No more excuses -15 things your museum should be doing about climate change

Today’s Guest Post is the second of a two part series by Henry McGhie, Curating Tomorrow, and formerly Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, University of Manchester.

What ‘should’ museums be doing about climate change? No doubt we each have our own ideas.

This post is the second part of an article that outlines a set of ‘shoulds’ that I think have some usefulness, based on what museums’ strengths and capabilities are, and what the world needs. (Click here if you want to read Part 1.) I think these 15 ‘shoulds’ can be applied to all museums, of any scale or subject, and can be picked up by all museum workers, to help them support climate action constructively.

The list isn’t exhaustive, but I hope it can give some encouragement, and can help museums, museum networks and the museum sector play a constructive role in society. These ‘shoulds’ come from a paper I presented at the Symposium on Climate Change and Museums I co-organised at the University of Manchester in April 2018.

Participants at the 2018 Symposium on Climate Change and Museums. Image courtesy of the author,

In the first part of the article I introduced the first six ‘shoulds’, namely:

  1. Museums should not allow themselves to be irrelevant from society.
  2. Museums should acknowledge that what they do normalises people’s views on what is acceptable in society.
  3. It is not enough to aim to connect people with the museum. The museum should aim to connect people with the world.
  4. Museums have a wealth of resources that can contribute positively, often uniquely, towards climate action. They should mobilise these resources to address this, and other societal challenges.
  5. Many people are concerned about climate change, but do not see the connection between their own lives and the wider world. Museums should help them make that connection.
  6. The museum should help people explore the past, present and possible futures.

So, here goes with the remaining ‘shoulds’ for the list:

7. Museums should develop a vision of a better future, working with people individually and collectively to shape and realise that future.

This is a different vision from what is in mass media.

Visions of the future that appear in box office movies, video games and mass media are often dramatic, sometimes apocalyptic. These kinds of visions might sell films and games, but they are not the kind of world most of us would want to live in. A harmonious, fair world might make for a very boring film. Yet that is the kind of future many of us would want to see. Museums can play a useful role in working with people to imagine and operationalise the future they want to see.

8. Museums should help people explore pictures bigger than themselves

... framing discussions, promoting discussion of future[s] and disrupting a sense of hopelessness, and connecting possible choices with their impacts and consequences.

Building on the last point, museums are very well placed to ask questions about the future people want, for themselves and others. They can, and should, challenge the idea that the future is inevitable, and encourage a sense of hope and possibility: with no hope, there is no point in trying. Museums should encourage people to consider the long view of their lives: what they produce and consume, where their resources come from, their waste goes, and how their lives impact on other people and the environment.

9. Museums need to keep abreast of research on topics relating to their collections, in the context of a rapidly changing world.

They cannot do this alone, but need to work in partnership with researchers and organisations involved in climate action in diverse ways.

In order to maintain the usability and relevance of collections in museums, museum workers need to tap into the ever-developing body of research. It is important to keep at least some focus on how collections connect with real-world, contemporary issues and research, and not to direct their focus internally. Creating opportunities for researchers to connect their work with the public is really important; collections can help facilitate those connections.

10. Museums should aim for deep and rich cultural experiences, rather than shallow, populist or solely commercially driven ones.

There is a difference between seeking to be popular, and being populist.

Society faces difficult challenges in many places: museums should be careful about turning away from contemporary issues, for fear that ‘people might not like what they’re doing’. Museums should help ask the questions that need to be asked but that aren’t. They should help people develop a richer understanding of issues, especially in the face of rising populism, and strong and polarised positions.

11. Museums should acknowledge that they are a medium that is not dependent on mass media or on neoliberal marketing.

When museums deal with contemporary issues they often do so in response to what is in mass media – on TV, newspapers and social media. Museums don’t just have to respond to these immediate, short-term, and often short-lived positions and debates.

Long-term transformation is likely to need a more gradual, considered and creative approach. Museums don’t have to adopt the economists’ position that people are ultimately selfish, or that museums are primarily about consuming culture.

12. Museums should be up-front about what they hold to be important, and be able to articulate why they hold particular topics to be important in reference to the real world.

When you go to a library, you can be pretty certain it values reading and learning; when you go to a gym you can be pretty certain that it values physical exercise. When you go to a museum, it is less clear what they are all about.

This means individual museums should articulate what is important to them to their visitors and other users. Museums probably all have some kind of mission statement, but they are usually hidden away in strategic plans and on websites. Make them public, put them up to public scrutiny, and aim to be a transparent organisation. Don’t be afraid.

13. Museums should base their decisions and concerns on robust, critically reflective and evaluated information.

As with point 10 above, museums should make the best use of the knowledge-base available, in all aspects of their work.

This is especially important to counter short-term or populist positions that are based around heat rather than light. Huge volumes of academic information are easily available open-access via the internet (e.g. from Google Scholar or ResearchGate).

14. In aiming to be honest and trustworthy, museums should neither use heavy-hitting information uncritically, nor disguise serious issues.

They should deploy serious information and issues sensitively with an aim of promoting constructive engagement.

Dealing with difficult issues does not mean simply repeating them: it isn’t surprising that telling people more and more about the colossal challenge of climate change doesn’t lead to public action. Museums need to be sensitive to people as individuals to empower them: repeating apocalyptic visions of the future can be disempowering, and so worse than doing nothing.

15. Museums should provide both challenge and support, considered alongside one another.

In providing more challenge and more support they will provide people with even deeper, richer and more impactful opportunities to connect with real-world issues and challenges.

Balancing challenge and support presents a powerful approach for museums, providing deep and rich cultural experiences that enrich people and that also have the greatest likelihood of supporting positive change. Matching levels of high challenge and high support could achieve amazing things.

Museums can provide people with opportunities to find out what other people care about, and already do in support of climate action. Visitors’ suggestions for a more sustainable future as part of the Climate Control exhibition at Manchester Museum, 2016, G Gardner/Manchester Museum.

As I said before, these are just some thoughts to provide some support. No doubt there are other points, but  I do think that these ‘shoulds’ have some usefulness. I hope they’re helpful, all comments welcome.

Oh, and good luck with your own efforts!


References

McGhie, HA (2018). Climate change: a different narrative. Pp. 13–29 in Leal Filho, W., B. Lackner and H. McGhie (Eds.) (2018). Addressing the Challenges in Communicating Climate Change Across Various Audiences. Springer, Gland.


Henry McGhie @Henry_McGhie has a lifelong passion for nature. He is in the process of setting up Curating Tomorrow, a new consultancy to help museums, museum workers and others realise their potential in support of climate action, the Sustainable Development Goals, and nature conservation. He is former Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, University of Manchester. Contact him at henrymcghie@curatingtomorrow.co.uk

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