Am I an Explorer or a Consumer? An observation of Spatial and Disciplinary Tactics at Kew Gardens.

Candidate Number: 106393

In 2013, Kew Gardens attracted over 1.3 million visitors (ALVA, 2014). However Kew originally started as a royal hobby (Brockway, 1979). In 1841, Kew was made into a state institution and was to be the nerve centre for all the British Colonial Botanical stations. In the 19th century, it also began its emphasis on economic and colonial botany as it had available sites in all climates across the globe. Today, Kew is advertised as ‘the world’s most famous botanical garden’ (, 2014) and on my visit, I was interested in how the members of the public coming to Kew behave and interact with the area and how this behaviour is influenced by Kew itself. I visited Kew on March 14th and a clear limit of my fieldwork was that I was only there for a day. My main method of gathering information was my own observation and taking photographs.


Joy Hendry (1997a) discusses how ‘gardens all over the world represent the efforts of human beings to create cultural versions of their natural surroundings’ (p.83) and she pays particular focus to Japanese gardens. Natural disasters are common in Japan so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people respect nature and it’s forces (Hendry, 1997b). In Japanese culture, there is not a clear distinction between nature and society but there is an idea of raw nature, which is feared. And then ‘cooked’ or ‘tamed’ nature, which is cultivated like a garden. Therefore the garden is seen as somewhere in between the safety of a home and the dangers of the natural world.

A garden in the middle of the city. Photo by Alice Paines.

A garden in the middle of the city. Photo by Alice Paines.


In Palissons’ Environmental Relations. Orientalism, Paternalism and Communalism (1996) he looks at the fundamental differences between nature and society and the dualism of the ecological and social worlds that applies more the views held in the UK. These worlds are described as dialectically linked spheres that ‘complement and supplements the other in many ways’ (Hollingshead, 1940). I wondered, when entering the Kew gates, whether people changed their behaviour as they were suddenly entering an ecological world and leaving their daily social one behind.


One of the first key themes I found when wandering around the site, was that the idea of trust continuously became apparent. One obvious example of this would be that there were small fences around areas that you could not walk, for example where new grass seeds had been planted. These fences were so small they could not physically stop you, however it was obvious that there was a command that had to be obeyed. There were no obvious methods of surveillance around and no clear punishment if you stood in the area, so why did Kew make the assumption that the public would obey this rule? What does this say about Kew’s expectation of the visitors?

Paths and boundaries. Photo by Alice Paines.

Paths and boundaries. Photo by Alice Paines.

Testing the Boundaries. Photo by Alice Paines.

Testing the Boundaries. Photo by Alice Paines.


An important theorist that focused on both space and discipline was Michel Foucault. He discussed that if the concept of punishment appeared in a person’s mind before they commit the crime, then that could be powerful enough to abstain one from doing so (Foucault, 1977). He discusses various methods in which one could install this thought process into an individual, including the method used by Bentham’s Panopitcon. For the inmates of this prison, ‘visibility was a trap’ (p.200). Foucault describes the inmate and his life as; ‘he is seen, but he does not see; he is the object information, never a subject in communication’. Although this sounds extreme, the constant visibility of the prison meant it was successful in its aim. Foucault states that ‘the major effect of the panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’ (p.201). Discipline and Punish says that this way of behaving is actually the reality of the everyday man and that is it just in criminals that it has to be re-discussed.


I began to think about Foucault and his ideas of docile bodies whilst wandering around Kew, I began to realise that I could break many ‘unsaid’ rules like the fence if I wished. However, being a ‘normal citizen’ I did think of the consequences and realised I did not actually know what these would be. As Kew was it’s own space with its own set of rules, I did not know exactly what those rules would be or whether there would be a set of consequences. Also, there wasn’t any sign of surveillance technology, so I could not be sure whether or not I was being watched. This reflects exactly onto how the inmates in the Panopticon felt, as they could never be sure if they were being watched.

Docile Body? Photo by Alice Paines.

Docile Body? Photo by Alice Paines.


Foucault suggests that discipline may sometimes require an ‘enclosure’; as discipline is ultimately about the distribution of people in a space. Rabinow (2003) in Ordonnance, Discipline, Regulation: Some reflections on Urbanism, describes the example of a planned city in France called Richelieu, during the classical age. Richlieu was a ‘self- enclosed space’ (p.358) so could be monitored easily. It was also organised in a particular way. The town was expected to house some several thousand residences and they would live in accordance to their class. The wealthiest of inhabitants would live in the centre of the site, on the largest roads, and the poorest would live in the peripheries of the area. This not only reinforced the status of those living there, but also, on a practical level, assured that there was a strong circulation of goods and wealth around the site.


Applying this example as an analogy to Kew is quite simple. They have their most prized exhibitions within the centre of the area, which is defined by their largest pathways. And then any secondary exhibits reside on the outside of the site. This then means there is not always a concentrated area of people and that the most important attractions are not ignored or missed.

One of Kew's prized attractions. The Japanese Pagoda. Photo by Alice Paines.

One of Kew’s prized attractions. The Japanese Pagoda. Photo by Alice Paines.


However, it was not just the large, concrete pathways that were of interest in my visit to Kew. Many pathways were grass, and defined by large lines of trees growing either side. These often lead to the main exhibits. At first, I was unsure whether or not we were allowed to walk on the grass. A group of us paused before stepping onto the beautifully mown lawn and looked around for confirmation from other visitors. As well as the two types of large pathways, there were often tiny walkways incorporated into flowerbeds. It made you feel as if you were exploring and perhaps shouldn’t be walking there, but the small pebble pathways gave you the confidence to stroll through. I found this concept of exploring interesting, as the visitor was made to feel as if they were discovering an area for the first time, but of course this was created by Kew. As we were out of the peak season, we were often alone in vast areas and this added to the effect of being a rambler.


An Explorer. Photo by Alice Paines.

An Explorer. Photo by Alice Paines.

Kew was very clever at fulfilling any desires the consumer may need. David Harvey (2006) discusses how social activity in an area is controlled by commercial activity and therefore the citizen is transformed into a spectator and a consumer. I mustn’t forget that apart from Kew being a botanical garden, it must make a profit to keep running. The way these walkways were designed was not only very clever in a practical sense, but allowed for people to wander without the worry of missing an exhibit. One of the first things given to each visitor along with their ticket is a map. This is usual for any tourist destination but a map allows a visitor to feel control and gives them the ability to plan. There is little chance of being lost without a map and in a large site like Kew, I felt that this was a safety net.


In The Anthropology of Space and Place (2003), spatial tactics are described as ‘the use of space as a strategy and/or technique of power and social control, but also as a way of obscuring these relationships” (p.350). I thoroughly believe this quote says exactly what Kew has achieved. As a visitor I never felt as if I were being controlled, in fact I felt like I had control of exploring myself. But of course, I took only the pathways set, small or large, which were designed with a purpose.


To conclude, Paul Rabinow states that; “Discipline involved an ongoing control, a response to a particular set of needs, not a timeless or utopian representation” (2003, p.358). I feel like Kew gardens attends of particular needs of its customers and understands it’s demographic to create positive experiences for those that visit. To continue to be successful, it must also adjust these tactics when necessary and as an anthropologist, it would interesting to visit during it’s busiest time of year, to see if Kew still attends to the desire to become an explorer and the desire to go ‘off the beaten track’ for a while, without breaking any rules.


Word Count: 1499




Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. 2014. Latest Visitor Figures. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1st May, 2014].


Brockway, Lucile H. 1979. Science and Colonial Expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic Gardens. American Ethnologist. 6(3):449-465.


Cresswell, Tim. 2004. Place: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


Foucault, M. 1977. Discipline and punish. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books.


Harvey, David. 2003. The Right to the City. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(4):939–941.


Harvey, David. 2006. The political economy of public space. In Setha M Low & Neil Smith (eds.). The politics of public space. New York: Routledge.


Hendry, Joy. 1997a. Nature Tamed: Gardens as a Microcosm of Japan’s View of the World. In Japanese Images of Nature: Cultural Perspectives. Pamela Asquith & Arne Kalland (eds.). London: Curzon Press.


Hendry, Joy. 1997b. Who is Representing Whom? Gardens, Theme-Parks and the Anthropologist in Japan. In After Writing Culture: Epistemology and Praxis in Contemporary Anthropology. Allison James, Jennifer Hockey and Paul Dawson (eds.). London: Routledge.


Hollingshead, A.B. 1940. Human Ecology and Human Society. Ecological Monographs. 10, 3: 354–66.


Kew Royal Botanical Gardens. 2014. Visit Kew Gardens. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 1st May, 2014].


Pálsson, Gísli, 1996. Human-environmental relations: orientalism, paternalism and communalism. In Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives, P. Descola & G. Pálsson (eds). London: Routledge.


Rabinow, P. 2003. Ordonnance, Discipline, Regulation: Some reflections on Urbansim. In The Anthropology of Space and Place; Locating Culture. Low, S.M and Lawrence- Zuniga. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Oxford.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s