by Peter Sergel

Most people’s understanding of Hamilton Gardens doesn’t stretch beyond the fact that there are gardens from different countries and different periods in history. However, Hamilton Gardens has a unique concept that reflects a wider trend for museums and gardens. Many modern museums, like the new Smithsonian Museums in the U.S., are specialising and focus on a particular story. A local example will be the museum Tainui are planning that will tell the story of Tainui’s culture and history. Hopefully it will be as engaging as the Smithsonian museums. (1) There are still artefacts in these modern museums, but they’re presented in the context of a story. There are also some major new gardens following this trend: rather than just having the usual range of plant collections, they have a theme and their plant collections are used to support that. (2)

Hamilton Gardens – Medieval Garden (under development). Credit: Hamilton Gardens

It is probably easier to see Hamilton Gardens as a specialist museum or gallery of gardens whose meaning, function and form can tell us a lot about different cultures and our past. A number of notable writers and thinkers, like Proust, Bergson, Dilthey, Nietsche, Santayana, Gadamer and Pinker, have explained that some knowledge of history is how we understand ourselves and human society. As one of the writers put it, ‘History doesn’t follow a clearly defined path, but it can help to get some idea of where you’re heading, if you know where you’ve been.’ (3)

In the early 1990s someone installed a plaque in the Cloud Court at Hamilton Gardens with Paul Gauguin’s famous questions in French, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Gardens might be able to provide some of the answers because they have always been shaped by religious, economic, social, scientific, philosophical, political and cultural developments. Those different forms of garden are an enduring shadow or reflection, cast by cultures that have faded into history. Contemporary gardens can also provide a reflection of our own time, best understood in the context of the longer story.

It’s also essential to understand the historic and cultural context to gain a basic understanding of each particular garden in the Hamilton Gardens collection. (4) As a visitor you can just enjoy the aesthetics of different forms of garden that you might otherwise need to travel the world — or even back in time — to see. But over the years there has been regular feedback from visitors who read something or went on a guided tour and found that even a little knowledge substantially increases the enjoyment of their visits.

Each new form of garden evolved from changing attitudes and new societal thinking, and each of those changes played a key role in the evolution of civilisation. With research, the story writes itself, but it’s been broken down here into the six ‘ages of man’, plus an emerging future. There are different ways of dividing history into eras and ages, but the most suitable base to work from in this context seemed to be a British academic model. (5) Each age or era has distinct characteristics reflected in its gardens, so within each of these ages, the four or five most significant developments have been selected. These aren’t sudden changes or events, but rather underlying, transformational and permanent societal changes that characterised the age. Each change was reflected in a different form of garden, and the intention has been to eventually represent each of those garden types at Hamilton Gardens.

The Stone, Bronze and Iron Age have been combined in the collection of five Gardens of the Ancient World. This period saw modern humans spread out around the world, adapting to new environments and creating new tools. While life was often dominated by spiritual beliefs, there were also emerging forms of literacy and numeracy. Most ancient societies appear to have had a belief in an afterlife, and one of those belief systems defined the form and almost every detail in the new Ancient Egyptian Temple Garden. The great Vedic empire is often overlooked but amongst other things, it was renowned for its gardens and invented modern mathematics, with the first innovation reflected in the proposed Vedic Garden. The Chinese seem to have had the most advanced cultures of the ancient world, represented by the proposed Mayhana Sanctuary Garden. This form of garden reflected ancient mystical beliefs and an enduring relationship with mountain landscapes that still influences the traditional arts of Asia. The greatest explorers of the ancient world spread across the Pacific establishing gardens, with aspects of these displayed in the proposed Pasifika Garden. In the process they quickly adapted to unfamiliar environments using the clever techniques now shown in the existing Te Parapara Garden

Hamilton Gardens – Ancient Egyptian Temple Garden (under development). Credit: Hamilton Gardens

The most advanced societies in ancient times were those that had regular contact with other cultures, sharing new ideas and sometimes driven by competition with their neighbours. The creation of larger empires facilitated the development of a civil service and public facilities, while the development of trading networks led to the spread of new religions, all reflected in the five Gardens of the Silk Roads collection. The first is the proposed Persian Garden. The great trading empire of Persia was at the heart of the Silk Road networks and its famous gardens inspired many other cultures along those trading routes from Spain to the edge of China. The Roman Empire was the first to develop a wide range of public facilities, often including a garden court similar to the proposed Roman Peristyle Garden. The first enduring civil service were the scholar administrators of China’s Han, Song and Ming Dynasties. They developed highly refined gardens that reflected many aspects of their arts and culture, partially reflected in the existing Chinese Scholar’s Garden. Buddhism spread from India along the Silk Roads, substantially influencing Asian cultures, including those, like Japan, that lay beyond the main trading routes. The existing Japanese Garden of Contemplation reflects the dominating influence of Buddhism and the other Asian belief systems. Islam also spread along the trading networks, profoundly influencing many cultures. With interpretation, the existing Indian Char Bagh Garden reflects a traditional Muslim view of the world.  

Hamilton Gardens – Japanese Garden. Credit: Hamilton Gardens

Christianity dominated the culture and politics of the Medieval period and the Gardens of the Renaissance in Europe. The proposed Medieval Garden has two courtyards that reflect the two fundamental tenets of the early Christian church. The existing Italian Renaissance Garden provides clues to several aspects of the Humanist movement that helped Western Europe catch up with Silk Road civilisations. The proposed French Parterre Garden reflects aspects of the development of a modern state’s financial administration, and shadows of the Reformation can clearly be seen in the existing Tudor Garden

Hamilton Gardens – Tudor Garden. Credit: Hamilton Gardens

The Enlightenment from the mid-17th century to the 18th century was one of the most remarkable periods in the story of human civilisation. The four Gardens of the Age of Enlightenment reflect four key changes that gradually transformed Europe into the dominant centre of world power. The proposed Baroque Garden reflects the emergence of new and improved technologies, such as improvements in printing and ballistics, notably canon technology. The proposed Hortus Botanicus garden reflects the development of science and the capitalist economy, while the proposed English Landscape Garden was always closely associated with the growth of liberal democracies. The Counter-Enlightenment, inspired by Rousseau, was a reaction to enlightenment thinking, and the existing Picturesque Garden is a reflection of that moderating movement. 

