Friends of the earth

How should museums tackle environmental issues and engage the public on them? Geraldine Kendall finds out what the campaigners think
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
All summer long, an ominous industrial noise has been rumbling through the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (Fact) in Liverpool.

Its source? A darkened room on the ground floor, where visitors in hard hats can observe a drilling platform tunnelling down through a pool of grimy water, illuminated every so often by jets of flame.

It’s not an ambitious new building project but an art installation intended to bring visitors face-to-face with the realities of fracking, the controversial and possibly toxic process of extracting shale gas that has already been blamed for causing a series of minor earthquakes in north-west England.

Fracking Futures, a work by artistic engineers HeHe that forms part of the Turning Fact Inside Out exhibition (to 15 September), is just one example of how some museums and galleries are finding creative ways of engaging the public in environmental topics.

Environmental urgency

Few would dispute the urgency of the issue. There is a near-consensus of scientific opinion that global temperatures will rise between a harmful 2°C and a catastrophic 6°C this century because of our reliance on fossil fuels. Pollution, intensive farming and population growth are continuing to undermine biodiversity and destroy natural habitats.

The issues are often met with a sense of apathy or powerlessness by the public, as well as a more dangerous degree of scepticism by some elements of the political establishment and the media.

So what role can and should cultural and heritage institutions (and their collections) play in influencing public and political attitudes – and are they living up to their potential to shape the dialogue?

Maurice Davies, the Museums Association’s (MA) head of policy and communication, spearheaded the Museums Change Lives campaign, which encourages museums to be more proactive in making an impact on society and people’s wellbeing.

Although many museums have already taken steps to improve their own sustainability, Davies believes that, as highly trusted institutions, they can also do more to engage with the public and other stakeholders on environmental issues.

Natural heritage

“Aside from some natural history and science museums, there are very few that talk about climate change and environmentalism,” says Davies.

“It’s odd that the preservation of heritage is so separate to the conservation of nature. There’s a general reticence for other types of museums to get involved – most have a very narrow definition of the subject.”

Some institutions may be reluctant to explore such a complex topic or to undermine their neutrality; others fear being perceived as overly didactic.

There is certainly a risk of this – Prove It!, the Science Museum’s 2009 exhibition on manmade climate change, faced a backlash as visitors felt it told people what to think rather than allowing them to draw conclusions in a more measured way.

It’s a fine line to tread but, in general, people are receptive to the subject, says Davies.

“The environment is one of the things the public told us they were happy for museums to campaign on. It’s not seen as controversial in the way that other political and social issues are. In most cases it doesn’t have to be a case of taking one side or another – it’s more about starting the discussion.”

Get involved

And in spite of reduced funding, there are still a variety of opportunities for museums to get more involved. Several organisations, including the Godalming Museum in Surrey and the Museum of East Anglian Life, have joined the Transition Network, a grassroots initiative aimed at steering communities towards a low-energy, resilient way of living.

The Happy Museum project also funds outward-facing sustainability work linked to wellbeing, while various eco-charities, such as Global Action Plan, are keen to partner with museums as a way of disseminating their ethos and expertise.

As part of the general discussion on the wider role of museums in society, the MA is running a session on whether museums have a responsibility to campaign on environmental issues at its annual conference in Liverpool (11-12 November).

Ahead of this, Museums Journal spoke to six professionals about how museums should be tackling environmental issues.

Christopher Rapley, professor of climate science, University College London, and former director of the Science Museum, London

“Climate scientists often struggle to tell their story. Few are experts in the entire breadth and depth of climate change, let alone its implications, and few are outstanding public speakers.

They’re constrained by their aim to be impartial about their work, and are uncomfortable about the use of emotion and rhetoric to engage their audience. This provides a rich opportunity for them to work with others who have currency in this area – such as museums and the arts.

In 2009, in the context of the Copenhagen conference on carbon emissions, the Science Museum ran a small climate change intervention called Prove It.

The idea was to sketch the climate change message and encourage visitors to overcome feelings of helplessness and take positive action – by registering support for the UK negotiating team at Copenhagen. However, as the exhibit came together, partly as a result of ‘Climategate’, its subject became hotly controversial.

The museum was seen and criticised as a policy advocate, and the online facility became a battleground between those who strongly dismissed the need for action on climate change and those who strongly supported it.

It’s a good thing that it happened, as it informed how we developed Atmosphere, the museum’s permanent climate science gallery.

Our objective was to attract as wide an audience as possible, irrespective of their views or interest in the subject. We sought to tell the story of climate science in a neutral, informative tone and limited the controversial aspects to one zone.

That meant that even if you didn’t like the message, you could still learn something useful. We were careful to let people make up their own minds.

Did it work? Yes – we aimed to get 200,000 visitors in the first year and we got just under a million. The feedback showed that even visitors who were dubious about climate change felt they had learnt something useful.

I feel strongly that it is better to open up a dialogue rather than a debate – which is about  winning not understanding.”

