Book Review: Curating the Future

Editors: Jennifer Newell, Libby Robin and Kirsten Wehner, Routledge: 2017. Environmental Humanities Series

Such an exciting, encouraging book!

What we all see and read as climate watchers is overwhelming, yet we frequently find positive work that defends us against the frightening aspects. I am seriously concerned and extremely hopeful on climate climate. This was reinforced by Curating the Future which generated more hope and bolstered my confidence – even with the conundrum in the final essay.

Curating the Future is as important to cultural museums’ work on heritage conservation – tangible and intangible – in a changing climate as is The Ark and Beyond: The evolution of zoo conservation on biodiversity and the future of conservation. I’d include Curating the Future in an environmental humanities class at the college or graduate level for sure, and certainly will in mine. Here I’ll mention four of the essays here, one from each section, that particularly added to my thinking about how museums approach public engagement for the purpose of building understanding of and action on climate.  Each emphasizes the value and challenge of cultural approaches to climate engagement.  

Part I: Welcoming new voices: opening museums

Editor Jenny Newell, previously at the American Museum of Natural History as the Curator of Pacific Ethnography and now Manager, Pacific International and Collections at the Australian Museum, introduces the importance of artifacts as story-bearers for communities facing displacement and loss due to climate change. “Artefacts that have been placed within museums…. Although they lack some of their former connections, they can still be lodestones for communities, and carry important learning for new-generation communities in new places.” She then presents three moving “object stories,” summarizing them this way “…these stories showcase the ways that museums are beginning to enable people to engage with climate change. Moving beyond presenting the science of climate change in an abstract and scientific way, museums are finding a role in creating spaces for people to develop their own culturally sensitive, local ways to live with our global predicament.”

Part II:  Reinventing nature and culture

Kirstie Ross’ piece “Fours Season In One Day: Weather, culture and the museum” is changing my thinking on weather and our description of its relationship with climate. I regularly repeat the statement “’weather’ is what’s outside your window” and “’climate’ is the long cycle of weather data over time.” Though true, that separation is a brutal contributor to feelings of powerlessness of all who must feel empowered to reduce their impacts on climate.  Ross brings together some approaches that connect climate and culture, making it a connection to personal experience rather than an observation of a planetary system too large and complex for an individual to affect. Ross cites climate scientist Heidi Cullen (US) who “insists that weather and climate must not be separated” and emphasize “how crucial it is for people to ‘understand that their weather is their climate…If climate is impersonal statistics, weather is the personal experience.’” Ross adds “One way to unite the weather with climate is to consider both as culture” referring to Geographer Mike Hulme’s theory (UK). Ross’ approach is not yet evident in museums and should be.

She created the example of New Zealanders who feel as if they experience “four seasons in a day.” Life on their Pacific island, present and past, is identified with changeable weather. It is part of the culture, part of the identity, so much so that it is the perfect opportunity to build powerful connection between people and climate.  She writes “People talk a lot about the weather but rarely about the issue of climate change or how they will mitigate or cope with its impact…Where can we get authoritative information about climate change that helps us live in the present and do something about the future?” Museums, of course. As climate scientist (CA & US) Katharine Hayhoe says, “the most important thing any of us can do is talk about climate,” so let’s help them do that by engaging them around weather to build a conversation about climate in museums.

Part III: Focusing on the future

Author George Main writes in “Food Stories for the Future” about two projects at the National Museum of Australia that use the skills of museum practitioners to encourage and illustrate “constructive responses to climate change and its varied challenges.” Both make direct connections to visitors on issues critical to them but just enough removed that they may overlook the important dependency. I’ll describe one here for its uniqueness and importance. The Paddock Report, is an annual observation of what I would call the ‘experience’ at the Paddock: physical changes to the plants and soil, and the presence and experience of the animals living and producing there and of the family that owns the property – and how they all interact.

Main records and reports his close observation of the experience of a place that feeds and clothes thousands of people locally and far away whether or not they observe what takes place there. His annual report is an historical record of agricultural practices, of the effects of a changing climate, and social relationships. It is also an example of how humans are all now, and will continue to be, dependent and interdependent upon practices and conditions outside our reach. Main knows museums can make those connections more obvious. This is what I believe is the field’s greatest public value: making the invisible visible. This visibility, whether in images, words, sounds or other formats, helps us each develop a personal connection to some thing, and begin to see its role, its value, its importance and our responsibility for its continuation or not. Museums’ continuous manifestation of these unseen ecosystems is critical for engaging the public in any degree of care.

Part IV:  Representing change and uncertainty

“Rising Seas: Facts, fiction and aquaria” by Susanna Lidström and Anna Åberg is an important discussion of how we must not leave the climate case to be made only by scientists. Here is my too-short, too-simple summarization of their concerns: The old approaches of the-ocean-as-science-as-told-by-a-scientist-through-a-cold-camera or of climate-as-statistics: factual-and-alarming-and-likely-to-cause-deer-in-headlights-effect are giving way to, and must give way to, a new ones.

Unfortunately, we’re struggling to identify them. The authors describe what I call Challenging Approach #1: Visualizing slow-moving disasters, ones extending into the future is fraught with perils of accuracy in prediction, the ambiguity of choosing which disaster and degree of it to depict. After all, which sea level rise model does one choose?  And Challenging Approach #2: Contemporary art installations are often dramatic and evocative. What do viewers do with the emotions and responses evoked? Is there meaningful follow-through? Do we know?

The authors draw a conclusion that we museum practitioners must keep searching for the new approaches our publics require. “To strengthen connections between science, culture and policy to understand changing climate and oceans, cultural narratives beyond scientific ones need to be part of the picture, from the beginning and everywhere, to show that these are social and cultural challenges, not only problems ‘in nature,’ not even in the farthest corner of the deep sea.”

I believe this work is also challenging because of what we don’t say, the “but they didn’t” conundrum. We practitioners deride each other in this way, as does the media and do climate-deniers. No matter what is presented, no matter what action is taken, there is always a further level that could have been included, and someone is criticized for not including it. This is short-sighted and unproductive. Such a critic is myopic. This is the nature of ecosystems – there are always adjacencies. If there were fewer, this would be simpler to solve. They are unending. We can never search, or say or share enough to describe the entirety of our impacts or our potential. Someone will always focus on what we “didn’t.”

So, perhaps a Challenging Approach #3 could be: Socio-cultural Contributions. This is a human-stories-pathways-merging-with-science-evidence-pathways-and-other-new-pathways-all-directed-toward-climate-understanding-and-response. How can we tell enough stories, and share enough science to reach all who must hear and heed the climate warnings? Curating the Future is excellent encouragement on how to find a path forward with your museum’s exhibits.

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