Embracing Change: Museums and Activism

Guest Post by Naomi Grattan. Naomi teaches museum management for the University of Calgary and the Alberta Museums Association.


The concept of activist museums emerged as one of the strongest themes at MuseumNext, 2016, a global conference on the future of museums. Created in 2009, according to its founder Jim Richardson, “MuseumNext came out the shifting technological landscape of the first decade of the 21st century. Digital media was [sic] transforming society and shifting audience expectations and we saw that museums needed to embrace change, or risk extinction” (MuseumNext, 2016, section 1). He explained that

delegates are interested in the power that cultural institutions have to inform the public about challenging issues, how museums add to the political power of a city and how we can ensure that culture is open to all (MuseumNext, 2016, section 7).

A move to an activist position is almost a complete reversal of the traditional museum model in which an institutional voice of authority was held up as the ideal (Anderson, 2012, p. 3). Janes (2009) described this as “authoritative neutrality” (p. 59) and exposed the fallacy at the heart of it: when museums avoid taking risks because they might antagonize sponsors or corporate partners, they are, in effect taking a position in line with corporate values and beliefs, and is therefore not neutral.

Janes (2009) went on to acknowledge that moving beyond the so-called “neutral” position “requires judgement and risk-taking, and the potential for both enhancing the public good, or abusing it, lie dormant in every opportunity” (p. 59). In other words, it is impossible to take a neutral position when presenting topics and objects to the public, so transparency, clear values and careful planning become critical. An activist model is a direct way to align with a specific sector or community, by taking a clear stand on an issue and actively working with community towards a shared outcome. Read more from Janes in his blog post The Elephant in the Room.

Activist Museums & Groups

The Natural History Museum (Natural History Museum, n.d., About), a project of Not an Alternative (a New York based non-profit), strives to affect public discourse through art, activism and theory and is a good example of an activist museum. Created in 2014, the Natural History Museum is a mobile museum that takes a position on environmental science, making a point of examining the socio-political forces that shape nature. In partnership with other museums, it works to:

reframe the past to save the future . . . [by] partnering with museums to develop programs that help make the subjects of science and natural history more relevant to the day to day lives of the communities they serve . . .[its] programs pick up where traditional exhibits leave off, by connecting static displays to pressing contemporary concerns and world events. (Natural History Museum, n.d., About)

Among its activities, the Natural History Museum wrote an “Open letter to museums from members of the scientific community,” signed by 148 scientists. It is significant to note that in January 2016 David Koch stepped down from the board of the American Museum of Natural History, although he remains on the advisory board of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (Yuhas, 2016, para. 1).

The rise of activist museums intersects with the rise of other activist groups also focused on museums, such as Liberate Tate, which calls specifically on the U.K.’s Tate Museum  to take a leadership role in society on the global issue of climate change by abandoning its sponsorship support from the oil company British Petroleum (BP).

There are many models for the ways in which museums can become more connected to community—whether through community building, co-creation, participation, or activism—but the theme is clear: museums must operate in relationship to the world in which they exist.


Anderson, G. (Ed.). (2012). Reinventing the museum: The evolving conversation on the paradigm shift. (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

Janes, R. (2009). Museums in a troubled world. Renewal, irrelevance, or collapse? Oxon, UK: Routledge.

MuseumNext. (2016, July 4). A short interview with MuseumNext founder Jim Richardson. Public Art Magazine Korea. Retrieved from https://www.museumnext.com/2016/07/interview-jim-richardson/

Natural History Museum, the. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from http://thenaturalhistorymuseum.org/about/

Natural History Museum, the. (2015, March 24). An open letter to museums from members of the scientific community. Retrieved from http://thenaturalhistorymuseum.org/open-letter-to-museums-from-scientists/

Yuhas, A. (2016, January 21). David Koch steps down from board of New York science museum. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/21/david-koch-american-museum-of-natural-history-climate-change-fossil-fuel-money

*Naomi Grattan has worked in and around museums for most of the last 17 years, sontributing to four cultural capital projects, and recently completing her MA in Leadership at Royal Roads University, which focused on museum leadership development for the sector in partnership with the Canadian Museums Association.  Her thesis is available online here. She teaches museum management for the University of Calgary and the Alberta Museums Association. You can reach her at: ngrattan@gmail.com


How Can My Museum Champion Climate Justice? Step 1 – Develop an Advocacy Policy

Robert Janes told us in an earlier post about three simple steps that museums might take to begin to embrace issues like climate change:

  1. Tell stories and educate – Museums tell the stories of the natural and cultural world – tell your visitors how climate change and disruption came to be.

  2. Second, with unbridled consumption as the cause of climate change, it is imperative that we reduce our individual consumption. …

  3. A third initiative is to develop an Advocacy Policy for your museum …

All spoke to me. But I was particularly intrigued with the notion of an Advocacy Policy. What is that? Has any museum developed one? Can a museum advocate for climate justice?

Nina Simon & MAH Advocacy Policy

Nina Simon has actually written two blog posts on this topic. In the first, entitled Does Your Institution Have an Advocacy Policy, she talks about the reasons behind her institution’s desire to develop this policy.

Ultimately, I decided we couldn’t sign [a petition] – not because it was the necessarily the wrong thing to do, but because we didn’t have any kind of policy beyond directorial discretion to decide when it might be appropriate to take a political stand as an institution

But especially useful is Nina Simon’s second post on the topic, Advocacy Policy, Part Two – And Why Now is an Especially Good Time to Create One. In this one, she talks about how the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History created their policy and the surprises they encountered. And she, ever generous, shares their Advocacy Policy

Here it is

And here’s another from The Association of Maine Archives and Museums

In Canada, the Alberta Board Development Program offers a useful Advocacy Bulletin that covers the wherefores and whys of advocacy in some detail.

National museums associations like the American Alliance of Museums and the Canadian Museums Association also offer advocacy resources. These, although useful, tend to be oriented more toward persuading government funders of the usefulness of museums to society than to championing fundamental change.

The development of an Advocacy Policy like that of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History will, as Bob Janes writes, help nurture and strengthen a broader vision. Because, when the world pushes up against your doors and asks for your help – whether you are in Weyburn, Saskatchewan or Toronto, Ontario – when you are confronted with moral and civic challenges, like climate change, what will you do? What will your colleagues do? What will your museum do?

The Elephant in the Room – Museums Can’t Risk Doing Anything That Might Alienate Their Audience

In this guest post, Robert R. Janes, Co-Chair of the Coalition, writes more about climate change and museums and the founding of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice …

We have now passed the milestone level of 400 parts per million of climate-warming carbon in the atmosphere… for the first time in human existence – without even an outcry by the citizenry.[1] The 400ppm threshold is a dire wake-up call, and our profound, global challenge is to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, in order to forestall the worst impacts of climate disruption. Judging by the results so far, we are failing miserably.

B Janes at Climate Change session

Why is the museum community reluctant to address this issue?  I suggest that it lies in the claim of “neutrality,” There is a widely-held belief that museums must protect their neutrality, lest they fall prey to bias and special interest groups.[2] The unspoken argument is that museums cannot risk doing anything that might alienate their audiences or sponsors, real or potential.

This claim of neutrality has conspired to create a magical belief that is now the stock-in-trade of most museum workers.[3] This belief is that museums may abstain from addressing societal issues and aspirations, because they have complex histories and unique missions which absolve them from greater accountability.

Three Reasons to Challenge Neutrality

Why should museum workers part company with the time-honoured protection of neutrality?

The first reason is that each of us is a sentient being on planet earth, and each of us has a personal responsibility to confront the reality of climate change and protect the planet upon which we depend.

Second, we know as museum workers that education is a core mission of museums, but what sort of education is appropriate and necessary now? What we actually need are museums that identify and challenge the myths and misperceptions that threaten us – such as the false belief that continuous economic growth and consumption can continue.

The third reason for rejecting neutrality is that each of us is part of a family – a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, parent or grandparent. With this in mind,

“…for how long would we like our family to continue? If the next generation matters to us, and the children born to it do as well, then what about their children’s children?” [4]

 Unique Characteristics of Museums

In addition to their larger view of time, museums are uniquely qualified to embrace climate change and other critical issues, because of several unique characteristics:

  • They are grounded in their communities and are expressions of locality;
  • They are a bridge between science and culture;
  • They bear witness by assembling evidence and knowledge, and making things known;
  • They are seed banks of sustainable living practices that have guided our species for millennia;
  • They are some of the most free and creative work environments in the world.

In short, there are no other organizations with this singular combination of historical consciousness, sense of place, public accessibility, and unprecedented public trust.

How, then, can these precious qualities translate into concrete action? Here are three simple initiatives:

  1. Tell stories and educate – Museums tell the stories of the natural and cultural world – tell your visitors how climate change and disruption came to be.
  1. Second, with unbridled consumption as the cause of climate change, it is imperative that we reduce our individual consumption. Museums can readily assist with this task through information, dialogue and advocacy.
  1. A third initiative is to develop an Advocacy Policy for your museum, to help nurture and strengthen a broader vision. This policy would delineate what issues are important and how your museum will respond when confronted with moral and civic challenges, such as climate change.[5]

This leads me to one unavoidable conclusion. Individual museum efforts to address climate change are laudable and essential, but they are not enough. Nothing less than a global museum movement is now required, and the resources of the world’s 55,000 museums must not only be mobilized – they must also be anchored in a new story.

A New Story

We all agree that museums exist to tell stories—about people, communities, and nations — but who is telling the story of the twenty-first century? Corporations and governments are, but it is the story of ceaseless economic growth. The rhetoric is agonizingly familiar and destructive – consumption means happiness; economic inequality is unavoidable, and rampant environmental damage is regrettable.[6] Although we know that this story is false, it is the predominate story in our public lives and it defines our common future. This story, however, is destroying the planet upon which we depend.

Humanity needs a new story; museums need a new story.[7] We must move beyond the doomed economy of industrial growth to the recognition that the connection between individuals, communities, and nature is the key to our well-being.[8] It is incumbent on all museums to help envision and create this new narrative with their communities – using their unique skills and perspectives.

These issues and the thinking behind them lead to the formation of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice.


[1] Romm, J. “Into the Valley of Death Rode the 600, Into the Valley of 400 PPM Rode the 7 Billion.” Available online: http://thinkprogress.org/author/joe/ – May 5, 2013

[2] Janes, R.R. (2009) Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? London and New York: Routledge, p.59.

[3] McKenzie, B. Next after MuseumNext, The Learning Planet Blog. Available online: https://thelearningplanet.wordpress.com/

[4] Macy, J. and Johnstone, C. (2012) Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, Novato, CA: New World Library, p. 142.

[5] Museum 2.0 “Does Your Museum Have An Advocacy Policy?” Available online; http ://museumtwo.blogspot.ca/2016/01/does-your-institution-have-advocacy.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed:+museumtwo+(Museum+2.0) – January 16, 2016

[6] Korten, D. (2014) “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” Presentation at the Praxis Peace Institute Conference, San Francisco, California, October 7, p. 2. Available online: http://livingeconomiesforum.org/sites/files/pdfs/David%20Korten%20Praxis%20Peace%20Oct%207%202014%20for%20distribution.pdf

[7] Korten, D. (2014) “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” Presentation at the Praxis Peace Institute Conference, San Francisco, California, October 7, p.4.Available online: http://livingeconomiesforum.org/sites/files/pdfs/David%20Korten%20Praxis%20Peace%20Oct%207%202014%20for%20distribution.pdf

[8] Macy, J. and Johnstone, C. (2012) Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, Novato, CA: New World Library, p. 142.