Two Great Locations, One Organization

Visitor Engagement summer intern Kirsten Neal’s inventory of the goings-on at Matthaei-Nichols is a reminder of the complexity of our organization, how visitors may experience us, and just how much is happening here on any given day.

By Kirsten Neal
Something we hear a lot at the front desk at Matthaei is the exclamation “Wow! Don’t you just love working here? It seems like the best place to work.” Because for visitors, we are a million different places, each new interpretation varying from our own. And while I work mostly at Matthaei, I know that many of the same scenarios—with similar visitor questions—take place at Nichols Arboretum.
“What is this plant?” people may
ask. When this “corpse” lily 
(Amorphophallus konjac) blooms,
visitors drive to Matthaei from miles
away to see the flower—and smell
its putrid fragrance.

Some visitors see our spaces as a living museum full of plants they’ve never heard of before, or maybe ones that they had seen somewhere but never knew the name of until they visited. Others are horticulture enthusiasts who ask us if they can write some labels themselves for areas they deem lacking. And there is the woman who visits weekly to photograph something new every time she visits. Whoever they are, all visitors leave with their own personal take on who we are, depending on what they experience.

There are university classes that meet weekly, even in the summer, dividing their time between one of our classrooms and various points around the gardens.
There are photo shoots. Senior pictures, prom pictures, engagement photos, pregnancy announcements, documented proposals, family shots, yoga studio advertisements, and anything else you could imagine. Though there is a fee, and as one engagement group found out, we do not allow drones.

There are performances in our spaces by students and faculty. Shakespeare in the Arb is one well-known example. Kate Mendeloff, who directs Shakespeare, also brings students in each spring to perform a play in the conservatory.

We host performances by faculty and students in our spaces.
This production of Chekhov’s The Seagull took place in the
conservatory at Matthaei in April. Director Kate Mendeloff
(right) addresses the audience before the play begins.
Mendeloff also directs the annual Shakespeare in the Arb
productions.

Students from the group UMBees inspect hives near the Campus
Farm at Matthaei.

There are meetings of every kind and of every size imaginable. Some, like the Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers, meet monthly in our spaces. Others, such as Michigan Botanical Club, Sierra Club, Ann Arbor Farm and Garden, or Ann Arbor Bonsai Society, meet more, or less, frequently.

Matthaei-Nichols Collections & Natural Areas Specialist
Tom O’Dell (right, in cap), discusses the day’s work plan
with volunteers from Ford.

There are volunteers, often dozens of them on a given day, performing work here that directly impacts the visitor experience: docents, ambassadors, orchid and bonsai volunteers, invasive-plant weeders, conductors of school tours, restorers of habitats. The volunteers themselves are visitors who bring their own set of expectations to the Arb and Gardens and who each leave with an individual experience of their time here.

There are field trips where students get to hike, learn, and be guided through the conservatory. Some add to their adventure by buying a small snack from the Garden Store to eat with their picnic lunch.

There are joggers who routinely use the trails as their gym, both in the early hours of the morning and past closing time. (NOTE: Trails open sunrise to sunset!)

Ines Ibanez (right), an associate professor in the
School of Natural Resources & Environment,
is conducting research in the greenhouses at
Matthaei Botanical Gardens. She and her
students are studying the challenges that
forest communities are facing in the context
of global change.

There are faculty and student research projects taking places in our buildings and outdoors. Even though many of these happen behind the scenes, the projects represent a critical aspect of our operations.

There are departmental meetings and retreats, where various groups from throughout the University bring their colleagues in to build teamwork—or terrariums—in a spot with nature as a backdrop, while taking a break from their routine.
There are birthday parties, where kids and their friends also build terrariums, making sure to leave time to open presents, eat their cake, and play outdoors.
There are extravagant dinners for a variety of causes. Where attendees stroll in formal attire through the Gateway Garden as the sun sets over the greenhouses, taking a moment to pause at a bench to enjoy their surroundings.

There’s plenty of I do-ing at Matthaei,
especially in the spring and summer.
Couples who get married here often come
back years later and talk about their
experiences tying the knot at the Gardens.
This lucky couple chose the conservatory
as their wedding spot.

There are weddings and wedding receptions, where for months the couple has dreamed of having their ceremony in the conservatory, in the perennial garden, in the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden, in the gateway garden, or on Willow Pond Island. And if they choose to stay, they enjoy their reception from the auditorium and terrace. The bride even has her final dressing in Room 164 before walking down the aisle. They have their rehearsal here, where they get out some pre-wedding jitters, as well as multiple meetings to finalize all the details.

And there are memorial services, where the families and friends of the deceased gather in a place that reflects the beauty of the person they recently lost.
Did I mention the plant sales? These draw big crowds,
especially at events like the Mother’s Day Sale every May.

I know that I have barely skimmed the surface on all the happenings here at the Gardens. I didn’t even dive into all of the plant sales and special exhibitions or events that occur all of the time.

Even so, the one green thread that runs through all of our events, weddings, classes, parties, plant sales, and school field trips, is nature itself. It’s why people go out of their way to visit. But what’s important to understand is that everyone sees the Arb and Gardens differently, and all will remember their experiences here differently than I will remember my own. 
Whether that means letting a family who traveled hours to get here—only to arrive just before closing—peek into the Bonsai Garden as I’m locking the gates, because otherwise they would have missed Magnificent Miniatures, the bonsai azalea exhibition.
Or helping folks in a memorial service find a couple of extra chairs because they had underestimated the number of attendees.
Or just helping someone with directions.
These are crucial moments in their memory. And while they might be small in the scheme of things, they may mean the world to our visitors.

Kirsten Neal is from Brighton, Michigan and recently graduated with a degree in history and museum studies. She doesn’t know what she’ll do next, but is excited to be a visitor engagement intern this summer! Kirsten’s internship is made possible by the Matthaei-Nichols Membership Fund and by individual donors. 

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