Voices from outside the sector - Museums Association

Voices from outside the sector

Museums Journal asked activists, environmentalists, writers and academics about their work and how they see museums addressing the climate crisis. Here are their responses
Museums for Climate Justice
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Zanagee Artis is a US climate activist best known for co-founding the youth-led climate activist group Zero Hour Courtesy Zanagee Artis

Colin Sterling

...is assistant professor in memory and museums at the University of Amsterdam. He is trained in the broad field of cultural heritage studies and his research focuses on critical-creative approaches to heritage, memory and museums.

Colin Sterling: 'I struggle to picture large-scale institutions heaving with tourists'
What is your biggest climate crisis priority?

My biggest priority with regards the climate crisis is the profound gap between the awareness of what is happening to the Earth system and any meaningful political action to avert the worst impacts of global warming. “Solutions” are no longer hard to come by, but the systems of oppression and injustice that have brought the world to the brink of ecological collapse still seem intractable. Small, incremental changes simply won’t cut it now certain irreversible feedback loops have kicked in.

What can museums do to support your work?

As a lecturer and researcher looking at heritage and museums, I see my work as primarily focused on education and knowledge production. Museums can support this by opening themselves up as spaces of serious climate research, debate and action. This applies not just to science centres and natural history museums, which are the obvious focus for such activities, but to every category of museum. We need museums to be spaces of critical assembly where histories of environmental breakdown can be understood, and new ways of living imagined and worked through.

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Can you give us an example of an impactful climate crisis campaign?

I think the most impactful climate campaigns are those that address the intersectional nature of the crisis. I am greatly inspired by activist campaigns that highlight the hypocrisy of fossil-fuel sponsorship and combine this with a deep examination of the racist and colonial foundations of certain museums. Understanding these intersections is a vital step towards combating climate change, I feel.

What would an environmentally sustainable museum of the future look like to you?

The future of museums is likely to be even more diverse than what we see at present. What environmental sustainability looks like will be equally varied. I struggle to picture large-scale institutions heaving with tourists and filled with objects of dubious provenance in a world that has overcome climate change, but anything else is up for grabs really.

Mya-Rose Craig

...also known as Birdgirl, is a British-Bangladeshi birder, environmentalist and diversity activist. She campaigns for equal access to nature and an end to biodiversity loss, while promoting global climate justice. Her new book, Birdgirl, was published in June, and is about how birds helped her and her family cope with her mother’s mental illness.

Mya-Rose Craig: ‘We have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of museums?’
What is your biggest climate crisis priority?

What we know is that only 100 companies are responsible for 70% of the world’s total carbon emissions. So forcing corporations to cut their carbon emissions has to be our priority in order to halt climate change. These corporations, their shareholders and supporters are spending millions of dollars each year on public relations propaganda to try and convince us that we have the ability to make a difference by making individual changes, when this is not true. They are also funding electoral campaigns, “buying” support from politicians who then allow them to continue digging for fossil fuels.

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What could museums do to support your work?

Museums should be looking at all aspects of their exhibits, cafes, staffing, transport links, like other organisations are doing, in order to reduce their carbon emissions. However, they can trigger real change by having exhibits about climate change. These could look at what has been happening over the past 50 years in the UK and in other countries, such as those in the global south, educating, promoting and encouraging people to make changes and encourage change in corporations and governments.

Can you give us an example of an impactful climate crisis campaign?

The campaign against Shell’s proposed 2015 digging for oil in the Arctic is a fantastic example of how people power can stop bad projects. It showed what can happen when a corporation feels the terrible public relations impact of a bad choice it has made on the environment and climate change. People were boycotting Shell, and celebrities getting involved made a big impact.

What would an environmentally sustainable museum of the future look like to you?

It would be better for museums to sell off their old buildings and create purpose-built museums with state-of-the-art insulation, heat pumps, solar energy, low-energy lighting and other low-impact facilities. Or museums could look at adapting current buildings if selling is not an option. There would also be lots of exhibits linked to the environment, stopping climate change and biodiversity loss.

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I think we have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of museums? Is it to let people see artefacts? Or is it to use those artefacts to educate people? I think that we need to go back to basics on this. Also, museums should have people coming in from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, with staff trained in anti-racism and exhibits of interest to everyone.

Zanagee Artis

...is a US climate activist. He is the founder, executive director and policy director of Zero Hour, a youth-led climate activist group. Artis is studying political science and environmental studies at Brown University.

Zanagee Artis: ‘Sustainability alone does not embody climate justice’
What is your biggest climate crisis priority?

My biggest priority in addressing the climate crisis with Zero Hour is working toward a just transition away from the fossil fuel economy. A just transition is a global transformation to a sustainable, renewable energy powered economy that guarantees living wage renewable energy jobs for fossil fuel workers. A just transition also ensures that extraction for the metals and minerals needed for renewable energy (and storage) does not perpetuate the extractivism in global south nations that the fossil fuel industry exhibits around the world today. A just transition can only happen by dismantling systems of oppression that allow the fossil fuel industry to exist.

