Climate change is a topic that we need to address - Museums Association

Climate change is a topic that we need to address

How can we effectively engage and inspire people about environmental topics?
Henry McGhie
Last December, politicians agreed that something needed to be done to limit climate change within a two-degree centigrade increase on pre-industrial levels. So what should happen next and what role should museums play in realising this ambition?

If we look at the big picture, not one of the 20 targets (the Aichi Targets) towards protecting global biodiversity (in support of the 1993 Rio Convention on Biological Diversity) is on track to be met by 2020. The Paris Climate Agreement will need radical change if promises are to be turned into reality. Strategies such as these almost all say something like “more needs to be done to engage people with these issues, and civil society organisations play a key role”, recognising that civic engagement is crucial to large-scale change.

What kind of organisations fit the bill? Museums, of course: their collections can connect people with historic and living heritage, they have a mandate for promoting critical thinking and they reach more people than go to football matches.

We can see from the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment, an official statistic, that most people care about nature and already do things that are good for the environment. So, we have a precedent to address environmental sustainability from a policy and strategy perspective; a mandate to help people engage with the subject from what they tell us themselves, and a sectoral responsibility based on the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics that we should “act in the public interest in all areas of work”. Most importantly, we have better evidence than ever that people and nature are good for one another.

So, how can we effectively engage and inspire people about environmental topics? I came across a great definition of inspiration as “the feeling that moves us to action”. Taking this on board, we need to focus on constructive outcomes rather than depressing and disempowering information, of which there is plenty on television and in newspapers. We should draw on the latest thinking from the applied social sciences and environmental communications, to ensure great collections and great engagement can produce great and impactful experiences and outcomes.
We have been using these approaches at Manchester Museum for some time, for example in our Living Worlds gallery, which drew on work by American sociologist Stephen Kellert and the Five Ways to Wellbeing. We recently led on advocacy work for north-west museums built around the argument that museums can help connect people and nature, drawing on work by the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby (7 Million Wonders, 2015).

Our Climate Control exhibitions focus on creativity and the idea that we can’t change the past but we can change the future. The story of the Peppered Moth, which evolved in response to industrialisation and is a great Manchester-based story of change, is a key element, as is reimagining Manchester in Lego. We are working with the Tyndall Centre and climate-change agency Manchester: A Certain Future, so our exhibitions contribute to the bigger picture and bring the city’s climate change strategy to life in personalised ways. We have worked with the Public Interest Research Centre on climate control to ensure our activities support creativity and constructive thinking. We are partners (with six north-west museums with natural history collections) in a two-year project with the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, that explores how natural heritage collections can promote active ageing.

Through projects such as these, we create opportunities that aim to be constructive and enjoyable for people, and that explore, imagine and begin to realise a more sustainable future.

Henry McGhie is the head of collections and curator of zoology at Manchester Museum

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