Hamilton Gardens – Baroque Garden (under development). Credit: Hamilton Gardens

The transformation undertaken in the Enlightenment allowed Europe to colonise and control large areas the world. The four Gardens of the Age of Empires reflect four of the major changes that were taking place. European colonisation followed a very similar pattern and some characteristics of that can be seen in the existing Mansfield Garden. At the same time Europeans became fascinated by other cultures, particularly those of Asia. Driven by new fashions and limited knowledge, they adapted all manner of Asian arts, shown in part in the existing Chinoiserie Garden. Exploitation of resources and people in the colonies generated immense wealth in countries like Britain, allowing a completely new form of garden to evolve, which will be recreated in the proposed Victorian Flower Garden. Perhaps the greatest advance of the age was one we now take for granted in the West; a value placed on the welfare of the individual, not just the important individuals. That led to several Humanitarian movements and reforms designed to protect the lives of the poor and led to the abolition of slavery. You can see the direct results of some of those institutional reforms and social movements reflected in the existing Park Cemetery.  

Hamilton Gardens – Mansfield Garden. Credit: Hamilton Gardens

History will probably associate our current age with petroleum products, but the four Gardens of the Modern Age represent four positive developments. Recognising local heritage doesn’t sound like a major step, until for example, you consider the importance now given to local Māori culture. The earlier support for local culture can be more clearly seen in the existing English Arts and Crafts Garden, which was a conscious reaction to the dehumanising aspects of the industrial world. The growth of consumer society was closely associated with the spread of American culture and Modernist design, reflected in the existing Modernist Garden. The growth and influence of environmental movements will be referenced in the proposed extension of Echo Bank Bush, and the multiple influences of modern art partially addressed in the existing Concept Garden

Hamilton Gardens – Modernist Garden. Credit: Hamilton Gardens

Niels Bohr famously said that ‘it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future’, but the two existing and two proposed gardens in the collection that make up the four Gardens of a new age, are reflections of some relatively safe assumptions. The capacity of computers will increase, particularly artificial intelligence along with our increasing dependence on computerised systems. The growth of megacities and intense urban development is another trend, as are major developments in genetic engineering and mankind’s ingenuity in adapting to climate change. (6)

The results of the thirty developments in civilisation briefly listed above, have led to results we now take for granted. Each has added a layer that collectively created the modern world. (8) Each of those developments or layers was reflected in a different form of garden. However, more information and explanation is obviously required to appreciate the direct link between each development and associated type of garden, which is why the Garden History Research Foundation is supporting some form of publication to explain the context, meaning and history of gardens, along with the history of Hamilton Gardens itself. It is important to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. Hopefully as more gardens are developed, with good interpretation, more people won’t just see Hamilton Gardens as a pleasant place to stroll. They’ll be able to appreciate it is also a unique museum that can tell a powerful and compelling story about civilisation and evolving human behaviour. 


  1. The newest Smithsonian museums tell stories about: the American Indian, African American History and Culture and the Jewish Holocaust.  
  2. For example: The Eden Project tells the story about the importance of plans and Cranbourne has the theme of water. 
  3. Marcel Proust, Pleasures and Days, Alma Classics, 2014  (translated from the 1913 original), p. 286  ; Marcel Proust, The Past Recaptured, Fishpond, 2009, Translated from the 1927 original) p. 139  ; Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, Zone Books, 1990, (translated from the 1896 original), p.101; Walter Kaufmann (translator), The Portable Nietzsche, 1954,  p.250; Niall Ferguson, Civilisation, Penguin, 2011; HansGeorg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 1960, p. 56; Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Penguin, 2012, p.XIX
  4. The Operative 2020 Management Plan for Hamilton Gardens was prepared under the requirements of the Reserves Act 1977. It includes a long term plan for the Gardens based on the concept outlined in this blog.
  5. Bloomsbury Academic are producing a series of books and on-line collections with sections written by leading academics. These cover the cultural history of at least 33 subjects including ‘gardens’. Each is broken down into the: Ancient World, Medieval, Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, Age of Empires and Modern Age. These are consciously Eurocentric so we’ve added another ‘Silk Roads’ section. 
  6. The existing Sustainable Backyard Garden and existing Surrealist Garden and the proposed Structural Garden and proposed Bee Meadow.

It will always be subjective what the 30 most important steps in the development of civilisation are, but these are the 30 steps that were chosen, partially influenced by which steps were reflected in a different form of garden. The spread of modern humans around the world, adaption to new unfamiliar environments, developing complex belief systems, mystical relationships with the landscape, invention of mathematics and writing, establishment of trading networks, larger stable settlements with public facilities, civil administration, the spread of Buddhism, spread of Islam, spread of Christianity, the Humanist movement, development of state administration systems, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, emergence of new technologies particularly improvements in printing and canon, development of science and the capitalist economy, growth of liberal democracies, the Counter-Reformation, European colonisation of the world, influence of other cultures, accumulation of surplus wealth, a new value placed on each individual, value placed on local heritage, the growth of conservation movements, development of the consumer society, development of modern art, growth of mega cities, impact of computerised systems on modern society, the development of artificial intelligence, advances in genetic engineering and adaption to climate change.

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