Zero Hour identifies these four systems of oppression as racism, colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy. These systems of oppression are revealed by the fact that the global south is most impacted by the climate crisis. And Black, Indigenous and other people of colour in the west disproportionately live in proximity to polluting infrastructure and experience higher rates of air and water pollution. The climate crisis is fundamentally an issue of justice, and that means that solutions must be systemic.

What could museums do to support your work?

Museums can support our work by building lasting partnerships with young climate activists. Over the past few years, Zero Hour has had the opportunity to engage with museums of art, science and history to contribute to exhibits, panels and awards.

For example, Jamie Margolin, a Zero Hour co-founder, narrated the Critical Distance orca experience at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and I served as a juror for the Portland Museum of Art’s Tidal Shift Award for young artists who want to solve the climate crisis. Experiences like these present opportunities for intergenerational collaboration and the introduction of new perspectives to museum initiatives and exhibits. It also provides a natural outlet to share the efforts of climate justice activists to an audience that may not be involved in advocacy.

Museums can also do more to consistently advocate for Indigenous sovereignty through education. Native peoples around the world continue to be at the forefront of organising for climate justice and defending our access to clean air and water. While Indigenous histories were lost to colonialism, colonisers extracted knowledge and artefacts that still appear in museums today.

Can you give us an example of an impactful climate crisis campaign?

One of the most impactful climate campaigns during my lifetime was the campaign that ended the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline was an expansion project first proposed in 2008, nine years before I co-founded Zero Hour. It would have transported nearly a million barrels of tar sands oil, the dirtiest fossil fuel, every day from Alberta, Canada, down to the Gulf Coast to be exported from Texas.

It took 12 years and numerous actions, letters and petitions from environmental organisations and locals to stop a pipeline that would have locked in tar sands oil exports for decades. People in Canada and the US risked arrest to prevent that pipeline, and President Biden finally stopped it from moving forward on his first day in office. Zero Hour continues to campaign against dangerous new fossil fuel projects like Keystone XL alongside a coalition of environmental organisations called People vs. Fossil Fuels.

What would an environmentally sustainable museum of the future look like to you?

An environmentally sustainable museum of the future is one that operates on 100% renewable energy. This museum is one that incentivises bike and rapid transit travel for staff and guests viewing its galleries and exhibits. However, sustainability alone does not embody climate justice. A museum that embodies climate justice in the future is one that is sustainable and also recognises the unique role it can play to end perpetuation of systems of oppression at the museum and in the world.

Paula Serafini

...is lecturer in creative and cultural industries at Queen Mary University of London and an organiser for social and environmental justice. Her interests include the politics of art and cultural production, art activism, cultural labour, cultural policy, environmental and social justice movements and the cultural politics of extraction.

Paula Serafini: ‘The crisis is rooted in systemic issues and will not be solved by technological advances alone’
What is your biggest climate crisis priority?

Establishing in the public discourse that the crisis is rooted in systemic issues and it will not be solved by technological advances alone. If we don’t change the ways we live, create and consume, green technologies will continue to reproduce violent, extractive dynamics that harm people and planet.

What can museums do to support your work?

Acknowledging that no exhibition or programme is neutral. Embracing their role as communicators with a privileged platform, and working collaboratively with others (scientists, campaigners, artists, publics) to locate the ways in which museums can strategically contribute to addressing the climate crisis. Being bold and brave in their programming.

Can you give us an example of an impactful climate crisis campaign?

The most obvious recent example would be Extinction Rebellion (XR). XR had a clear visual identity and message behind it, developed by a team of artists, designers and communicators. While their messaging and politics are problematic in many ways, they were highly successful in mobilising people who had not been active in environmental movements before.

Another example is the Movimiento de Mujeres Indígenas por el Buen Vivir (Movement of Indigenous Women for Good Living) in Argentina. As a result of their intersectional work and building strategic alliances with other social and environmental movements in Argentina, they have been able to open a space for Indigenous women’s voices in public debates over development, extraction and climate, as well as on issues of identity and territorial rights.

What would an environmentally sustainable museum of the future look like to you?

The sustainable museum of the future has sustainability embedded in all its processes and practices. In this museum, sustainability is not an initiative or a department, but an approach to all aspects of the museum’s work. The sustainable museum of the future is not afraid to implement policies that might disrupt our understanding of art and culture as we address an urgent climate crisis. Perhaps what we display and the way we display it need to change. Museums can be part of that conversation, and contribute to developing post-extractivist aesthetics.

Jini Reddy

...is an author, travel writer and journalist. She is the author of Wanderland, which has been shortlisted for the Stanford Dolman Award for Travel Book of the Year and for the Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing. Her first book, Wild Times, won the book prize at the British Guild of Travel Writers Awards 2017.

