Putting Ideas to Work – Forming a Peer Learning Circle to Help Museum Workers Tackle Climate Justice

Today’s Guest Post is by M. Christine Castle, Independent Consultant, sharing the insights offered by all participants in Museum Educators for Climate Justice, Part II: Putting Ideas to Work. We acknowledge that this is only a beginning, ‘baby steps’ really. We share our story and approach as just one of the many different ways in which museum workers might band together to tackle the daunting challenges to our world caused by climate change. We look forward to hearing yours.

On May 28 a small but mighty group of 12 got together at the iSchool, University of Toronto, with some pretty lofty goals …

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  • to assemble a group of motivated museum professionals with the aim of generating and sharing ideas for museum-based initiatives, specifically designed to address climate change and foster climate justice
  • to share project ideas and planning tools that will contribute to the realization of new types of experimental museum projects that will have positive public/cultural impacts at a range of levels
  • to conduct a peer-learning circle that mobilizes the ideas and insights of each group member, and fosters a supportive, constructive, cooperative environment that is practical for all involved
  • to build and strengthen a vital network of museum professionals and related partners that will help support novel, experimental initiatives in the museum field

Although this session was originally planned to follow up on an earlier Systems Thinking workshop, several of us were new to the process and to the group. (See below for a list of participants.)

What did we do?

Each of us was asked to bring an idea that we hoped would help museums to address climate change and foster climate justice. Once in the “Circle,” we used a loose form of Open Space Technology to first share individual ideas, congregate around those ideas that interested us, engage in small group conversations and then build on, combine, and transform collaboratively.

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Douglas Worts Worldviews Consulting then reviewed two tools to help us move forward – a Project Brief and the Critical Assessment Framework originally developed by the Canadian Working Group on Museums and Sustainable Communities

We then continued to work collaboratively and at the end of the afternoon reported back on what we had been able to accomplish.

What did we come up with?

The beginnings of a new and broadening network. We experienced greater shared commitment to the cause of museums and climate justice. And we learned more about assessment tools to help us know when we get there, despite the complexity of measuring success in this area.

In addition, each small group is pursuing a project:

#1 A living (growing, organic) database of resources on museums and climate justice

Our group addressed the need and developed the plan for a living (growing, organic) database which contains resources on museums and climate justice (and broader) that might be of interest to museum professionals (established and emerging), students, and the general public. These resources would be compiled from the posts on the Coalition’s social media (Facebook and Twitter) contributed by members, including links to blog posts, articles, policies, and other.  The resources would be arranged in categories and would identify trends in the field.

Of great significance would be case studies from museums in North America which can show concrete examples of creating change (and impact) through work around climate justice.

A potential partner for the project has been identified as the Master of Museum Studies program at the Faculty of Information.

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#2 Sharing approaches to museum staff/volunteer training about the environment and climate justice

Staff members from the ROM (The Royal Ontario Museum), AGO (The Art Gallery of Ontario), and RBG (Royal Botanical Gardens), otherwise known as the Acronym Group, joined together to discuss our projects. We explored the challenge of content delivery in staff/volunteer professional development or training programs about the environment and climate justice.

  • The ROM is interested in a professional development program for teachers in partnership with Indigenous communities, ensuring there is a focus on the land. The hope is to provide teachers with approaches and strategies that reflect Indigenous worldviews, while learning about the environment.
  • The RBG, while focusing on plants, people, and places, wants to bring  awareness and inspire action through distance learning and outreach programs. RBG is looking at ways to interact and inspire teachers and students to use phenologic (seasonal) observations of plants as part of an ongoing national citizen science project (PlantWatch) that adds to the real-life data set available to researchers and participants across Canada.
  • The AGO is exploring a training plan to inspire AGO Guides to develop tours and pop up on the dot conversations about the environment, perhaps using the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as lenses through which to view the collection.

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By using the tools provided in the workshop we were able to better understand how our programs might activate participants on a personal, community, organizational, and regional/global level. The Project Brief Framework could offer a way to develop a shared training document that supports our goals to create awareness, inspire action, foster emotional connections, and support multiple perspectives through our programming.

Storytelling, co-creation, and partnership are our strategies to consciously incorporate climate justice into our sites and programs.

#3 Promoting “Conscious Consumption” through museum operations, programs, partnerships, and beyond

Our group focused on how we can integrate conversations related to conscious consumption at our institutions, either through school programs, public programs or pop-up events in our community, and how we can model conscious consumption in our institutional practices, in particular in our choices of art supplies and how we deal with food waste.

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While we did not develop a specific project to move forward on together, we are committed to exploring these issues together and maintaining sustained conversations. During Monday’s workshop, we focused on identifying the trends associated with conscious consumption; after identifying overconsumption as a key trend, we brainstormed stakeholders, including individuals and businesses working outside of the museum field, with whom we should engage in these conversations. Our conversations built on the systems mapping tools we were introduced to during the workshop in January, and, as a museum programmer, it was refreshing to have the time and space to look at the bigger picture of an issue with colleagues rather than immediately designing a program or project.

What did we learn?

Well … we found it challenging to even begin to attempt to address something as big as climate change. Where do you start?

It is hard to get the “big picture” and then to find a way for museums and museum workers to intervene and to actually make a difference.

Harder still to assess the impact of anything we might do, as witness the scope of the Critical Assessment Framework.

On the other hand, it was uplifting to step away from day to day demands and have some great dynamic conversations with like minded people. It feels exciting to be part of the growth of our own Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice and other movements around the world.

Working in community with other museum workers inspires us to be more creative and gives us the courage to try to make a difference.

What do we do next?

How do we keep moving forward? We need another working session, drawing in those who were unable to be here today. The Hamilton-Area Museum Educators (HME), members of which have participated in these peer learning circles since day one, might be a model for an ongoing community of practice.

So … our intention is to maintain our momentum, to keep moving forward in small groups on the projects we proposed. We will keep in touch and monitor one another’s progress over the summer , then look at another Peer Learning Circle in the fall. (Watch for a POP UP Session at the Ontario Museum Association Conference!)


Participating in the May 28 Peer Learning Circle were Julie Tomé (Royal Ontario Museum), Christina Kerr (McMichael Canadian Art Collection), Karin Davidson-Taylor (Royal Botanical Gardens), Christine Castle (Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice), Nancy Reynolds (Mackenzie House, City of Toronto Museum and Heritage Services), Napat Malathum (Student, Museum Studies program, U of Toronto), Barbara Soren (Adjunct Professor, Museum Studies program, U of Toronto; Independent Consultant), Irina Mihalache (Assistant Professor, Museum Studies program, U of Toronto), Melissa Smith (Art Gallery of Ontario), Susan Fohr (Textile Museum of Canada), Douglas Worts (Worldviews Consulting), and Joyce Leung (Student). And thanks to those who helped plan the session but were ultimately unable to attend – Ashley Watson, Megan Crawford, Elizabeth Todd Doyle, and Amy Hetherington.

Special thanks to Master of Museum Studies program at the Faculty of Information. for hosting the session, and to Irina for the cookies!

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