A conversation with Morris Arboretum Director Bill Cullina

In a Q&A, Cullina talks about generational change in public gardening, the uniqueness of the Morris Arboretum, and ideas for the Arboretum’s future.

Bill Cullina smiles in front of trees

In July, Bill Cullina, formerly the chief executive officer of the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, joined the Morris Arboretum family as the F. Otto Haas Executive Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum—assuming the role from Paul Meyer, who led the Arboretum for 28 years and retired in April. 

Here, in advance of a public lecture on Oct. 23, at the Ambler Theater in Ambler, Pennsylvania, Cullina discusses the Arboretum’s future, what he views as the role of a public garden today, and expanding the Arboretum’s audience.

Had you visited Morris Arboretum much before starting this position?

I’ve been to the Arboretum several times over the years. The first time I came to Philadelphia was back in 2005 to speak at the Woody Plant Conference that Morris organizes with Longwood Gardens, Scott Arboretum, and several other local gardens. I had a tour around the grounds. I have been back a number of times, and it’s really one of the great arboreta in North America. 

How did this job get on your radar?

Well, I got a call from Penn’s recruiter, but hadn’t known about it before then. As the director of Coastal Maine Botanical Garden, I was part of the Directors of Large Gardens group, which includes any public garden with an operating budget over $2.5 million or $3 million. The group gets together once a year to discuss issues at public gardens. Paul was getting to the point where he was thinking about retiring, so I was aware of that. Actually, a number of leaders were thinking about retirement, which means there will be a lot of turnover in public gardens leadership in the next few years.  

Will that change things when there’s all that turnover?

It’s actually something public gardens are concerned about, primarily because of population demographics as the great baby boomer generation retires. Traditionally, public garden leaders come from horticulture, but increasingly our leadership is being drawn from the broader cultural and academic community, as well as the private sector. So, while there is the potential for a short-term leadership drought, looking at traditional criteria, there is certainly a lot of opportunity for the next generations, too.

Do millennials tend to think differently about public gardens?

I think there’s a different focus. Gardening and ornamental horticulture are starting to gain in importance as the home ownership among millennials increases, but more typically, when public gardens talk about attracting audiences in their 20s and 30s, the focus has been on event programming. Other popular themes are food and sustainability, as well as process-oriented activities such as brewing and fiber arts. Certainly, we have to be proactive and adaptive when trying to reach new audiences while remaining relevant to our current ones.

What is unique about Morris? What keeps you invested?

First and foremost, it is the site and the history of the site. If I were going to pick a place in the United States to start an arboretum, the Greater Philadelphia area and mid-Atlantic are nearly ideal because the climate allows us to grow a wide variety of woody plants. It is still cold enough for Northern species and increasingly warmer to suit Southern ones. Additionally, the Arboretum is blessed with a wide variety of soils, topography, and microclimates. On that foundation, the Morris family and subsequent generations of staff have assembled a remarkable collection of woody plants, all settled into a romantic Victorian landscape—there is really nothing like it. Of course, the association with Penn is unique and opens tremendous possibilities for research and impact. Our staff and Board are pretty great, too.

Is that a big difference between your experience in Maine versus here?

Maine is a unique climate that gives you a distinctive flavor to the Maine coast. You don’t have the heat in the summertime up there, so the growing season is a lot shorter; the soils tend to be thin, with glacially derived soils. Philadelphia is unquestionably the center of public horticulture in the country, and to be part of this vibrant community is a wonderful change.  

What are some opportunities for growth you’ve identified for Morris so far?

I think one of our challenges and opportunities is trying to reach a broader audience. And that’s a culturally broader audience, demographically, but also geographically. In some ways, even though Morris has trees approaching 150 years old, and in the public garden community it is very well-known, among the general public it is not as well-known as it could be. We also have opportunities to connect more broadly with professional audiences regionally, nationally, and beyond. 

Any ideas for connecting more with Penn’s main campus?

The 10 miles is challenging. It used to be when the trolley lines ran right by us it was easy to get here from Center City. But I’m looking into several different ideas. Chestnut Hill College, next door, draws a lot of students from the city, so they have a regular shuttle bus that runs from the train station to the college, and that’s a simple thing to do. We’ve talked about partnering with them to transport people to and from the train stations in Chestnut Hill. Philadelphia, as I understand it, is trying to get more electric bike stations around the City. That’s an opportunity we’re exploring: to get a bike rental station here and at the college so people can use electric bikes to go down to the train station at Chestnut Hill, or go all the way into town. 

We’ve explored having another entrance on Germantown Avenue, as well, which has challenges and opportunities. But I do feel there’s an increasing awareness of the importance of not only public transportation, but alternative transportation, and I think that will really help to get the Penn campus out. My son is a freshman at Penn, so I have some perspective, and I think we have to focus more on event-based activities to attract that audience. We do a lot of young family-type events. The Scarecrow Walk is on now, the Holiday Garden Railway is coming after Thanksgiving, but I think we have to look at adding event-based programming geared toward young adults of college age. In a lot of ways, it’s just an awareness thing—getting people out here for the first time. From the perspective of mental and spiritual health, the Arboretum is a huge resource for everyone on campus. It’s clear when you look at the research that walking through nature is a way to reduce stress and anxiety, and what better place than here.

Seems like there could be good opportunities for partnerships?

When I look at another opportunity beyond visitation, one of the things that really excited me about this position is the chance to be part of one of the greatest research universities in the world. From the 1930s through the 1970s, we did have an active tenured faculty out here doing botanical research. We had graduate students, faculty, and classes out here, but when Penn’s Botany Department was phased out, we lost that connection. I have some thoughts as to how we might reinvigorate the research program here, and I think we have a great model in the Veterinary School’s New Bolton Center. 

What will your Oct. 23 lecture cover? What spurred that?

The central question I will explore is, ‘What is the relevance of public gardens today and in the future?’ People ask, ‘What do you do?’ It’s pretty obvious what a hospital does, pretty obvious what a soup kitchen does, or an animal shelter, but I think when you’re looking at mission and impact, trying to understand the role public gardens play is a more nuanced but still critical role that is growing in importance.

The lecture will begin with history going back to the 19th century, and the rise of the parks movement in response to increasing urbanization and industrialization. Drawing from the Morris Arboretum’s history and others, I will touch briefly on how these public gardens got started in America. From there, I will explore the many roles and facets of public gardens today—education, research, community, and art. If you look at cultures across the world, just about every culture has a musical tradition, an artistic tradition, and those often draw from nature, while nature is just part of the fabric of human culture going back to the beginning of time. It’s only in the last 100 and 125 years or so that we have to some extent, through urbanization and industrialization, cut ourselves off from the natural world at great physical and psychological cost. In today’s world, a public garden is a refuge to reestablish those connections: a safe place where parents can bring children, where those with physical limitations can find accessible nature. Public gardens can also be places to foster non-digital community and spiritual healing.