During his eight years as Assistant Curator of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, Aarin Packard had the opportunity not only to care for trees in the national collection, but to learn what it takes to manage a public bonsai collection. Those skills have served him well in his new position as Curator of Seattle’s Pacific Bonsai Museum.
Packard grew up around bonsai. “My dad had a small collection, but I didn’t fully appreciate bonsai until my friends got involved,” says Packard. In high school, he started a bonsai club, working on trees bought at a mall near his childhood home in Southern California. While his friends lost interest, Packard was hooked. He went on to study anthropology at California State University Fullerton and receive a master’s in museum studies from The George Washington University.
Packard says he values the past, which is why he went into the museum field. “If we do our job, these trees will outlive us and be here for future generations,” he says. “And unlike a lot of things, bonsai get better with age.”
In addition to having an appreciation for plants and nature as a young person, Packard developed an affinity for Japanese culture, including karate and other martial arts. “Like martial arts, practicing bonsai can be meditative,” he says. “It allows you to clear your mind and put away things you have been thinking about throughout the day. It’s easy to lose yourself in it.”
He began at the Pacific Bonsai Museum (formerly the Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection), soon after it opened as a public museum in 2014. In addition to caring for the trees, his responsibilities include overseeing facilities management and security and developing museum procedures and systems. He credits his training under Curators Jim Hughes and Jack Sustic at the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum with preparing him to step into the role. Referring to the Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in the nation’s capital, he says. “There is no place like it in the U.S. It is the national collection.” Having been on hand for the groundbreaking for the Museum’s renovated Japanese Pavilion, he looks forward to returning in October for the dedication.
“The opportunity to learn bonsai has never been greater and information has never been more accessible,” says Packard. Under his leadership, the Pacific Bonsai Museum is partnering with The Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt to create a database that will ultimately be accessible to bonsai museums around the world. The collaboration is a result of the national Consortium of Public Bonsai Curators founded by Sustic.
“It’s critical that bonsai continue to grow as an art form,” says the 35-year-old Packard – which is why he is committed to bringing younger people to the art. Starting with his five-year-old son, who is already helping to water bonsai in Packard’s personal collection.