How industrial museums can tackle the climate crisis - Museums Association

How industrial museums can tackle the climate crisis

A case study from Amberley Museum in West Sussex
Climate Crisis
Louisa Jones
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Environmental education charity, Sussex Green Living, engaged with visitors to Amberley Museum on World Environment Day
Environmental education charity, Sussex Green Living, engaged with visitors to Amberley Museum on World Environment Day

As a showcase of southern English industrial and rural working life, Amberley Museum’s collections elicit a sense of pride in local skills, but also a dose of nostalgia – shared by our volunteer body and many of our present-day visitors.

However, as evidence of climate breakdown becomes ever-present, it’s vital to question how much longer this rose-tinted view of yesteryear can endure.

If the museum exists “for the learning and enjoyment of…future generations”, then how can we adapt our mission to this time of crisis? How can we use our fossil-fuelled collections to contextualise our present predicament, tell a new story of emerging technologies and also ensure that our own activities as a museum minimise harm towards the planet?

The shock of the Covid pandemic has prompted our organisation to begin discussing and answering these questions.

Early on in the pandemic we were fortunate to secure an £8,770 grant through South Downs National Park Authority to renovate our two nature trails. Keen to develop Amberley’s sense of place, our staff team developed new interpretation panels linking the site’s iconic lime kilns with the biodiverse spaces that have regenerated since their closure in the 1960s.

Children explore Amberley Museum’s reinterpreted nature trails

Woven into our narrative were issues such as global warming, insecticide use and the carbon cycle, pitched at a young family audience. Although the participatory element of this project didn’t happen on the scale we’d hoped due to successive lockdowns, we developed our relationship with the local village school by asking them to contribute drawings of bats to act as our trail mascot.

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In May this year, the whole school visited for a special enrichment day focussing on local biodiversity, activities we plan to amalgamate into our regular school offer.

A second successful initiative in 2021 was our community event for World Environment Day. Among the local grassroots organisations we invited to attend were a food waste charity, our local repair café and Extinction Rebellion chapter, a community cycling campaign, and an electric car group.

Community groups, including Horsham District Cycling Forum, engaged with visitors to Amberley Museum on World Environment Day.
Community groups, including Horsham District Cycling Forum, engaged with visitors to Amberley Museum on World Environment Day

Families could also take part in a Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle trail highlighting frugality in our collections, create a lino print of local endangered species and leave behind their “pledge for the planet”. This was a fantastic experience of community building with potential longer-term partners, and something we plan to make into an annual event.

On the more practical side, in line with our value to become a sustainable organisation and lower our carbon footprint, we were lucky to have a trustee with professional experience draw up a new environmental policy during our closed period in 2020.

Although our volunteer body repurpose maintenance materials as a matter of course, we have further to go with greening our waste streams, especially in our café. Solar panels were installed on one of our exhibition buildings free of charge by a local energy cooperative in 2019, and we are monitoring the savings made closely. A fledgling Green Team has been launched to champion this work, and although uptake has been slow among volunteers, we expect that this will change once more momentum has been built.

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While I feel that these initiatives are a promising step in the right direction, the longer-term challenge will be to ensure that they build towards a shared, cohesive understanding of our responsibilities as an organisation regarding the climate crisis.

Our greatest limiting factor is staff capacity, but lack of space is also likely to make relevant contemporary collecting a struggle.

We have just discovered carbon literacy training and investing in this as CPD for key staff members should help provide us with the skills to inform and bring on board greater numbers of staff, trustees and volunteers.

To succeed we will need to continue working with local allies and networks and develop our participatory programming in order to tell stories that resonate with, and help guide, both more and less traditional visitor groups.

Louisa Jones is learning officer at Amberley Museum

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