Jini Reddy: ‘We need to confront the unjust power structures that leave those on the frontlines of the climate crisis often vulnerable and voiceless’
What is your biggest climate crisis priority?

I think we need to address the disconnect from the natural world we are experiencing in industrialised societies. It manifests in the extraction
of fossil fuels and industrial agriculture that has led to unchecked economic growth and fuelled ecological breakdown. The bottom line is we won’t want to save what we don’t know and love and, crucially, don’t believe to be a part of us. So, we need a system that involves a reciprocity with other-than-human living beings. And we need to confront the unjust power structures that leave those on the frontlines of the climate crisis often vulnerable and voiceless.

What can museums do to support your work?

Writers often have a specialist knowledge or a particular focus, or a creative vision, or combine genres in interesting and fluid ways that could translate into wonderful, dynamic ideas for museum exhibitions. We’re a powerhouse of ideas! There’s so much potential for cross-pollination.

Can you give us an example of an impactful climate crisis campaign?

I read Vanessa Nakate’s book A Bigger Picture recently – she’s a young Ugandan environmental activist and she does fantastic work to raise awareness of the need to bring climate justice to African countries. She does this in a country where strikes are illegal and protesters can be arrested. She highlights specific risks to African ecosystems, and she has helped to implement many grassroots projects that offer solutions.

What would an environmentally sustainable museum of the future look like to you?

I’d love to see museums with garden spaces in buildings constructed from environmentally sound materials, and which let fresh air in. I’d like water to be freely available and healthy food served in cafes from ingredients that are locally grown or produced. As environmental justice is linked to social justice, a move away from colonial narratives in exhibitions is vital, as is addressing the dilemma of looted art and who these collections benefit.

Asher Minns

...is a science communicator who specialises in climate change and other global change research to audiences outside of academia. He is the executive director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Asher Minns: 'For campaigns to work they need to be place-based and focus on what people know'
What is your biggest climate crisis priority?

It is public discourse around climate change that is informed by the huge body of evidence that exists in research and academia. Climate change is happening, it will happen much more, and change has to happen to respond to it. In doing this, sustainability can help transition UK society to be more energy independent, climate ready, fair and prosperous.

What can museums do to support your work?

Museums mostly look back on history, but they need to look forward also and help make history. Civic museums are often very out of date and not at all in pace with contemporary society. Museums could be much bolder, not duplicative, and help have difficult conversations about what happens next.

Can you give us an example of an impactful climate crisis campaign?

Engagement with climate change does not work like that, on an isolated case by case basis. Climate change communication is a whole range of activities and engagement working together, from museums to mass media. For campaigns to work they often need to be place-based and focus on what people know and be within their sphere of influence.

What would an environmentally sustainable museum of the future look like to you?

It will be look forward as well as back and will embed sustainability within its internal practice and operations. It will help with difficult conversations, and engage society beyond the usual suspects who visit museums.

Dominique Palmer

...is a youth climate justice activist who believes in mobilising people for climate action. She is an undergraduate student, and is an organiser of Fridays for Future, a global youth movement for climate justice.

Dominique Palmer: 'When it comes to the climate crisis, it is often a crisis of connection'
What is your biggest climate crisis priority?

First is pressuring leaders to take urgent action, particularly on a just and equitable transition, away from fossil fuels. Time is running out to reduce emissions, and scientists have declared a code red for humanity. Secondly, leaders need to recognise the intersection of social issues, how race and gender justice and other social inequalities are linked to climate breakdown, and how that has dictated who is given resources to deal with the crisis, who is disproportionately impacted, and who is listened to.

Thirdly, there is a dire need for a cultural shift on the climate crisis. Storytelling is incredibly powerful, and this is something that the arts utilise so well. When it comes to the climate crisis, it is often a crisis of connection, a lack of communities’ connection to nature. With my work in various projects, and for the youth-led organisation Climate Live, I have seen the beautiful power the arts can harness to engage, educate and empower people to join the global climate movement. 

What can museums do to support your work?

Museums can highlight the climate crisis that is here today and collaborate with youth-led organisations and environmental groups to platform their work and their stories. They can also support community-led projects such as gardens, information sessions and workshops. And museums can support or fund organisations aiding frontline Indigenous environmental defenders who are safeguarding the world’s biodiversity. All that would be a great contribution.

Can you give us an example of an impactful climate crisis campaign?

Throughout 2019, in the youth movement, we organised climate strikes to apply pressure on leaders for climate action and declare a climate emergency. In 2019, parliament declared a climate emergency and in September our strikes mobilised more than 300,000 people across the UK for climate justice.

What would an environmentally sustainable museum of the future look like to you?

One that is part of the climate justice movement through platforming the most affected communities, supporting the work of climate and environmental organisations and collaborating with them, and one that is not sponsored by fossil fuel companies. Part of a cultural shift to sustainability is supporting a shift to green energy, and away from destructive projects.

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