Museums, galleries and heritage sites have a vital role to play in tackling the climate emergency. From informing and educating via discussion and debate to inspiring real action, there is potential for every venue and institution to get involved.
Understanding what that role is and how collections can play a part, however, can be tricky. While, the UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26), which is being held in Glasgow in November, has offered a clear catalyst for many institutions, others need to look closer to home to find a relevant stimulus.
Reduce your impact
Before thinking about visitor engagement, look at what your organisation is doing to reduce its environmental impact.
“Be prepared to share what you are doing, but also explain what your challenges are, such as lack of funding or capacity,” says Emma Dunton from Season for Change, a UK-wide programme of cultural responses celebrating the environment and inspiring urgent action on climate change.
Looking at what you can do to reduce your environmental impact as an institution is crucial. National Museums NI is showing its commitment to tackling the crisis by making it central to its new five-year strategy and signing up to the United Nations Pledge for Biodiversity, which aims to amplify museums and cultural institutions’ efforts.
Elsewhere, Glasgow Museums has set out five objectives on the climate emergency, including answering the basic climate change questions and raising awareness of actions they can take to tackle it.
Find your connection
Start by thinking about what is relevant to your local community, before planning your programming, says Hilary Jennings, project director at the Happy Museum Project, which promotes wellbeing and sustainability across the cultural sector.
“Rather than going too big and trying to connect with the global issues, start with your collection, your building and your locality,” she says. “Think about how to use the expertise you have, while thinking about what groups you can connect with locally.”
Nick Merriman, the chief executive and director of the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London, says every collection will have a connection to the environment in some way.
He encourages museums not to shy away from using their “behind the scenes” environmental work, such as reducing their carbon footprint, as a means of speaking to visitors. The Horniman is on a busy main road and is considering showing live read-outs of pollution levels.
Trigger for change
Glasgow Museums’ three-part strategy around Cop26 includes reassessing collections with an eco-lens and adding layers of eco-interpretation at permanent galleries at Riverside Museum and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
Clare Gray, the learning and access curator at Glasgow Museums, says the Cop26 plan has been developed using five objectives it has set out for longer-term change.
“Cop26 is a trigger for changes we wanted to make over the long term,” she says. “We are keen to create opportunities for people to discuss how climate change affects their lives and to explore the changes they can make.”
Alongside reinterpretation at Riverside and Kelvingrove, the service’s plans include programming and learning resources, co-creation projects with youth groups, and training.
Riverside has installed a permanent display assessing the drive for energy efficiency, Going Green, with a Tesla Model S P85+ as its centrepiece.
The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, part of the University of Glasgow, has also signed the UN’s Pledge for Biodiversity. It has begun work by reinterpreting its existing permanent exhibitions through a climate-change lens.
Taking the right approach
There are myriad approaches that museums can take to the climate crisis that will make content engaging and accessible, says Bridget McKenzie, founder of Climate Museum UK, a mobile and digital museum dedicated to the climate and ecological emergency.
Unsure where to start? Try answering these questions.
- What matters right now and what do people need?
- What could we start collecting to reflect this – and how can we involve people in this?
- What objects could we reinterpret or bring out of storage?
- What art or community practice could we commission?
- How can our work be in service to the continuity of life?
She suggests starting by conducting audience research on topics such as food, fashion or human rights, to create relevant stories and immersive experiences.
McKenzie highlights four areas of focus that museums could consider in relation to their own collections and expertise:
- People: this could look at the experiences of people whose land, animals and plants, and their bodies and cultures, have been exploited.
- Material: ideas include exploring the systems of extraction, production, transportation and trade of harmful commodities.
- Place: this could look at exploring the histories and impacts of climate change through cities, nature reserves or heritage sites,
as well as places that are regenerating ecologically.
- More-than-human: ideas include exploring bio-colonialism, or the extraction of animals through hunting, ecosystem destruction and exploitation for transport and labour.
Leah Mellors, the collections and exhibitions manager at Wakefield Museum, has tackled the climate crisis with a call to action. It ended up being central to creating A World of Good (until July 2022), an exhibition based on the work of 19th-century environmentalist Charles Waterton, who built the world’s first nature reserve near the town.
Visitors to Wakefield Museum are met with a manifesto and a list of achievable actions, such as switching to LED lightbulbs or installing solar panels.
“We wanted to give visitors suggestions for things they can do,” says Mellors. “It is something for them to channel their anger into.”
Don’t be hypocritical
Whatever approach you take with your content, your exhibition must be sustainably produced, says Season for Change’s Dunton.
The Hunterian’s Robinson says: “As a sector, we have a lot of work to do around ‘greening’ exhibitions and moving on from the ‘throwaway and start again’ mentality we have had for exhibitions in the past.”
Inspire don’t preach
The biggest challenge for museums tackling any aspect of the climate emergency is finding balance. “Every exhibition should have the ambition that people don’t leave in despair, but feel inspired with a sense that change is possible,” says the Happy Museum’s Jennings.
She suggests offering spaces that encourage discussion and creating opportunities for reflection, as well as including examples of inspirational work.
“A positive attitude and approach that shows solutions helps to avoid scaremongering and fear,” says Dunton. “Show what people are doing, rather than telling people what they should be doing.”
Dunton accepts that it can be a complex and overwhelming subject for museums to tackle, but she says: “Don’t ignore it. It is urgent and critical.”
Campaigning for sustainability in the sector
The Museums Association (MA) believes that museums can play a critical role in raising awareness, changing behaviour and championing change with our communities.
The MA is asking all museums to do three things:
Get your museum in order
Make sure that your organisation’s footprint is as low as it can be, and commit to targets for reducing energy consumption, waste, travel and carbon use.
Use your collections, programmes, exhibitions and learning and engagement work to discuss the climate crisis, and encourage audiences to think about what they can do to make a difference.
Work with community and environmental organisations to implement greener polices in your local area.