage, minimizing negative environmental impact, and stewardship of the grounds.”
An overarching component was “trying to get the gardeners to think as curators,” Redman says. “It unleashes the creativity and innovation and full talent of all our team members.”
In June, for example, Longwood will be transformed into a “Forest of Light” where 20,000 stems of light will cover a half-mile path winding through the gardens. Below the stems, the fiber optics will trail along the ground, much like woodland roots. The large orbs that sit atop each acrylic stem are clear; so the fibers will be seen clearly, curled within like tendrils.
Created by U.K. artist Bruce Munro, the exhibit with comprise seven large-scale outdoor installations, two within the grand Conservatory, and a small collection of illuminated sculptures in the historic Music Room.
Under Redman’s stewardship, attendance has flourished. Projections call for more than one million guests in 2012, a sharp increase from 769,925 in 2006. Revenue has grown $4.8 million over that time, while memberships have surged from 16,000 to 41,000 households.
But those numbers have Longwood bursting at the seams; therefore, parking areas need to be expanded. The master plan also calls for a new visitor’s center that deals with 15,000 people per day during the Christmas season.
Longwood’s extensive educational programs are a priority, as is the reduction of waste, carbon, and energy consumption. The performing arts program will be broadened with jazz, classical, and blues performances and a stronger focus on the summer concert series at the amphitheater.
Longwood is also replicating the famed Ritz Carlton guest-service training program. Connie McCaw, Longwood’s guest service department head, says, “First impressions and engaging our guests are key: eye contact, a friendly face, and open body language. Our goal is to take a friendly guest experience and turn it into an extraordinary one that exceeds expectations and cultivates loyalty to Longwood.”
“The reality is, executive directors and board members come and go,” Redman says. “I”m one person of 400 people, so I look at it like there are 399 people here that are a lot smarter than I am. That is Longwood’s future–unleashing that talent.”