Newly opened at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, The Calyx is the purpose-built exhibition space that the Gardens has needed and wanted for some years. On the outside it’s an architectural and very beautiful structure occupying the site of the old glass square pyramid Tropical Centre and built on to the Ken Woolley-designed quarter-circle ‘Arc’ glasshouse which survived demolition. I like the way its stark and severe white ribs around the circular open courtyard area contrast with its green and leafy garden background, and also the wonderful shadow patterns they throw on the internal courtyard space. But what’s inside?
Inside starts with a circular outdoor reception courtyard enclosed by the ribs. At the moment, the centrepiece of that is an island with topiary howler monkeys to introduce visitors to the South American-themed chocolate exhibition inside.
Although when I saw them the monkeys still needed to be planted, they already looked good just filled with sphagnum moss. Created in Tasmania using robust welded, powder-coated steel framework and very expressive faces, I think they’ll be great.
The building beyond houses a range of flexible internal spaces that can be opened or closed off by sliding glass-door panels, each one frosted and engraved with botanical illustrations.
The main area of The Calyx is still the Arc glasshouse, refurbished with new glass and sophisticated temperature and humidity sensors and controllers. The entire back wall of the glasshouse is now what’s described as one long ‘greenwall’ – although, as it’s actually a staggering 18,000 small 100mm (4″) pots in a changeable modular display, I would call it a ‘vertical garden’.
The inaugural exhibition in The Calyx is called ‘Sweet Addiction – The Botanic Story of Chocolate‘. Using interactive displays and a jungle of plants, it tells the story of how the fruit of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) eventually becomes one of the world’s favourite foods – chocolate. In telling this story, the aim is not just to titillate the tastebuds but to remind us of how our western addictions can shape, and even destroy natural ecosystems as well as alter and endanger plant and animal communities.
Activities for children include hunting for hidden animals, wooden tags that swing aside to reveal surprising facts and a range of sensory experiences such as a jungle soundtrack (with some often startling additions), things to smell, and stone carvings and interesting textures to explore.
The intersecting narrow paths that weave through the exhibits give a great sense of discovery and anticipation about what’s around the next bend.
For adults there are the more traditional information panels like ‘Cradle of Life‘, ‘Food of the Gods‘ and ‘Ritual to Retail‘ but also some hidden ‘artwork’ in the vertical garden (not so easy to spot in the photos taken on this very sunny, contrasty day), and some truly spectacular plants on display, many of which I hadn’t seen before including rare South American cycads, elegant palms, beautiful orchids and colourful bromeliads.
The plant displays are created similar in style to a show garden, with most plants in large pots grouped together and the pots disguised by mulch. RBG Curator Manager Dale Dixon has done an expert job on grouping the plants into attractive combinations, using logs for height and paying attention to the tiny details that are so important in these close-up displays, like filling crevices with moss and using lots of small plants to create very attractive mini gardens between the larger plants.
There are many other interesting plant displays too, like the large hanging balls thickly planted with bromeliads and also various animals hiding among the exhibits made by the same Tassie supplier as the monkeys.
On thing that really struck me, when talking to Dale Dixon and also Director of Horticultural Operations Jimmy Turner, is how much every staff member of the three Botanic Gardens (Sydney, Mount Annan and Mount Tomah) has been a part of the creation of this new exhibit. From sourcing the logs that are used to build up the display beds, to the Mayan-style stone carving, the jars filled with seeds and fruit, and even the Lindt-sponsored ‘Sweet Addiction’ signage, dozens of RBG staff members from apprentices through to senior managers lent a hand. (Yes, those hundreds of little individually wrapped balls in the sign were a compulsory product of every management meeting.) Even those staff who were not directly involved helped support the new exhibition by doing that bit extra, so that those who were could put in the long hours required to get it all completed with a very short lead time.
There are improvements to make and new things to add and I suspect that Dale and Jimmy will still be tweaking this first exhibition until it closes next April. The monkeys out the front need to be planted with their mini-mondo fur coat and the pond liner better disguised for a classier entrance. Inside, the impressive vertical garden display needs a few changes to bring out the pictures more strongly. And, of course, a winter opening for a tropical exhibition was always going to be a challenge, with its short days and low sun angle, even within a temperature and humidity controlled glasshouse.
Early editions of creating these wall plant pictures have revealed that coloured foliage works better than flowers for the stronger contrasts needed for display detail, and that some coloured foliage plants will more reliably hold their colour than others in the changing light intensity along The Calyx’s curved wall. The display will also be regularly updated through the coming seasons to keep the plants fresh and in tip-top condition.
So what’s the verdict?
I enjoyed reading and absorbing this exhibition even though I am no chocoholic. The long, narrow and quarter-circle curved glasshouse is a good challenge for an exhibition designer and I like the way the paths weave through the information panels and plants, creating smaller, more intimate spaces. The floor surface is a smooth polished concrete suitable for wheelchairs and prams, although I wonder if some of the text and exhibits may be too high for someone in a wheelchair to see.
Unlike some educative exhibitions I have not enjoyed, this one has the information presented in a logical progression, starting with explanations of the cacao plant’s natural environment and what’s so special about it, and ending up with the chocolate manufacturing process and how it’s become part of our culture. However for those who prefer to receive their information less rigidly, you can just wander about and make any number of random dips into this ‘box of chocolates’ and enjoy and learn from what you’ll find.
It’s not a big exhibition but will probably hold a good half hour of interest for the chocolate-loving visitor and 30-60 minutes for the combined chocoholic-plantaholics among us. You need to book your tickets for one of the two daily sessions (10am and 1pm). Time will tell whether the entry prices are a little steep at $15/adult; $8/child and concession; $40 family (online pre-purchase, reduced prices for RBG Foundation and Friends members) and whether it compares favourably with other paid entry entertainments and educational experiences around the city.
As for The Calyx’s external courtyard, although there are no announced plans for it, I could see this lovely space, in combination with a selection of the adjacent rooms, becoming a favoured city venue for small evening events. It already has separate access nearby via an existing private road off Art Gallery Road and would open up much-needed revenue possibilities for the Gardens.
And the last word from, and about, ‘Sweet Addiction’?