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Sowing Roots: Meet Project Curator Dr Elizabeth Cooper

With our new project and exhibition Sowing Roots, the Garden Museum is embarking on a first of its kind journey into the history of the gardening cultures and traditions that Caribbean people carried with them when they moved to the UK after World War II: from breadfruit, provision grounds, and botanical gardens, to chocho, ackee and the green spaces of South London.

Sowing Roots is being led by researchers Dr Ekua McMorris and Dr Elizabeth Cooper, in collaboration with the Garden Museum Head of Learning Janine Nelson and oral historian Jen Kavanagh. To find out more about the project and her work, we asked Elizabeth a few questions:

Dr Elizabeth Cooper

Can you let our readers know a bit about yourself, and what brought you to this project?

I am a historian and a curator. Prior to my current role with the Garden Museum I was the lead historical consultant and curator for the first strand of an English Heritage project focused on post-WWII Caribbean migration to London.

Prior to this I held the position of Curator of the Caribbean and Latin American Collections at the British Library. In 2018 I was one of the team working on the exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land. We were thrilled at the critical reaction, but also that it was the most popular British Library exhibition ever for young people and teachers.

At the core of my curatorial work and scholarship is instigating public conversations and debate around history, culture and belonging – through exhibitions, collection development, research, publications and events leading to transformative public engagement.

Sowing Roots participants at Loughborough Farm, south London

What can people expect from Sowing Roots?

I think they can expect to be moved by the stories of those interviewed. I think they will be surprised to learn about the deep historical connections between Caribbean and British gardening – including the very location of the Garden Museum. Ultimately, I think that the exhibition, will shed new light on the life affirming and creative power of gardening through the lens of Caribbean culture.

Why do you think it’s such an important project for the Garden Museum?

Subsistence and small-scale farming occupies a significant and unique place in the history of Caribbean peoples. Sowing Roots taps into this history and the ways that migrants from the Caribbean have carried meanings and traditions of gardening with them when they moved to the UK – and in turn transformed the uses and meanings of green spaces in South London.

The project will not only expand the stories that the Garden Museum tells about who gardens and why – but also deepen our understanding of gardening as a cultural and historical practice.

Sowing Roots participant Ras Prince with one of our young interviewers

How did the interviews go, were people happy to share their gardening stories? Any interesting moments to share?

I believe the interviews have been empowering experiences for those being interviewed as well as those who are doing the interviews.

For me, the deep relationship to nature, and the freedom and tranquility born of gardening that comes out in the interviews is an incredible testament to the achievements of Caribbean peoples – after centuries of expropriation and exploitation.

They have also allowed the Museum to collect oral histories of Caribbean gardening heritage that would otherwise have been lost. Hopefully, these histories will shape the future work of the Museum as well as enrich our understanding of gardening for generations to come.

What about yourself, do you enjoy gardening at all in your spare time?

Though I have lived most of my life in cities I have always enjoyed gardening. As a child in New York and Chicago we grew everything from rhubarb and watermelons to tomatoes, pumpkins, strawberries and all sorts of herbs in our back yard. I have gardened on and off ever since – from Havana, Cuba to London, UK. I also have spent a lot of time visiting gardens – botanical gardens, community gardens, city gardens, and private gardens – and have developed a deep appreciation for the infinitely diverse ways that people connect with plants, the earth and climates.

How can people get involved in Sowing Roots?

First, they can come see the exhibition, open from 15 November – 20 February! We are also planning to run a series of public events at the Museum, online, and in the community.

For example we will be celebrating the opening of the exhibition with a talk called The Stories of Plants on Tuesday 23 November exploring the movement and stories of plants in the context of the movement of people, and how those stories are lost, found and retold. We have a great panel of speakers: writer Zakiya Mackenzie, author of Testimonies on The History of Jamaica Volume 1, and David Goyder, Honorary Research Associate at Kew Gardens researching Kew’s Herbarium specimens from Africa, chaired by broadcaster and horticulturist Wesley Kerr.

Find out more about Sowing Roots exhibition and events

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