A modern wind sculpture, crowning the hill where the Compton mansion once stood, draws the visitor's eye and imagination as its clock-like hands turn against time's forward direction and point back into the past. Ancient trees stretch their sagacious canopies protectively over the ninety-two acre Victorian landscape and invoke an element of awe at their immense size and hydra-like branches. However, these trees do not dominate the Arboretum; they share their spotlight with a variety of younger performers. New garden sections, specializing in splashes of color, appear as the visitor travels further down the path. Curiously twisted modern sculptures add spice to an open grass field, while a newly-restored Oak Alleé presents the next generation of oak trees aspiring to one day match the size of their predecessors. This strange combination of past and present may strike some as a mismatch in theme, but at the Morris Arboretum, both pieces are intricately woven into a seamless whole. The bridge that unites these different pieces comes from the will of John Morris, the original owner of the Compton mansion, and flows directly into the current mission statement of the Arboretum. The Morris Arboretum, in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania, is both "a historic public garden and educational institution. It promotes an understanding of the relationship between plants and people through programs that integrate science, art, and the humanities. The Arboretum conducts four major activities: education, research, outreach, and horticultural display." (Mission Statement) To carry out this mission, the Arboretum focuses its endeavors on three fronts: preserving the past, maintaining the present, and envisioning the future.
As the physical convergence of all three fronts, the actual grounds in the Arboretum perhaps provide the easiest canvas upon which to mark the Arboretum's progression. Although the Compton mansion itself was lost during the early university era, other buildings of historical importance have been preserved. The old carriage house John and his sister Lydia once used has been transformed into the Visitor Center. The old spring house still stands near the back edge of the Arboretum, and the pump house still operates in the large meadow. Although both buildings have been renovated, their design remains much the same as they would have been during the Morris' stay. The Mercury Loggia and the Love Temple by Swan Lake have also been renovated and maintained.
Perhaps more historically important than the buildings, the trees and horticultural collections started by the Morris siblings have also been preserved and continue to be cultivated. John and Lydia traveled the world during their era of ownership, and they both took a deep interest in the horticultural and landscape styles and in the plant diversity of the countries they visited. Some trees of great magnificence are very rarely found in North America but are represented in the collections, including an Engler beech tree, Fagus engleriana , and katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum , that could possibly be the state champion with the large girth from close to 100 years' growth. The Fernery, an odd octagonal, sunken greenhouse originally built by John Morris and later renovated, houses an incredible variety of ferns and their relatives found across the world. Current plant researchers Dr. Ann Rhoads and Dr. Timothy Block have done thorough examinations of the native flora of Pennsylvania. With an understanding of the future of horticulture, the Arboretum encourages plant research, and several plant patents for new cultivars have arisen from the Arboretum's research. However, the Arboretum knows that the future of horticulture is promoted only by reaching out to the community and inviting them to partake in the horticultural cultivation and education at the Arboretum. As the desires and expectations of visitors have changed with time, the Arboretum has worked to meet those changes without compromising its mission. Understanding the Morris' desire to increase horticultural learning and their appreciation of the arts, the Arboretum has combined various displays into the design to help better connect people with plants through the arts. Modern sculptures add flare in various locations, while one whole section of the garden has been deemed the Garden Railway. In this latter section, model trains whiz around tracks through a model village comprised of many different types of houses, both real and fictional. This year's theme is Fairy Tale Rail and includes houses from stories such as "The Three Little Pigs" and "Rapunzel."
While the actual grounds provide a tangible picture of the Arboretum's progression, the intangible changes in the Arboretum have perhaps proved the greatest challenges. Meshing the past, present, and future on an organizational, maintenance, and financial level within the Arboretum has been anything but easy. The organization has undergone three major eras, according to the current Executive Director and former Longwood Graduate Program Fellow, Mr. Paul Meyer. The first was under the Morris siblings from 1887 to 1932; this era established the foundation of what is today the Arboretum and fueled the formation of its mission statement. The second is designated the Early University Era, from 1933 to 1974; during this era, financial and staff-related challenges led to many unattended problems with facilities. However, the Arboretum was deemed one of the University's Interdisciplinary Resource Centers in 1975, and thus it entered the last era of its current history, from 1975 until present. During this last era, organizational structure has undergone many changes. The Arboretum's mission statement was formed and became the focal point of every activity. Plans for the renovation of the buildings and grounds were made, and, most importantly, those plans were implemented "step by step through continuity in leadership," as Paul Meyer described it. While focus continued to include plant collections, with a special emphasis on local flora, it also expanded to incorporate education through outreach. Volunteers became increasingly important as major projects were undertaken, such as the renovation of the pump house and the addition of the Garden Railway. The Arboretum increased its visitor attendance by renovating sections of the Arboretum, adding more educational classes for the general public, sponsoring events like festivals and "Big Bugs," and targeting how it could make the visitor's experience both an educational and aesthetic one. Bob Anderson, who directs maintenance operations, has plans for further renovations, including some of the old water features, such as the Key Fountain and the Mercury Loggia Bowls, which would add to the aesthetic experience.
While planning and organizing events is wonderful, Paul Meyer was quick to point out "no money, no mission." Like most university and public gardens today, the Morris Arboretum knows the difficulties involved in raising money. Although its endowment has increased from roughly eight million in 1993 to nearly twenty-six million in 2004, it still experiences the "money squeeze." The Arboretum currently draws about five percent from three endowments, contributing nearly thirty-five percent of its operating budget. Ms. Melissa von Stade, the current Director of Development, serves as a liaison to develop a financial interface between many departments, from the Arboretum's Board and the University's department to the Director's Guild and potential donors. She sees an endowment as "a buffer against unforeseen problems," and "sectional endowments" as "budget relief" for specific garden sections. To her, donor cultivation and stewardship hinges on leadership access, proven success, personal relevance, clear articulation, high quality projects, vision, and imparting excitement in current progress. Melissa von Stade has noticed that donors of the present are more likely to donate to specific projects than to a general endowment fund, unlike previous donors; this makes it more difficult increase an endowment fund, unless "sectional endowments" are formed.
Despite continuing organizational and money challenges, the Morris Arboretum has visions of expanding activities, events, and its collections in accordance with its mission statement. There are plans for the renovation of sections of the Arboretum that are still in disrepair, as well as plans for a new educational opportunity called the "Canopy Walk" that involves a series of hanging platforms projected through certain tree canopies. Ms. Liza Howley, the Youth Education Coordinator, and Ms. Amy Hoffmann, a former Morris intern and current employee, are excited about the "Canopy Walk" because it may encourage intergenerational horticultural learning, especially at the middle school age level. While encouraging future projects and educational opportunities, the Arboretum will continue to also uphold research and collection opportunities and maintenance, as it strives to complete all aspects of its mission statement. It will continue to preserve the historical aspects of the Arboretum while promoting present situations in organization, maintenance, finance, and education to reach new heights in the future. As it continues to adapt and grow in many ways, the Morris Arboretum will always remain a place dedicated to practical horticultural learning and appreciation.