Developing climate crisis exhibitions and engagement programmes - Museums Association

Developing climate crisis exhibitions and engagement programmes

A case study from Wakefield Museums & Castles
Climate Crisis
Leah Mellors
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Michael Palin is one of the experts who will help contextualise the exhibition
Michael Palin is one of the experts who will help contextualise the exhibition

At Wakefield Museums & Castles, our motivation for addressing the climate crisis comes in many forms. As a department of Wakefield Council, who declared a climate emergency in 2019, we want to play our role in the council’s aim to be carbon neutral by 2030.

As an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation, we are required by our funding to address environmental sustainability through our carbon footprint, organisational behaviour, and work with audiences.

And as a museum service, it is our mission to use our collections to engage with our audiences on the issues that are relevant and important to them. It doesn’t get much more relevant or important than the climate crisis.

In July 2021, we will launch Wakefield Council’s Festival of the Earth with the opening of an immersive climate crisis exhibition, A World of Good, at Wakefield Museum.

The exhibition will centre on the letters of Charles Waterton, a 19th-century environmentalist who built the world’s first nature reserve at his home near Wakefield. These will be contextualised through the work of local artists and the knowledge of renowned experts such as David Attenborough, Michael Palin and Liz Bonnin.

The exhibition will act as a call to action to our audiences to be kinder to the environment. Within the exhibition, there will be a manifesto and a set of achievable yet effective actions: visitors will be asked to pledge their commitment to undertaking at least one of these actions.

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The exhibition will be complemented by a programme of activities to deepen engagement, with take-home craftivism kits; community art workshops using recycled materials; and smaller displays co-curated with activist groups.

Looking ahead, the A World of Good messaging will be incorporated into all future exhibitions – for example, our upcoming exhibition of Charles Pears’ travel posters at Pontefract Museum will encourage sustainable travel within the UK.

Inspired by our collections, we are also developing environmental learning resources for schools and communities, helping us to reach the younger audience that will be so crucial in addressing the climate crisis. These resources will provide collections-based research and information, prompts for enquiry, activities, and hands-on materials.

One of the biggest challenges we face is measuring success – how can we keep track of changes in people’s behaviour once they leave our sites? Engagement with social media campaigns and resident surveys are some of the ideas we have explored but we haven’t found all the answers yet.   

Being a local authority-run museum service can present challenges for environmental sustainability, especially in our level of influence in areas such as building management, energy tariffs, and waste and recycling.

However, we have established a strong partnership with our council’s Climate Change team, who are providing us with valuable expertise and support, as well as influence and advocacy.

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The Climate Change team are supporting us to develop an Environmental Sustainability Action Plan, outlining our commitment to reducing our carbon footprint.

It features a range of actions across our service, including switching to biodegradable gloves for object handling, using recycled or recyclable materials in exhibitions and learning resources, installing bicycle racks at our sites, partnering with public transport companies, and developing planting schemes at our castle sites.

We have also identified long-term aspirational goals, such as investigating how we could incorporate Passivhaus standards and renewable energy sources into a new collections store.

We have been supported and encouraged in our work through our participation in the Happy Museum’s No Going Back programme, a peer learning programme involving mentoring and knowledge-sharing between 13 organisations. This has provided valuable time and space to explore our ideas and gain feedback from others in the sector who share our commitment to addressing the climate crisis.

Leah Mellors is the collections and exhibitions manager at Wakefield Museums & Castles

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