Find your sustainable story - Museums Association

Find your sustainable story

Katherine McAlpine, director of the Brunel Museum in London, on how to help people understand the climate crisis
Profile image for Katherine McAlpine
Katherine McAlpine

Museums are brilliant storytellers, with collections that can be looked at in hundreds of different ways to shed new light on old issues. We are also consistently considered to be trusted institutions, with curating regarded as a trustworthy profession (I am aware there are other jobs in the sector, before you all @ me).

Therefore, we have a hugely important role to play in helping people navigate and figure out their responses to the climate crisis – and to spur us to act to keep the dream of alive of preventing the planet warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

However, while many feel they should be doing more, they feel they are struggling to find the "sustainability story" within their collection – so below are three examples of sustainability stories at the Brunel Museum.

Seek out stories of solidarity 

If writing about the climate crisis you’re contractually obliged to mention Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, so here she is. Her school strikes for climate may have started with one young woman sat outside her school, but they've grown into a global phenomenon.

Strikes have been a great way of reminding those in power exactly who does the labour, and the history of the Thames Tunnel is no different. Indeed, on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s first day on the job as chief engineer on the project he was faced by a strike by the bricklayers in response to a reduction in pay. They eventually negotiated higher pay, leading Kingdom Brunel to write in his diary: “We must in equity and for our own advantage pay our men more.”


We are never, ever, ever going to be able to tackle the climate crisis if we don’t work together like those bricklayers did. The good news is that history is full of folks coming together to create change over a range of issues. Chartists, suffragettes and freedom fighters from across the spectrum have their stories contained within the walls of our museums, so it’s time to bring them out and see what lessons we can learn. 

Tales of Teredo Navalis exhibition, Brunel Museum Gabriella Codastefano
Cultivate a love of nature 

Conversations about the climate crisis are often about avoiding disaster, but flip that on its head and you start to think about all the brilliant things we’re trying to save. The Art Fund’s recent Wild Escape programme encouraged museums across the country to think about the wildlife in their collections and how they might use it to create a love and respect for nature – the first step towards protecting it. 

At the Brunel Museum, we ran a family-friendly exhibition Tales of Teredo Navalis, all about the humble shipworm. This creature is actually a mollusc that bores holes through the timbers of ships, creating a protective cocoon around itself as it does so. Seeing this creature up close was what gave Marc Brunel the idea for his tunnelling shield.

Make the museum the story

If you really cannot find a story in your collection, make the museum the story. We’ve all been trying so hard behind the scenes to decarbonise our sites, improve biodiversity and change the way we engage with nature – and we should talk about it more.


In August 2021, we released our sustainability statement for the museum to try and do just that. It wasn’t comprehensive, but more a statement of intent to show we’re serious about doing whatever we can to tackle the climate crisis. In 2022, we became the first museum to sign up to the Climate Perks scheme – in which our staff are entitled to up to two additional days of annual leave if they travel in a climate-friendly way.

Think about what your organisation is doing, however big or small, and how that might inspire others.

Katherine McAlpine is the director of the Brunel Museum, London. She is speaking at the Social History Curators' Group conference on 9 June

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