Tackling the climate crisis needs bravery and innovation - Museums Association

Tackling the climate crisis needs bravery and innovation

Paper straws and recycling aren’t enough, says Jacob Ellis
Museums for Climate Justice
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Jacob Ellis
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The race to net zero intensifies, scientists repeat their cries for action, and crowds of young people turn to the streets in anger. As we approach the Cop27 climate change conference, there is much we can do across sectors to harness the solutions needed. 

Wales’s Wellbeing of Future Generations Act obliges public institutions to maximise their contribution towards seven national wellbeing goals. Amgueddfa Cymru –Museum Wales is one of 44 public bodies that have responsibilities under the world-leading legislation. Many would assume that Amgueddfa Cymru confines itself to cultural contributions. In fact, it proactively maximises contributions across all seven national wellbeing goals. Our role in the Office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales is to advise and support public bodies, and to monitor and assess progress.

The legislation enables public bodies in Wales to address problems holistically and take advantage of multiple objectives and future trends. A clear example is the exhibition that Amgueddfa Cymru’s youth panel created in 2019 to accompany Dippy the Dinosaur’s visit to Cardiff – the panel identified the environmental impact of the fashion industry as their “big issue”. 

I particularly welcomed the museum’s new digital festival Olion (Footprints), which was all about climate change and sustainability. An open call was made to young artists in Wales to contribute to the exhibition with work on the themes of protest, sustainability or climate change. One of the talks centred on Sustainable Homes Past, Present and Future, to mark 20 years since the opening of the House of the Future, in 2001 at St Fagans National Museum of History. These projects not only made links with objectives the museum had set in alignment with A Resilient Wales – one of the seven goals of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act – but contributed towards the organisation’s own learning and engagement objectives. 

Ceredigion Museum’s Future Landscapes programme is an excellent local example, as it created a bridge between the museum and community needs and issues. The museum brought together diverse communities, using its exhibition Sheep, which explored the upland landscape of mid-Wales, to stimulate conversations about land use. The museum now hosts monthly People’s Practice meetings to keep the dialogue open. 

My biggest observation on the way public bodies address the climate crisis is that we must go beyond paper straws and recycling facilities. There is room for innovation and bravery. In fact, our future generations demand it. Museums have long been incubators for innovation, and this can support the climate revolution if the sector wants it to.

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For museums across the UK to truly tackle the climate and nature emergencies, they must apply their climate actions throughout corporate governance. About 50-70% of public sector emissions are due to procurement. We have much still to do to reach the Welsh government’s target of a carbon neutral public sector by 2030. We need to consider the goods sold in museum shops, cafes and restaurants, the services procured for hospitality and facilities, and the materials used in exhibitions. 

Museums have the opportunity to respond holistically to climate action. Ask difficult questions, demand more from sponsors, be transparent in your response to cutting emissions, understand and take action on pension pots, and connect the issues facing current and future generations to social, 
racial and climate justice. 

The cultural sector has constantly used its creativity to demand action, and to identify solutions. I hope others across the UK and the world can draw on Wales’s experience of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act to create a better world.

Jacob Ellis is lead change maker for public affairs and international work at the office of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. He is also a member of the MA’s climate advisory group

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