Climate change: are we doing enough?

Gareth Harris, Issue 115/07, p11, 01.07.2015
Do museums need to take a stronger stand on climate change?
The recent controversy over emails from oil giant Shell trying to influence the climate science programme at London’s Science Museum has brought into focus the issue of how museums tackle environmental concerns such as global warming.
Although the Science Museum said its curatorial programme was not changed following the emails, the way museums communicate climate change is likely to remain a sensitive issue.

The state of the planet is rising up the news agenda, with the G7 leading industrial nations recently agreeing to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century.

They also set a global target for limiting the rise in average global temperatures to 2ºC over pre-industrial levels.

Doing more
In light of this, some sector professionals are arguing that museums should be doing more to address climate change. Manchester Museum has taken the radical step of shelving its exhibition programme next year to focus on a series of topical issues.

“Our big programme next spring and summer will be related to climate change, focusing on what people can do about it and working with our audiences and researchers in the university,” says Henry McGhie, the head of collections and the curator of zoology at Manchester Museum.

“This will be our main programme during Manchester’s time as European City of Science, linked to the European Science Open Forum.”

Natural history museums also need to address other issues, such as biodiversity loss, McGhie adds. Late next year, Manchester Museum will launch an exhibition and programme exploring extinction.

McGhie says: “There is a golden opportunity for museums, especially those with natural history collections, to build a clearer purpose for themselves if they grasp the nettle and connect themselves with big challenges, such as the Convention on Biological diversity [a multilateral treaty created by governments at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro], the State of Nature report [compiled by 25 UK conservation organisations], and climate change targets.”
Building partnerships with conservation bodies, local authorities, schools and universities is vital, McGhie adds. “Museums should get themselves written into local and national plans, something we have done in Manchester.”

Using social media

Paolo Viscardi, a natural history curator at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London, believes social media can encourage mass dialogue and that museums’ natural history collections play a vital role in climate change research.
But good practice in some areas risks being undermined by the loss of specialist posts in the sector. And Viscardi believes the UK is more arts-focused than the US.
“We have moved away from science,” Viscardi says. “There tends to be a lack of understanding of the research potential of collections, especially by funders.”

It’s not just museums with natural history collections that are addressing climate change issues. A recent exhibition at the Lightbox gallery and museum in Woking, Surrey – Waste Not... (24 March-8 April) – featured old appliances and other objects that are still used to focus on the issue of anti-upgrading.
The venue followed this with a one-day symposium called The Environmental Exhibition: Is There a Place for It in the Gallery? And last year, Reading Museum secured money from the Happy Museum Project to explore the relationship between wellbeing and
the environment.

Bristol Museums has a number of activities related to the city’s status as the 2015 European Green Capital, including Art Forms in Nature, a touring photography exhibition from London’s Hayward Gallery (4 July-13 September).

McGhie believes the sector needs to take a stand on environmental issues. “Museums risk their position and credibility by sitting on the fence,” he says. “We should give the public more credit and be more overt about talking about the things we stand for and are working for – not just our values, but our motives.”