On a startlingly warm Friday in February, the 2019 Museums Association Conference panel headed to Brighton to select sessions on the Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World theme.
En route, we encountered groups of excited young people heading to the UK’s first School Strike, calling for radical action in the face of climate change. Along with groups such as Extinction Rebellion, the strikers are a visible expression of growing public concern about the accelerating dangers of climate breakdown.
As individuals, we can feel trapped in a system wedded to unsustainable growth and over-consumption, our desire to respond caught in the false dichotomy between individual action (often characterised as inadequate) and government-led systemic change (currently woefully insufficient).
My entry to green “activism” came 11 years ago, when I stumbled on the Transition Town Network – a global grassroots movement of communities addressing climate change by making changes in how they live, where they live. They seek to crowdsource solutions, reclaim the economy, spark entrepreneurship and build connections. It’s an approach that has spawned thousands of groups in more than 50 countries.
Action at this level meets a sweet spot between the individual and the systemic, working in a way that is human and connected and at a scale that enables visible and achievable outcomes. Surprisingly, given the subject matter, engaging with climate change in this way led me to a deeper understanding of wellbeing.
It brought me new connections, new learning and a visceral sense of personal agency. I found space to talk openly about climate change and grow my understanding of both challenges and solutions. It narrowed the gap of cognitive dissonance between my personal actions and the scale of the problem.
Local authorities across the UK have recently been declaring a “climate emergency” as a first step towards making firm carbon-reduction targets. Meanwhile, research suggests that communities with the greatest diversity of connections will be the most resilient in the kinds of crises that climate breakdown will bring.
As place-based and connected organisations, there is huge potential for museums to respond to community concerns by convening, catalysing and supporting local activism on environmental issues. I’m inspired by projects such as A Rubbish Night at the Museum, where Manchester Museum supported activist groups to bring together residents, councils, businesses, waste contractors and landlords around issues of waste.
The Museum of Reading’s Where’s Reading Heading?, which looked at the city’s past, present and future, working with others to consider how the town can sustain a growing population and build a low-carbon economy.
After the most recent Climate Strike, Manchester Art Gallery offered its studio spaces to families taking part, while the People’s History Museum created a Protest Lab alongside its Peterloo exhibition for individuals, communities and organisations to share and develop ideas for collective action.
Last October the UN Panel on Climate Change reported that we have only 12 years to make the “urgent and unprecedented changes” necessary to limit climate warming to 1.5% and avoid extreme droughts, floods and poverty. There is a real opportunity for museums to bring their innate qualities to the growing movements in civil society confronting this urgent challenge.
My provocation, as a museum professional and a community activist, would be to start local. Build partnerships with those that are already engaged with environmental concerns and take your place in this growing and interconnected community of action.
Hilary Jennings is a museum consultant and the director of the Happy Museum
The theme of this year’s Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Brighton, 3-5 October, is Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World. Click here for more information and to book a place