Philippa Ward, director, Global Action Plan

“I’m not sure it is appropriate for museums to campaign; they should make the public think and rethink, make connections they might not previously have made, and widen their horizons.

As a behaviour-change charity, we believe in starting where people are and taking them on a journey, so we would love to see more conversations with museums about  how to connect with their visitors in new ways around the environment.

Everyone who connects with the public has a duty to address inaccurate information when they come across it – as a trusted part of the local community, museums can do this brilliantly. I don’t think they should go looking for arguments.

They should just correct and educate about the importance and fragility of the environment as they go about their ordinary work.

We are currently involved in an exciting project with the National Trust to show how staff and volunteer environmental actions can complement improvements to building conservation and the visitor experience. We want to prove the approach and then replicate it elsewhere in the sector.

Most people want to be inspired and to  be part of something bigger than themselves.

At Global Action Plan we are always amazed at the openness and creativity of people around these issues – why not see what your visitors are capable of?”

Henry McGhie, head of collections and curator of zoology, Manchester Museum

“I got into museums to promote the understanding of the natural world through collections. This is especially important now as we know that two-thirds of species in Britain have declined over the past 50 years and things are similar elsewhere.

Museums could meet this challenge by inspiring and encouraging an active interest in nature.

This would be achieved by providing people with stimulating experiences: showing them the wonderful variety of nature from vast collections; providing access to enthusiastic experts, passionate amateurs and social experiences; and making suggestions to take things one step further.

At the Manchester Museum we campaign quietly on the value of nature and the power of personal actions.

We have totally revamped two of our main natural history galleries recently: connecting visitors with their attitudes to nature in Living Worlds (2011) and exploring what collections tell us about the natural world in Nature’s Library (2013).

Natural heritage is as much about the future as the past. Natural history museums can help that common heritage have a future, and connect with the world beyond their walls.”

Bridget McKenzie, founder, Flow Associates and author, the Learning Planet blog

“There are almost no organisations that go far enough in the face of the most catastrophic mass extinction in the earth’s history. The emphasis on sustainability has been too much on incremental reduction of carbon footprint when it should now be about positive generation of ‘biosphere capital’.

I’d like to recast the debate about whether museums should campaign proactively or be neutral. Campaigning is too much of a marketing process to suit museums. Neutrality implies an absence of ethos and passion.

I’d rather see museums act fully as guardians of commons, as models of stewardship of human and biological diversity.

They need to be spaces to allow people to voice their feelings about the future. These feelings will intensify as conditions worsen.

More positively, museums can embody the idea of ‘yestermorrow’: learning from the past to develop ecologically-based innovative solutions to our problems.”

Darren Mann, head of life collections, Oxford University Museum of Natural History

“Museums, in particular those rooted within universities, are well placed to act as a portal through which the public can engage with the products of scientific research in a more accessible format. What better way to discuss the human mediated extinction of a species than when handling a dodo bone?

Collections are an under-exploited biodiversity database, waiting to be utilised for challenges such as climate change.

The current trend of the citizen science-driven project, where wildlife at a single site is catalogued [by the public] over a time-limited period, could easily be repackaged to do the same in museum collections.

In the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s Hope Entomological Collection, we use our specimens and expertise not only to enthuse people about the wonderful world of insects, but also to emphasise their importance in ecosystem services and human wellbeing.

Most people will engage better with environmental topics when drawn in by an object around which the story can be woven.

The Oil Beetle Hunt, our project with Buglife (the invertebrate conservation trust), is now in its third year.

The project has had a huge citizen science input and it’s been mutually beneficial; our museum has received advocacy for the value and use of collections, while Buglife has been provided with much-needed data to scientifically demonstrate species decline over time.

The project has been extremely successful, with the discovery of a species - previously known only from old museum specimens and believed extinct – alive and well in the British countryside.”

Tony Butler, director, Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk

“It would be remiss of a rural open-air museum not to focus on environmental issues.

Our museum has held green fairs, farmers’ markets and we manage our landscape under the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ higher-level Stewardship scheme, promoting rare breeds and protecting biodiversity.

Climate-change deniers account for less than 5% of the peer-reviewed papers relating to climate change. Museums ought not to waste time debunking their science. They should explore the economic and political debates that cause such views.

The challenges of the 21st century are not how much economic growth we can achieve, but how better we share the planet’s depleting resources fairly and more equally. Museums ought to look at human and environmental effects of conspicuous consumption, such as the mining for rare metals for mobile phones.

At a local level this might mean exploring the issues relating to road building or wind farms.

It was in the context of understanding what it means to ‘live well’ that we founded the Happy Museum project. We wanted to show how museums can foster sustainable wellbeing, which doesn’t cost the earth.

We’ve funded 23 museums in England and Wales on projects as diverse as exploring the ethics of winter-cut flowers in the Garden Museum and helping Godalming Museum reimagine its role in the community, working with local green campaigners, allotment holders and cycling clubs.”

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