Get moving and help shape the future

Museums have much to contribute to ambitious global agendas
Henry McGhie
Over the years, I’ve written a fair bit in Museums Journal on the importance of museums connecting with environmental agendas, so it is extremely heartening to see the value and need for public engagement and education on environmental issues recognised in a lot of top-level policies.

The 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement commits signatories “to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public participation and public access to information”, to attempt to limit climate change. The Convention on Biological Diversity includes a target: “By 2020, at the latest, people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably.” And the United Nations has a global agenda “to transform our world” by 2030, through 17 Global Goals.

It is worth noting that the UK is a signatory to all of the above agreements. The Global Goals are a wonderful agenda for museums to connect with, whether in terms of how they contribute to their most local communities, or in terms of how they relate to the wider world. There is little, if anything, that should be controversial here, whether ending poverty and hunger, ensuring healthy lives and wellbeing for all, creating sustainable cities, or supporting a safe and healthy natural environment. And there are some obvious places where museums can contribute directly. One of the targets is: “By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.”

If there is a criticism of the goals, it is that they are too wide-ranging, too utopian. The government’s response to the sustainable development goals, produced in March, doesn’t include how civic society or public engagement can contribute to the achievement of the goals. This could be seen as an issue, but it is also a tremendous opportunity for museums to lend a hand.

Internationally, there is a real appetite for finding ways for civil society organisations to contribute to the 2030 agenda. I spoke at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in May with a collaborator from Manchester Climate Change Agency on cities and museums fostering climate education and empowerment. The International Congress for the History of Science and Technology, in Rio de Janeiro in July, included a session on “narratives for future earth”, with presentations on museums as history-making and future-making sites.

The Science Centre World Congress, which is in Tokyo in November, is organised around the 17 Global Goals. In Manchester, museums and art galleries are contributing to the city’s aim to be zero carbon by 2050.

Now feels like a great time to be looking to the future in museums, drawing on local and global collections and using the 2015-30 time period to give some shape to the future. There are plenty of networks and good sources of information to support us. The Museums and Climate Change Network, established by Jenny Newell (now at
the Australian Museum) is open to everyone, and is building a stronger collaborative network. And next year, under the Imagine 2020: Art and Climate Change banner, an initiative called The Season aims to bring the UK’s creative community together to develop a series of works “celebrating the environment and inspiring the wider community to take action with us against climate change”.

There’s lots going on, lots of help available and lots of reasons to get involved. If you truly believe that museums can contribute towards a better future – with people fully involved in shaping and creating that future – we really don’t need anyone’s permission to start. Let’s get moving.

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

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