It is great to see more initiatives working to support sustainability across the sector, with the Museums Association Conference in Brighton and the International Council of Museums conference in Kyoto taking this as a theme. And Bridget McKenzie deserves a lot of credit for setting up the mobile Climate Museum UK.
But we don’t just need one climate museum, we need all museums, museum workers and museum networks to play their fullest part in tackling the climate crisis, and meeting other social and environmental challenges.
Collectively, museums probably have a larger environmental footprint than a not-so-small country. On the plus side, collections are a huge source of inspiration that can support education, research and partnerships for climate action and other sustainability issues, if deployed effectively. All museums will be directly impacted by climate change and all collections can be related to the issue, so we must help society in a just transition to a low-carbon world.
Other sectors already recognise the importance of museums and other informal and non-formal educational institutions. Lots of high-profile agendas related to the climate crisis talk about the need for public engagement, education and civic engagement. For example, the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) and the Paris Agreement (2015) both include an article on public education, training, raising awareness, public participation, access to information and international cooperation. These are more generally referred to as Action for Climate Empowerment.
I started collaborating with United Nations Climate Change in 2017, when I was still at Manchester Museum. Last year, we held a one-day workshop in Bonn that led to a formal recognition of the importance of a range of stakeholders, including museums, in the workplan for the Paris Agreement.
This was adopted at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, last year. This means that, for the first time, the world’s governments agree that museums have a key role to play in climate education and action.
At this year’s Action for Climate Empowerment Dialogue at the UN climate change conference in Bonn, I was invited to give a perspective on museums. I highlighted that while we often talk about empowering visitors, empowerment is a scalable thing: it applies to museum workers, museums and sector support organisations as much as it does to the public.
I’m not talking about repeating well-worn and depressing stories of climate change and extinction, but ensuring that museums and those who work in them understand the challenge and what they can do about it; have the motivation and confidence to play their part; and that they deliver and support real and tangible action that reduces climate impacts. We don’t just need more and more information about the problem, but more focus on solutions and actions, locally and globally.
Sector support organisations and funders have a key part to play by signposting their members to relevant agendas, providing opportunities to share good practice; providing funding, training and development opportunities to participate in relevant agendas; and communicating and celebrating collective impacts towards common goals. There are enormous benefits to be gained from doing so, and surely it’s just the right thing to do. Empowering museums to empower others will help meet the challenges of today.
- Henry McGhie has set up Curating Tomorrow to help museums accelerate their contribution to a range of social and environmental challenges, including climate action, the Sustainable Development Goals and nature conservation. He is speaking at this year’s Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Brighton, 3-5 October