From online news and Horrible Histories to the world’s leading botanical garden: Richard Deverell, the director of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew highlights both the institution’s vital scientific work and its evolution as a world class attraction
Richard Deverell (right) became the fifteenth director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in September 2012. Prior to that, he spent 20 years at the BBC in various roles including head of BBC News Interactive and controller of CBBC.
He started out studying cellular and molecular biology, including plant science, at the University of Cambridge. While he didn’t pursue a scientific career, scientific principles remained a driving force over the decades that followed.
After Cambridge, he worked in management consultancy for several years. Deverell found scrutinising business problems interesting. However when he reached his mid-twenties he realised he wanted to work for an organisation “whose purpose I believe to be important”.
“I wasn’t particularly interested, myself, in making money, and I wasn’t particularly interested in organisations making money.”
Broadcasting, however, did have an appeal. He wanted to engage the public with great television and radio programmes.
“I spent a year trying to get into the BBC and eventually joined them in 1992 on a six-month contract. As it turned out I stayed for 20 years.”
He started out doing market analysis for the director general, which was John Birt at the time. He also spent time working on what would become digital terrestrial television.
“My only claim to fame, really, is that I wrote John Birt his first report on the ‘information superhighway’, way back in 1994, which is now known as the internet,” Deverell said.
“We were looking at the potential of the internet for the BBC to provide news services, which, of course, we ended up doing.”
“Tony was the director of BBC News at the time, a wonderful man for whom I have limitless respect. I spent four or five years working for him on market analysis, business performance, marketing, and strategy work.
“We developed, for instance, the business plans for what became the BBC News channel and the BBC News website during that time,” he said.
Deverell then spent five years, from 2000 to 2005, running the BBC News website and the analogue text service Ceefax.
“It was a very young medium. A lot was changing with the rapid uptake of broadband and mobile services and this great diversification of different forms. When we started we only had one version of the news website, for a deskbound PC. About five years later we were producing about 30 different versions for iPads, mobile phones, et cetera,” he said.
His next job was completely different. He spent five years running the children’s television department.
“I had never made a children’s program in my life,” Deverell said. “But it’s a very creative department that does a wide range of different things with a high degree of autonomy.
“Creating intelligent and entertaining, stimulating programmes for children was hugely interesting and rewarding.”
Deverell faced a big challenge in the role, going head-to-head with well-funded institutions like Disney and Nickelodeon . To compete, he led the CBBC team in creating distinctive programming that the other companies in the sector wouldn’t do. One of the highlights during his time there was producing Horrible Histories.
“The idea was to open children’s eyes to new things they previously weren’t aware of or thought were dull. We wanted the programmes to be funny and entertaining. Horrible Histories combines history with comedy in a way that works extremely well,” he said.
The necessity of competing head-to-head with Disney and Nickelodeon prompted the decision to prioritise quality over quantity. The BBC produced far fewer hours of original output but focused on significantly raising the quality of the hours produced.
Horrible Histories was one of the most expensive programmes Deverell made at CBBC. It used top class actors and writers with high production values. The strategy was to create something of quality that would still be repeating in 10 years’ time. That way, they could get value for money.
“We did less, we increased the quality, we repeated it more, but with a very clear focus on the outcome we were trying to achieve for the child,” he said.
Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew
After 20 years at the public broadcaster, Deverell thought it was time for a change. Following a protracted application process, he was appointed director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in May 2012.
“I’d been a trustee at Kew Gardens for six years. I’ve always been interested in and have kept up with issues around science and conservation. I love nature, I love being outside, and I was aware that there were some problems and challenges at Kew,” he said.
“I was lucky in that for the first time in 170 years the trustees were willing to consider a non-scientist. All of my predecessors have been eminent botanists.”
Kew is fundamentally a science and conservation organisation. Its science department has more than 300 scientists working on its collections and in partnerships with over 100 countries around the world.
Deverell’s top priority as director is to ensure that Kew contributes to tackling the global challenges facing humanity.
“How do we grow enough food to feed a rising population at a time of climate change? How do we research, understand and protect our remaining areas of high biodiversity? Particularly areas with a high degree of endangered or endemic plants and animals? So the global impact of our science, the impact and contribution, is my first priority,” he said.
His second priority is the gardens. The organisation has two sites, Kew Gardens and Wakehurst in Sussex.
“The gardens are our living collections. A living collection of wild plants, many of which are rare, nearly all of which are very beautiful and diverse.
“But we use the gardens, they have a purpose, which is to help the public to understand about wild plant and fungal diversity, and why it matters.”
His next priority is Kew’s education programmes. The organisation sees more than 100,000 schoolchildren visit the garden’s every year.
“We have a full range of education programmes,” Deverell said. “From the formal to the informal, including both science and horticulture. We are training the next generation.
