Sector must play its part in tackling climate breakdown

As governments drag their heels, museums are well placed to educate audiences in how averting a global crisis will benefit their everyday lives. But it will require stronger leadership, a coordinated approach and dedicated funding. By Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
A worldwide consensus is emerging that we can no longer afford to wait for governments to lead the way on climate action.
The extreme weather events of 2018, bolstered by the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientific report estimating that there are about 12 years left to prevent a catastrophic rise in global temperatures, have created a new sense of urgency and impetus about the issue at a grassroots level, even while governments worldwide remain in a state of paralysis or denial.  

This was starkly illustrated at last month’s UN political summit on climate change, the Conference of Parties 24 (Cop24), in Katowice, Poland. While the US, Saudi Arabian and Russian delegations blocked the conference from adopting the findings of the IPCC report, vibrant debates took place and innovative ideas were shared at the many fringe events that ran alongside the political negotiations.

These fringe events – as well as other initiatives timed to coincide with the summit, such as the Creative Climate Leadership Conference in nearby Krakow – involved lots of discussion about the role that cultural institutions can play in this accelerating movement (see box).  

This year’s Museums Association Conference in Brighton (3-5 October) will provide a further platform for debate on the part that museums can play, taking as its theme “Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World”.  

Bolder leadership

According to environmental advocates within the sector, what is needed is bolder leadership, particularly from larger institutions, greater coordination across the sector as a whole, and more specific funding streams to support environmental action.

Arts Council England’s (ACE) Sustaining Great Art and Culture 2017-18 report, published in November, outlined some significant achievements by the arts council’s National Portfolio Organisations (NPO), both in improving their own sustainability and finding innovative ways to engage their audiences with environmental issues. In 2012, ACE started asking NPOs to monitor their carbon footprints and launched a partnership with the charity Julie’s Bicycle to help them develop environmental policies and action plans.

The report showed that in the five-year period since then, the participating organisations reduced their carbon emissions by 35% and energy use by 23%, saving £16.5m. The report also detailed innovative practice from cultural organisations in terms of audience engagement. Cambridge University Museums ran a Climate Hack across four of its sites, which involved teams made up of climate scientists and creative practitioners, such as storytellers, coming together to create public interventions within the museums – partly to test what visitors responded to most.
Charlotte Connelly, the curator of the Polar Museum, who came up with the idea for the hack, says: “I want climate change to be seen as a cultural issue and not just something that should be dealt with by science museums.”
Localising the global

A key strand of current thinking around environmental action is “making the global local”, rather than framing climate breakdown as a huge yet distant issue that’s happening somewhere else, as people connect with it better when shown what impact it has on their own lives.  

The Climate Hack reflected this, with stories of flooding on the Norfolk Broads told alongside those about rises in global sea levels. Visitors also responded well to displays that placed current research in a historical context, showing how the climate has always been a source of fascination. Giving visitors the space to make up their own minds, rather than telling them what to think, was another key element of the initiative’s success, adds Connelly.
Other institutions are also adopting these approaches. An installation last month outside London’s Tate Modern demonstrated how creativity can be used to highlight climate breakdown in a more visceral way. Ice Watch London involved Scandinavian artist Olafur Eliasson placing 30 large blocks of ice taken from a fjord in Greenland outside the gallery, which visitors could watch as they slowly melted.  

Although the arts council has been lauded for making environmental monitoring and action one of its funding conditions, there has been concern among the culture sector in England that the proposed outcomes for its new 10-year strategy, which closed for consultation on 2 January, do not give greater prominence to the environment.  

Proposed outcomes criticised

Some have criticised the consultation document– which outlines the changes in social, economic and technological environments predicted to take place in the coming decade – for failing to take into account the unfolding global crisis, which will have a much greater impact than any other issue.  

One museum professional says the arts council should make environmental sustainability a holistic and integrated part of its policymaking, rather than outsourcing it, and that it should no longer be conflated with financial sustainability: “It shouldn’t be framed as ‘if we save energy, we save money’. It should be about an ecological view on how we live in the world.”  

Claire Buckley, the environmental and energy director at Julie’s Bicycle, believes that rather than depending on the government to do the right thing, it is essential for culture professionals to air their concerns, pointing out that the original impetus for ACE to adopt environmental reporting came from voices within the sector.  

“The push must come from organisations,” Buckley says. “They need to speak up and say ‘this is important to us’.”  

Buckley says there is strong interest in environmental issues among museums, but some institutions have a way to go towards understanding how the subject is directly relevant to them.
“When asked if sustainability is important, it’s usually bottom of the list,” she says. “Museums say: ‘What does it have to do with us? We’re not the big polluters.’ But when you start putting it in a different context – like protecting heritage from flooding – it turns out it’s a big priority. It’s all about how it’s framed.”  

As highly trusted institutions, museums “are in a fantastic place” to respond to the issue and help bring about the societal shift that is needed to address climate change, adds Buckley. “They have access to the science and academia, and to the stories that really connect with people,” she says.

Bridget McKenzie, who has been an advocate for environmental issues within the museum sector for years, recently founded Climate Museum UK, a programme that will offer training workshops to museums to help them integrate climate action into their sites.
She also hopes to establish it as a digital network – much the same as a Subject Specialist Network – that will identify where relevant material is held, such as climate science or records of the environmental protest movement, and enable museum professionals to share expertise and practice about it.

Pivotal role  

McKenzie believes museums should position themselves to play a pivotal role in building resilience and helping communities adapt to the realities to come – such as building tolerance to deal with increased migration.
“If I was to make a creative case for the environment, what’s really important is that it’s about culture for change first, and not about what makes culture valued in itself,” she says. “We need to pull back and look at the role of culture for systemic global change and climate justice.”

Feeling disheartened by the inaction of government and a sense of grief at the ongoing destruction of the environment is not unusual. There’s even a term for it: “solastalgia”. But Buckley is positive about the future, and says culture is hugely important in fostering “soliphilia” – a sense of love, wonder and responsibility for our planet.
“It’s a tough time, but what we focus on is celebrating what we have, on our connection with nature and the environment, to inspire people to action,” she says. “There are so many amazing things happening. We could wallow or we could just get on and do it, in the knowledge that there is a movement – and it’s coming.”
• For more information about this year’s MA Conference & Exhibition in Brighton, and to submit a session proposal, click here
Join us in taking responsibilty for instigating change
I was fortunate to spend a few days at Cop24 in Katowice, Poland. It was a political event, with delegates representing the world’s governments – a summit to progress the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  

Admitted observers included civil society organisations and the academic community (I was part of the University of Manchester group). Observers were able to watch some of the proceedings, but others took place behind closed doors.  

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented its Global Warming of 1.5°C report, demonstrating the benefits of keeping within that temperature rise. The IPCC has noted that there are 12 years left to prevent catastrophic climate change, and that doing so has many benefits, including social wellbeing, prosperity and environmental protection.  

But a rapid and deep transition is required, and it is up to everyone, not just governments, to act. Business, civil society and individuals all have a part to play.  

What does this mean for cultural institutions? If culture is “what people do”, we have a crucial part to play in supporting people to adapt to the changes to which we are committed, and to help prevent the avoidable disaster. We can help make the implications of the IPCC’s report personally meaningful, promoting constructive thinking, feeling and doing.  

Individually and collectively, we could be accelerators or brakes, taking responsibility or avoiding it. Many are already doing their bit. Get in touch if you’d like to join in:

Henry McGhie is the head of collections and curator of zoology at Manchester Museum, University of Manchester

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