ACT News

Australian National Botanic Gardens gets $1.5m private donation for conservatory

Hundreds of species of native tropical plants will soon have a chance to thrive in the cool climate of Canberra when work is completed on a $3 million conservatory at the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

The sunken glass dome building was slated as part of $25 million worth of future work revealed in the gardens' 20-year master plan last June.

Ian Potter Foundation CEO Craig Connelly and Australian National Botanic Gardens general manager Peter Byron at ...
Ian Potter Foundation CEO Craig Connelly and Australian National Botanic Gardens general manager Peter Byron at Wednesday's announcement. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Melbourne-based not-for-profit organisation the Ian Potter Foundation will commit $1.5 million to the project – the gardens' largest private donation – to match federal government funding.

The gardens' general manager Peter Byron said finer details of the "iconic" conservatory's design were yet to be finalised but it was expected to be about 500 square metres.

An artist's impression of the conservatory from the Australian National Botanic Gardens' master plan.
An artist's impression of the conservatory from the Australian National Botanic Gardens' master plan. 

A design competition will seek to attract the country's best architects, he said, before work gets under way early next year to have the building finished in about 12 months.

"We're open to all sorts of ideas, we want it to be an innovative, really functional design," Mr Byron said.

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"It will be spectacular; there will be some threatened species in there and always something flowering and of interest."

The conservatory will house a core grouping of sub-tropical and tropical plants, but every six months there will be changes to the exhibition to focus on plants from Christmas Island, Norfolk Island or Kakadu, Mr Byron said.

An underused section of the gardens close to the car park and visitor centre will make way for the conservatory.

It's part of a raft of new infrastructure slated for the gardens that is hoped to boost visitor numbers that have taken a tumble since 2010 – dropping by 10,000 people each year.

But Mr Byron said the gardens had its biggest crowd in five years in 2015, jumping by about 40,000 people to almost 450,000.

"It is really picking up, we're activating the site with lots of new events and experiences like markets … and visitors are really responding to that," he said.

Ian Potter Foundation chief executive officer Craig Connelly said the group had chosen to gift $1.5 million to the conservatory, from its annual donations of $24 million, as the project was focused on "access, education and conservation".

"We look to fund in a range of program areas including science as well as environment conservation, this fell into the science stream and it was clearly an outstanding project … [with] the focus on retaining flora and making it available to Australians to research and view that wouldn't be available elsewhere," he said.

Federal funds for the conservatory – the first project from the master plan – will come out of a $5 million contribution announced last year, said ACT senator Zed Seselja, after recent years of "significant challenges" for the gardens.

"In my former life in ACT Assembly we'd have arguments about things like the arboretum being a competitor and there has been funding issues on both sides of government, but I think we've seen that turn around in recent years and I would hope we'd see visitor numbers turn around as well," he said.

"There's a great national benefit but I think there's also a great local benefit as well."

Other projects to be completed by 2020 include a national seed bank, a bushland walking trail linked to the National Arboretum, a horticultural maintenance facility and public art.