Climate emergency: catalyst for change

While museums facing up to Covid may be tempted to sideline environmental concerns, the current crisis is an opportunity to implement change
Climate Crisis Covid-19
Jonathan Knott
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The wildlife garden at the Natural History Museum. The institution has stepped up its environmental commitments
The wildlife garden at the Natural History Museum. The institution has stepped up its environmental commitments

Before Covid struck, momentum had been building within the museum sector for a more urgent approach to environmental issues, with campaigns such as Culture Declares Emergency encouraging a growing number of organisations to make high-profile commitments. As they reel from the impact of coronavirus, museums may be tempted to sideline environmental concerns. But for climate advocates, the current crisis presents a vital opportunity for change.

London’s Natural History Museum has stepped up its environmental commitments, declaring a planetary emergency in January and launching a strategy with the mission “to create advocates for the planet”. Institutions such as Tate, Manchester’s People’s History Museum and Nottingham Contemporary have declared emergencies.

London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens declared a climate emergency last July, pledging to put environmental issues and carbon reduction at the heart of its work. A climate and ecology manifesto followed in January, aiming to transform the way it engages visitors with the environment and to minimise its own impact.

Chief executive Nick Merriman says the museum’s blend of natural history and cultural collections, as well as its gardens, puts it in a strong position to explore the interactions between people and the environment. After starting the role in 2018, he oversaw the development of a mission encouraging people to “shape a positive future for the world we all share”.

Nick Merriman plants a tree at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

The manifesto includes operational targets such as becoming greenhouse gas neutral by 2040. But Merriman says real change can come only if governments and corporations are on board. To that end, he wants to “mobilise willing portions of our visitors to become active agents for change”.

The Horniman’s research found that its audiences felt overwhelmed by the environmental crisis. Nature and Love, the project that includes much of the museum’s environmental work, aims to motivate people by linking environmental issues to concern for their own families. Ambitions include a reimagining of the venue’s natural history gallery and aquarium, as well as a new outdoor sustainable gardening zone. The museum plans to launch an Environmental Champions Club, whose members will commit to reducing their environmental impact.

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Engaging the public

Henry McGhie, founder of the consultancy Curating Tomorrow, says museums have a vital role to play in engaging the public with environmental issues, as trusted institutions with a large reach. This could mean education programmes, supporting sustainable tourism and research, and building partnerships, as well as reducing their own carbon footprints.
A military museum could explore conflict catalysed by climate change, he suggests, while a numismatic museum could address the economic impact. In any case, McGhie argues there is an imperative for museums to put environmental concerns at the heart of their work.

“It’s not just about putting on an exhibition,” he says. “It’s about asking how every decision and every bit of public money is contributing towards climate action, wherever possible.”

At Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL), a Green Cluster of seven people from across the organisation meets monthly to help it embed environmental concerns into all its work. Cluster member Becca Lewis, GWL’s facilities officer, says the work ranges from taking meter readings and buying locally to seeking out donated objects for an exhibition to “highlight a green strand in the story”.

Watts Gallery − Artists’ Village has introduced several energy-saving measures and has been shortlisted for a sustainability award

She argues that the ideas shared by even a small cultural organisation can be a “ripple”, influencing many thoughts and actions.The Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village in Surrey has introduced numerous energy-saving measures and is researching the impact of visitor travel.

The organisation has been shortlisted for the Creative Green Awards 2020, run by environmental sustainability charity Julie’s Bicycle. Recent displays that have highlighted sustainability include Leeds Museums and Galleries’ Beavers to Weavers, winner of the environmental sustainability category at Museums Association’s Museums Change Lives Awards last year.

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More collaboration

Claire Buckley, the environmental sustainability consultant at Julie’s Bicycle points to a need for more collaboration and more open reporting of data. In her view, climate control within buildings is “the area where the sector has to do a lot, lot more”.

Several climate-focused networks now offer support to museum professionals. The UK will host the UN’s COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow – postponed until 2021 – but there are calls for the government to act sooner.

In June, Julie’s Bicycle wrote an open letter to culture secretary Oliver Dowden calling for a “just and green cultural recovery”, including public investment and funding tied to net-zero carbon commitments. Signed by several museum leaders, the document argues “we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity” to tackle the climate and ecological crisis.

Buckley says the current global situation has helped people understand how inequalities with their roots in capitalism and colonialism can be seen “across the climate crisis, the Covid crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement”.

For the Horniman, the pandemic has caused practical difficulties, with a National Lottery Heritage Fund bid to support Nature and Love on hold as the funder focuses on the immediate crisis. But Merriman agrees that the situation underlines the need for urgent action. “It’s not a political issue – the science is indisputable,” he says.

Responding to the crisis

Nick Merriman, the chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, is chairing a session at the Museums Association Conference at 1330-1430 on Friday 6 November called Museum Responses to the Climate Emergency. The speakers are Clare Matterson, director of public engagement, Natural History Museum; Henry McGhie, founder, Curating Tomorrow; and Alison Tickell, chief executive, Julie’s Bicycle.

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