What if we thought of museums as “contact zones” for climate research, education and activism?

Such a fertile idea.

About ten years ago I came across the idea of “innovation [happening] in the spaces between domains.” It explained so much about why curiosity, creativity and courage are necessary for creating change, how settings without answers inspire new thinking, and why edges are so important for contact with new people, places or things. The spaces between places or ideas (domains) are the contact zones where new things and ideas develop, the gaps where “new” can appear.

In late October of this year there was an international gathering of about 70 museum professionals and researchers to explore this idea of museums as “contact zones.” The University of Oslo and ICOM’s Sustainability Committee hosted an excellent, excellent workshop called “Curating Climate, museums as ‘contact zones’ for climate research, education and activism.” It was an extraordinary opportunity to spend two days exploring and thinking while cocooned in a research setting and a marvelous city.

It was the kind of meeting where we forged important new friendships, stretched our minds, and forced ourselves to wander in the undefined space of something new and different, possibly transformative.

We did not tackle carbon, biodiversity, or energy or education. Instead we explored:

  • the special value of transdisciplinary and transgressive work
  • aligning museum work with the UNSDGs and UNESCO’s learning objectives for the SDGs
  • the network potential of museums and their allies
  • equitable relationship-building in cross-cultural partnerships
  • engaging an urban public in just and sustainable practices and climate awareness
  • the nature of wicked problems
  • the need to change basic museum functions, including communication on climate
  • and how we must learn to help the public address climate grief and create hope

Each of us represented an edge of museum work. Some presenters took us into new territories, the open spaces at our edges:

  • Henry McGhie on “increasing the sense of the possible”
  • Nicole Heller on creating The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s position of Curator of the Anthropocene, and asking her colleagues, community and partners to engage in transdisciplinary work
  • Molly Fannon on leading UN Live museum in its first action steps after its formative years, and as a transgressive institution
  • Georgine McDowell on creating a network of networks that accelerate museums’ climate work through augmentation not duplication
  • Ludwig Bengtsson Sonesson, of Climageries, showing us how to design new museum interpretation that “makes the familiar unfamiliar” so that the new “appearance” forces visitors to see something more completely and to respond more appropriately, and
  • Toyen Hovedgard creating Klimathaus at the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum with a focus on pre-teen youth because that is where there is a gap in programming

Other presenters asked us to rethink more familiar concepts, to restore some edges in museum work:

  • Jamie Larkin asking us to rethink museum gift shops with “greater fluidity of curatorial and retail messaging” in support of environmental sustainability
  • Sameer Howard on moving beyond institutional frameworks to create relationships as foundations for equitable research with communities
  • Jarl Holstad explaining how “knowledge of the future comes with great responsibility,” and
  • Jean Helgerson on impact mapping of institutions

And there was so much more I missed in the parallel presentations. Sigh.

It looks as if we’ll come together a year from now. Where will our thinking be, then, on museums as contact zones? Klimatehaus will be open for us to explore. UNLive will be a year older, as will be Nicole Heller’s Curator of the Anthropocene. We’ll have completed a United Nations Conference of the Parties on The Paris Agreement with increased museum visibility. And maybe we’ll have test-driven Jean Helgerson’s format for impact mapping museums.

We’ll be ready to share the good and the bad, and to continue to expand our thinking.

This kind of exploration is incredibly valuable as we define museums’ responsibility to address environmental and climate challenges. Since we understand that the behaviors that got our world into this mess will not get us out of it, it follows that we understand the need to invent new behaviors. Invention requires innovation. Innovation happens in the spaces between domains. Museums naturally operate among domains such as between practice and scholarship, science and humanities, art and nature, discovery and documentation. The spaces between domains are critical transition zones.

If we make contact zones of our museums, we can foster change, perhaps the changes the world needs most. But, as Molly Fannon said, “We must run toward it.” I agree. We cannot afford to wait.

2 thoughts on “What if we thought of museums as “contact zones” for climate research, education and activism?”

  1. This is one of the most pragmatic reads, I have come across in recent times (perhaps because I relate with these fields and the work!).

    I wonder if these ideas can be extended to ‘cultural institutions’, and not be limited to museums; and in fact the definition of institution could be more expansive. Especially in the context of South Asian cultures, and more so in India there has been a need for alternative curation: one that allows for a stonger connect between identity, existence and future. Thus, the in-between spaces also lie in the informal sectors, and not alone in the educational or museum-like formal spaces.

    … if we could connect to discuss these ideas further, it would be wonderful. Here is a bit about me:

    1. Thank you, and yes, I agree, it certainly could be extended, and would benefit for it. Being of the ‘yes, and’ persuasion, I’m so glad to see that dependable research can occur in so many different places and with the participation of so many different types of people.

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