Facilitating those priorities requires money, which is what takes up a lot of Deverell’s time. Kew is a charity and a government-affiliated ‘non-departmental public body’. About a third of its money comes from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
“Two thirds we earn ourselves,” Deverell said. “Of course, every year our grant from the government declines a bit. Therefore, every year we have to grow all those other sources of income to offset that.”
Visitor income, commercial income, science grants and philanthropy are all important sources of revenue to Kew, as well as membership, licensing and venue hire.
Kew runs events year-round. An orchid festival is always the first event of the year.
“This year the theme is Thailand, so it’s a burst of tropical colour and warmth in a rather grisly March. We do a country theme each year. With Thailand we’ve got all sorts of Thai cultural references. This year we have created a miniature Royal Palace adorned with orchids. It’s a reason to visit Kew when it is snowing,” Deverell said.
Following the orchid festival is an event for Easter. Last year, it was Moomin-themed, this year the theme is Peter Rabbit.
“Inevitably, Easter tends to be child focused,” he said. “Then there is then a major summer themed festival.”
Two years ago, this was Wolfgang Buttress’s 17m high Hive – a contemporary art installation around the role of bees and pollinating crops.
“This year, the festival is the Temperate House, which we have been restoring, and are about to reopen in May. It is the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse, nearly 200m long with about 11,000 plants in it. So that is the major offer this summer.”
Deverell said: “It’s essentially a big illuminated trail around the gardens. Last year we had just under a quarter of a million people around that trail.”
“I think the digitisation of our collections, the access to information about our plants, the ability to link across different collections, is, although there is a lot more we need to do, incredibly sophisticated,” Deverell said.
“We’ve got the living plants. we’ve got the dried plant specimens. We have the DNA. We’ve got the microscope slides. It’s an amazing set of collections that are searchable and digitised.”
Other forms of technology automate mundane tasks such as regulating temperatures and producing compost. The new biomass boiler is a sophisticated system that automatically regulates temperatures in the Victorian Temperate House.
“It is a complete mix,” Deverell said. “While much of the technology of what we do hasn’t changed much at all, we invest a lot in technology. We are investing a lot in high-performance computing, for instance, for some of our genomics research.”
Kew is in the midst of a five-year science strategy that Deverell and the team devised. It focuses on three broad principals – research, curating collections and disseminating knowledge.
Researching and documenting global plant and fungal diversity is something that Kew has always done. The potential uses for humanity is a particular focus, which Deverell thinks is very important.
Curating Kew’s collections involves making them available as a global asset for the scientific community.
Deverell said: “We are a collections-based institution. We’ve got these remarkably rich and diverse collections, probably unrivalled in the world. We’ve got the world’s largest collection of dried fungi, for instance. One of the largest collections of dried plants, and plant DNA, with specimens, a seed bank and so forth. And the point of these collections is that they have to be useful.”
These collections are being properly curated, labelled, digitised and made accessible and searchable by the Kew science team. According to Deverell, this effort makes the collections “an asset of great value to the global community of plant scientists”.
“For example, three years ago we launched a master’s programme in plant and fungal taxonomy and conservation. We have about 20 masters students from all over the world a year,” Deverell said.
Kew also produces a yearly report on the state of the world’s plants.
“We report on extinction risk, on new plant discoveries, invasive species, and do country profile on each one,” he said. “Last year, for instance, it was Madagascar. There is a whole range of other outputs that we are working on that bring to life these overall principles.”
While the world-renowned Kew has a fairly broad demographic spectrum, Deverell concedes that some audiences are easier to attract than others.
“We are working hard to attract more families and children to Kew,” he said. “Partly because of this point about inspiring the next generation, which, I think, is very important.”
A children’s garden, aimed at those under 11, is currently under construction and due to open next March.
“It is designed around the four basics that plants need,” Deverell said. “Air, light, water and soil. There will be a lot of play. Children will learn a little bit about what plants need and why plants matter. And they will nag their parents to return to Kew because it’s a lot of fun.”
Deverell believes there is great potential for growth at Kew. Especially as it is under capacity for around 355 days of the year.
There is a lot underway for the immediate future. The Temperate House will reopen in May, as will the Great Pagoda.
Deverell said: “We’re working on a major artistic installation for the summer of 2019, which we hope to confirm and announce soon.
“We are also working on an evolution garden. We want to help our visitors to understand the story of land plant evolution. Over the last 500 million years, from the simplest plant forms to the most complex flowering plants.
“So there is a lot in the pipeline.”
Penguin Ventures partners Kew Gardens for ‘A Big Day Out with Peter Rabbit’ from Friday 30 March to Sunday 15 April.
Images courtesy of RBG Kew.