Climate justice: Why museums need to join the fight for change - Museums Association

Climate justice: Why museums need to join the fight for change

The Museums Association's new campaign will help the sector to tackle this crucial issue
Museums for Climate Justice
Students, staff and alumni from across University of the Arts London joined forces for the Parade for Climate Justice in 2021 UAL Climate Emergency Network, 2021 (c) Ana Blumenkron

Over the summer, the Museums Association (MA) launched a campaign to support museums in tackling the climate and ecological crisis. Museums for Climate Justice urges museums to be bold and brave in taking action and fighting for systems change.

Building on previous advocacy around climate issues, the campaign puts a new focus on climate justice, a framework that seeks to move understanding of the emergency beyond the science. Instead, it is also seen as a social, political and human rights issue, and one that is an outcome of global systems of inequality and exploitation.

This shift in focus addresses a gap in the rapidly growing knowledge and practice that the museum and heritage sector is building around the climate crisis, says Antonia Canal, who was the MA’s campaigns officer until August 2022.

“We looked at what is already out there in terms of support,” Canal says. “People know that climate justice is important but weren’t sure of the way forward to make a really meaningful impact.”

Museums for Climate Justice campaign aims

The Museums Association (MA) will support museums across the UK to: 

  • Raise awareness: use your collections, programmes, exhibitions and learning and engagement work to explore climate and ecological issues and encourage audiences to take action for climate justice.
  • Champion change: work with all partners to implement regenerative policies in your local area.
  • Be the change: Embed climate action across all decision making and processes. Focus on having a net positive impact and make sure your organisation’s footprint is as low as it can go. Commit to targets for reducing energy and water consumption, waste and carbon emissions.

 As part of this campaign, the MA will: 

  • Advocate on behalf of the sector to increase resources and facilitate partnership working on climate and ecological issues.
  • Continue to reduce the MA’s climate impact further by implementing our own sustainability plan.
  • Embed climate activism across all MA campaigns and activities, taking an intersectional approach with a focus on climate and social justice.
Testament of youth

Climate justice is a youth-driven civil rights movement that started among activists in the global south who wanted to make climate issues relevant to national conversations and ensure the people bearing the brunt of the crisis – Indigenous communities, poorer countries and young people in general – are at the heart of policy discussions. The United Nations made it a focus of its Sustainable Development Goals in 2019, and the stark inequalities exposed by the pandemic have brought the issue to the forefront.

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“As we come out of the pandemic the focus on social justice is more prevalent than ever,” says Canal. “There is a lot of thinking around what it means to be a museum at the moment.”

Climate justice is deeply connected to many conversations that have been happening across the museum sector in recent years. “We are becoming more critical about our collections and where they came from, and what our workforce looks like,” says Canal.

It’s really important that we as museums do our due diligence. We need to make sure we don’t co-opt the term without grappling with these issues in a meaningful way

Antonia Canal

“All of this is so closely linked to colonial exploitation and the role of empire. It’s about really being critical of our position in the hierarchy and recognising these histories of exploitation: that nations in the global north are driving climate degradation and communities in the global south are dealing with the impacts.”

The MA aims to align work to tackle the climate and ecological crisis with its ongoing anti-racism and decolonisation campaigning, showing how the issues intersect. As part of this, the association will be inviting the sector to take part in a new digital space and share the actions they’re taking, as well as advocating to policymakers, facilitating partnerships and acting as a forum for debate.

“We want to support museums in that vital role they can play in activating communities to create change,” says Canal. But she urges museums considering action to make sure they properly engage with the topics at hand.

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“It’s really important that we as museums do our due diligence. We need to make sure we don’t co-opt the term without grappling with these issues in a meaningful way.”

Wild justice

Many institutions are already doing important work in this area. The environmental charity Julie’s Bicycle recently launched a Climate Justice Hub documenting work across the creative and cultural sectors.

Manchester Art Gallery has a climate justice group, made up of staff, artists and activists, which has led the development of a dedicated space there. The Climate Justice Gallery will use the gallery’s collections to spur collective learning and action.

In the nearby Manchester Museum, due to reopen in 2023 after an extensive redevelopment, a new exhibition is being developed exploring the concept of “wild”, highlighting examples from the city and around the world of people using wildness to shape landscapes and drive conservation. The exhibition is tied to the museum’s Indigenising Manchester Museum project, to decolonise and bring Indigenous perspectives into the institution.

Origin stories
Fifty students from the Chelsea College of Arts wear professor Lucy Orta’s conjoined garment, Nexus Architecture, customised by Chelsea textile students and students from the Glasgow School of Art Lori Demata

At the University of the Arts London, which cares for six diverse art collections, staff have formed a collections action group to ensure they are working more sustainably and ethically.

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“We’re very much driven by the notion of promoting equitable solutions to the crisis,” says Judy Willcocks, head of the university’s Central St Martins Museum and Study Collection. “We’ve got to be really honest about its origins.”

The university has become more selective about what it collects, scrutinising the long-term environmental impact. It is also making artists more aware of the materials they choose to work with, and examining how the university’s existing collections could be used to tell new stories.

This approach is breathing new life into the collection. The university recently began using its series of 18th- and 19th-century botanical drawings as a research tool to explore the roots of colonial exploitation.

“The botanical interest in mapping the natural world was all about the colonial powers’ desire to monetise it,” Willcocks says. “We’re doing research into those networks – who funded the botanists, how they got out to the far-flung reaches of the planet. A moribund collection suddenly becomes a tool for explaining to students that the mass exploitation of the natural world begins with the colonial powers.”

Anyone engaged in climate issues will know that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis – but Willcocks says her students’ deep knowledge and passion for change gives her hope.

“Things are grim but I look for the light,” she says. “Young people are so mobilised – questioning and challenging everything. There is still time but we have to move sharpish – it’s the ultimate rallying cry to museums.”

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