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Plants: An Accredited, Living Museum

Zoo Entrance

Many people don't often think of a zoo as a museum, but San Diego Zoo Global, which operates the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, has both living (animals, plants, tissue, and cell lines) and nonliving (library resources and photographic archives) collections. In 1993, San Diego Zoo Global was accredited by the American Association of Museums (AAM). To receive AAM accreditation, we had to meet a series of high standards that AAM uses to measure professionalism in the field—particularly the manner in which collections, both living and nonliving, are curated. To date, only a small percentage of museums in the United States are accredited. And within this percentage, only six other zoos have received AAM accreditation.

To prepare the gardens of both the Zoo and the Safari Park for accreditation, some major changes were necessary. Distinctions between collection specimens and general landscape plants were needed. We would need to declare collection groups and then assume the responsibility for managing them at a standard proper for a botanical garden.

Baja garden at the Wild Animal ParkData on each collection was brought to a 100 percent level of accuracy and correspondence with actual plants in our greenhouses, nurseries, and those planted on grounds. These collections were tagged with permanent labels that indicated their correct botanical names, their year and sequence of introduction, and their status at that time, which might be as a cutting or an entire plant. All paperwork that is used to run the organization was put in order, such as ethics and mission statements for each collection. Operating procedures for each department curating the collections were spelled out, detailing frequency of inventories, maintenance schedules, and listings of suppliers and/or wild-collected material. Finally, a mapping system using grid coordinates was employed to document locations of permanent garden collections.

In renewing its AAM accreditation in 2003, San Diego Zoo Global was required to inventory our collections. Using GPS (Global Positioning System) equipment, every plant was located and recorded, placing it on a map precise to within 18 square inches (116 square centimeters). This database also allows us to follow growth, relocation, and disposition of these plants in the future, as is required by the AAM. Institutions must reapply for accreditation every 10 years. We will hire a professional company to do the application work for 2013, as it is a full-time process!

Our declared collections at the San Diego Zoo are currently acacias, aloes, bamboos, coral trees, cycads, figs, gingers, orchids, and palms. The Safari Park's accredited collections are the Baja Garden, Old World Succulent Garden, Conifer Forest, figs, palms, and the Nativescapes Garden.