Q&A | ‘Any climate action we take must meaningfully centre climate justice’ - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘Any climate action we take must meaningfully centre climate justice’

Julie's Bicycle climate justice lead Farah Ahmed on how museums can join the fight for a fairer future
Farah Ahmed: ‘Museums are uniquely placed to take action’
Farah Ahmed: ‘Museums are uniquely placed to take action’

Our upcoming special issue of Museums Journal will centre around the Museums Association’s recently launched campaign, Museums for Climate Justice. With a focus on voices from outside the sector, we’ll be exploring radical ideas for how museums can respond to the climate and nature emergency and use their unique attributes to promote just and equitable solutions.

Ahead of the launch of this special edition, we spoke to the arts and environmental charity Julie’s Bicycle, which has made climate justice a central tenet of its work across the culture sector. The charity recently launched a Climate Justice Hub and is hosting a summit in Birmingham on 13 October, We Make Tomorrow, where climate justice innovators from across the globe will gather to imagine the possibilities of a fairer future.   

Here, Farah Ahmed, the climate justice lead and events programmer at Julie’s Bicycle, tells us what climate justice means to her and how museums can use it as a framework for action.

Why is it important to make a commitment to climate justice?

FA: Climate justice must be acknowledged as the defining issue of our time.

As we face unprecedented storms, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to radically change the way we live. The impacts of climate change are likely to be felt most by those communities that have contributed least to the problem, such as historically colonised countries, Indigenous peoples, disabled people, young people, and the future generations who will have to live in a very different world.

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A study by Imperial College London in 2021 found that found that children born today across the globe will on average face seven times more scorching heatwaves, 2.6 times more droughts, 2.8 times as many river floods, almost three times as many crop failures, and twice the number of wildfires during their lives than their grandparents.

Any climate action we take now must meaningfully centre climate justice in order to address these inequalities. It has become clear that we need to remake society much more radically and with vulnerable people centred at the heart of policy and decision-making.

What does climate justice mean to you? What does it mean in the context of cultural and creative practice?

FA: Achieving climate justice requires a concerted, multifaceted approach from across all sections of society. The art and culture sector occupies a unique position where we can engage with scientists, policymakers, campaigners and civic society to translate the issues and shape narratives about the climate crisis. More than that, building fossil fuel-free futures requires imagination, care, and creativity; qualities our sector has in abundance.

Climate justice is of particular importance for museums due to the nature of the acquisition of collections. Historically, museums, galleries and other collections have benefitted from the same extractive systems that have led us into this crisis. Artefacts have often been acquired through colonial subjugation, theft, exploitation and violence; additionally, the profits from the slave trade, sugar and tobacco plantations, fossil fuels and mining have built the wealth of many museums and galleries in the Global North.

However, museums are also uniquely placed to inspire action. They are trusted and respected anchor institutions, seen as sources of reliable information and education. They have a community and stewardship role and are increasingly being seen as places for discussion about contemporary issues and sites for social action, with the ability to inspire and empower. Museums must acknowledge their past while forging a way to the future with climate justice at the heart of everything they do.

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What are the main debates in the climate justice arena that someone new to this should know about?

FA: In simple terms, climate justice is about the inequality of the cause and impacts of the climate crisis. Where these inequalities stem from is multifaceted and often complex. Similarly, the way in which these inequalities manifest themselves in how the impacts of climate change are felt around the world are multiple and wide reaching.

Julie’s Bicycle has recently launched its Climate Justice Hub; a place for artists and cultural practitioners who want to understand the systemic causes of the climate crisis, how it intersects with issues of social, economic and environmental injustice and how arts and culture is responding creatively.

The hub has been broken down into themes to make the navigation of this wide-ranging and complex issue more manageable. These cover decolonisation, racial inequality, regenerative systems, health and wellbeing, land and nature, and natural resources. The hub resources are regularly updated, so it is a great place for individuals to stay up to date on the main developments in this area, as well as accessing inspirational case studies of cultural organisations putting climate justice at the heart of their creative practice.

What kind of work are museums and curators already doing in this area?

FA: Manchester Museum is doing lots of work to think about how it engages with these issues as an institution. The museum has appointed Alexandra Alberda as the Curator of Indigenous Perspectives, and recently hosted a Season for Change commission, Planet-People-Power, exploring the impacts of climate change in South Asia and the diaspora in Manchester.

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Organisations like Colonial Countryside are working to uncover the complex histories of National Trust properties, and how that has shaped the countryside in Britain.

Networks such as the Climate Heritage Network and the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice are working together to explore how cultural heritage can be mobilised for climate justice.

Houston’s Climate Justice Museum is dedicated to understanding the role museums can play in climate justice.

How can museums and the people who work in them take action on climate justice?

FA: The first step for any museum or cultural space would be to look at their own internal structures and think about their direct impacts. For example, ensuring that they themselves are divesting from and declining sponsorship from fossil fuel companies.

Museums should include intentional climate justice framing in their public programming. There are opportunities to use particular artefacts to stimulate discussion, both around what they are, how they were acquired, and how they can offer reparation. Museums should acknowledge their own past and how the acquisition of collections is tied to still-relevant debates around race and inequality. There are difficult conversations to be had, but this does not mean they should be avoided.

Lastly, museums and other cultural institutions can be supporters and friends to other climate justice advocates in a practical way. This could be by offering space, resources, programming or funding. Museums can lend their support to those communities leading the way on climate justice by amplifying their message through exhibitions and programming, or by bringing them onto their boards.

The Museums Journal special issue on climate justice will be published in September

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