Climate change has been an issue for many years, but it hasn’t been at the top of most people’s concerns. Among some environmental campaigners, there was a fear that extreme messages about the dangers would frighten the public and push the issue further to the margins.
But the tactics of direct-action groups such as Extinction Rebellion, as well as millions of striking schoolchildren, have changed all this – recent polls have shown that public concern about climate breakdown has reached record levels.
Obviously, concern is not enough, and campaigners want this to lead to change – and quickly. There is no doubt that this is going to be challenging and complex. Governments, companies and individuals are all going to have to alter their behaviour.
As institutions with buildings, staff and collections, museums are among the public-facing organisations that have a key role to play in supporting change. Some museums have already started this journey.
Last month, it was announced that the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, and Leeds Museums & Galleries have been awarded funding by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund for projects that will bring their historic collections into the public eye.
The aim is to solve two critical, intertwined global problems: the extinction crisis facing insect populations and the need to engage a wider audience in these pressing conservation issues. This follows recent news reports highlighting the stark crisis that insects face as their populations crash, threatening ecosystems worldwide.
And across the sector, museum boards are having difficult conversations about the implications of accepting money from fossil fuel companies. This was highlighted by the controversy over the BP Portrait Award and the ongoing protests against fossil fuel firms sponsoring cultural institutions that have been taking place in UK museums.
To respond to the climate emergency, museums are having to understand and address a new reality in a short space of time. Debate and the sharing of ideas will help this process. This year’s Museums Association Conference, which has Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World as its theme, will be an essential place to have these discussions. Do come along.
Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal