This summer, the Museums Association (MA) is launching a campaign to help the sector take action on climate and ecological issues. It will include advice and support on raising awareness of the issue among the public, working with partners to champion change and embedding climate action in all decision-making within museums.
Some of the issues that surround this crucial subject were addressed at the National Museum Directors’ Council conference Museums and Galleries Responding to the Climate and Ecological Crisis, which was held at the Whitworth Art Gallery in March. The discussions, ranging from exhibition-making and funding to tourism and localism, showed that the sector is still getting to grips with the crisis.
Some institutions are far ahead of others, approaches vary greatly and there even seems to be disagreement about the language used. Should we be saying “climate crisis”, “climate emergency” or something else? Is “sustainability” the right word or is “sustainable development” better? And should the sector be aiming for net zero carbon emissions or no carbon emissions at all?
The conference also exposed differing views over how activist museums should be in addressing the crisis. Clare Matterson, the executive director of engagement at the Natural History Museum, described how her organisation debated the issue following Extinction Rebellion’s protest at the London venue. The result was a new mission to create public advocates for the planet.
“We chose that word advocate carefully,” she says. “We did not believe, as an institution, that we were an activist, but we felt we wanted to be advocates ourselves and help other people become advocates, so they could understand, speak up and be empowered to take action in the context of the planetary emergency we are facing.”
Creating active citizens
The Horniman Museum and Gardens in south London created a Climate and Ecology Manifesto in 2020, which outlined its platform for action and the steps it would take to mitigate against the climate and ecological emergency. The aim is to create informed and active citizens who feel able to make change, whether that’s cutting their own carbon footprint, joining campaigns, writing to politicians or attending demonstrations.
But the Horniman has also stopped short of describing itself as an activist, despite some staff pushing for it to join Extinction Rebellion marches as an organisation, or to publicly condemn fossil-fuel companies.
“Museums are among the few institutions able to take a view way beyond short-term economic and political concerns, so they have a moral and ethical duty to speak out about the climate and ecological crisis, and to engage their publics in it,” says Nick Merriman, the chief executive of the Horniman Museum. “We know from surveys that there is still great public trust in museums. And museums have a wide reach.
Museums Journal special climate issue
The September/October 2022 edition of Museums Journal will explore how we as a sector can tackle the climate crisis. If you have an exhibition, project or other piece of work you’d like us to spotlight, please email deputy editor Eleanor Mills at email@example.com.
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However, one of the reasons we do have great public trust is that we are seen to be properly disinterested and acting on good scientific and historical information. In my view, this trust would be in danger of erosion if we moved into organisationally supporting particular causes that seem to be political or perhaps partisan. The fact that the Horniman is government funded makes this even more sensitive.”
Other delegates at the Manchester conference have a different view. Chris Garrard, the co-director of Culture Unstained, which campaigns to end the fossil-fuel sponsorship of culture, says: “It makes little sense to be striving to cut your museum’s use of fossil fuels if you stay silent on – or, in the Science Museum’s case, actively endorse – companies that are investing millions in new sources of fossil fuels, against the International Energy Agency’s guidance.
Choosing not to engage or appear partisan on the record of the fossil-fuel industry is, in itself, a political position – but one that simply aids the industry by maintaining the status quo. Museums don’t lose the public’s trust by adopting clear ethical stances on fossil fuels and climate change, but when they act in ways that seem contradictory, or by not being open to reasonable scrutiny of the stance they have adopted.”
Surprisingly, there was not a specific session on oil sponsorship of the arts at the conference. But it did come up during questioning of keynote speaker Carly McLachlan, the director of the Tyndall Manchester research community. She said while she is happy to debate the issues, she would refuse to be part of an event sponsored by a fossil-fuel company.
“When you hear people talk about how much money they are putting into the arts and how much they are putting into renewables, you need to always ask how much are you putting into fossil-fuel extraction, to get a sense of where their priorities lie,” McLachlan says.
“Planning for transition is different from being at shiny events and exhibitions where they are presented as deliverers of the transformation at the appropriate speed, as I am not sure they are doing it at the speed to meet Paris climate change commitments.”
Arts organisations have increasingly been voting with their feet in the debate over fossil-fuel sponsorship. In February, the National Portrait Gallery and fossil-fuel giant BP confirmed that their partnership will not extend beyond December, when their current contract comes to an end. A day later, Scottish Ballet confirmed that it had ended its decade-long partnership with BP, as its activities were not in line with the ballet company’s plans to be carbon neutral by 2030.
Whatever differences of opinion exist over the language, activism and relationships with fossil-fuel companies, there was also lots of agreement at the conference. Crucially, there was a widespread view that museums need to act now and act fast. There was a consensus that the sector needs to empower communities, rather than just engage them.
“All parts of society need to be enabled to participate in the discussions and decision making,” said Ben Twist, the director of Creative Carbon Scotland. “For the most part, disadvantaged communities, globally and locally, are not at the table and are not invited there. They might not feel that they have the skills and social capital that enables them to fully participate in the debate. There is a lot of evidence that cultural participation builds social capital for individuals and communities.
“There is something interesting in the way we can make stronger connections with communities and individuals, which will help enable a wider range of people to genuinely participate in the climate debate. We also need to create opportunities to participate – and museums can offer that effectively.”
The MA will support its climate campaign with several sessions at its conference in Edinburgh (3-5 November), where sustainability will be one of the four themes.