Climate Change and Museums edition of Journal of Museum Management & Curatorship

I’m delighted to share this special issue with you all. It is freely accessible to everyone.

You’ll recognize many of the authors’ names, and meet a few new ones, perhaps: Joy Davis (our marvelous and patient editor), Bob Janes (the driver and our chief motivator), Jenny Newell, Diane Dubray, Julie Decker, Henry McGhie, Asha Singhal, Ben Sutter, Follin and Helen Arfvidsson, and the Bushfire Response Team of the National Museum of Australia.

Their material covers a range of scale and effort in the sector, with input from all around the World, that is so impressive and encouraging. It couldn’t possibly capture the degree of work happening now. But I remember when a single book needed examples from outside the sector to adequately address the potential of “sustainability” for museums. In 2006 or so, when Elizabeth Wylie and I began writing about this work, and I was Sarah Brophy, we had to find examples from other LEED buildings and other industries to make our case. When we wrote the second edition of The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice just five years later, it was one-third longer and ALL the examples were from museums, zoos, gardens, aquariums, parks and historic sites.

We’ve come so, so far as a sector, but Bob Janes’ call for alarm is legitimate and necessary. What we’ve done so far, collectively, is nowhere near enough – inside our sector and outside of it. I do know that there is much to celebrate and build on because I see it demonstrated every day among my colleagues on the Executive Committee of We Are Still In – the largest coalition of supporters of the Paris Agreement anywhere in the World. I see momentum.

I see momentum we can draw upon and contribute to. So, to Bob’s call for internal and external work to improve our field, I add the priority of cross-sector engagement. We will not solve renewable energy and clean transportation as a sector, but we can support other sectors to further understanding and adoption, perhaps even test some of the new resources for the public. We can do research that supports alternative and sustainable agricultural sectors by fostering community and Indigenous approaches. And we can work with the energy and construction sector to improve our buildings so that they last and are not a burden but an asset for the Earth.

Please take the time to educate yourself as much as possible – and continuously. And please gather your curiosity, courage, and commitment for our arsenal for helping to heal the planet. It matters so much more than most of us realize.

Cultural Institutions & The Paris Agreement’s 5th Anniversary

Three and a half years ago, on June 1, 2017, when the US President announced his intention to withdraw the United States from its commitments to the World, it seemed to me (and many others) that those of us who care, would still do the work of limiting climate change and restoring the planet’s climate and social systems to healthy conditions for human and non-human animals.

I was reassured by the response as I called clients and colleagues to see if they would join me in what was then named #MuseumsforParis, and has become @CultureforParis to reflect a broader participation from the sector. I also realized I needed allies in this – that a sector alone cannot do this work, and it should not be done without our sector. Then We Are Still In appeared on the scene. I watched what they were doing, and was so excited by their cross-sector approach. They knew that cities and states and tribal nations had to engage where the federal government didn’t, but that these place-based governments needed allies in companies (who had more money and both national and local audiences), investors, and higher education (the research pipeline with significant national infrastructure). Where there was already green momentum, these sectors came together. Soon We Are Still In adopted health, faith-based, and cultural institutions to engage more layers of direct climate impact (though building use, transit, and energy generation) but also public engagement. That public engagement is key to expanding political will to do the right, green things. The hard work of changing energy sources, generating energy, changing supply chains, and crafting new public policies must engage the public that must understand the science and the opportunities so they can make similar choices, buy the products and the energy, generate that energy or support community efforts to do so, and participate in the social, scientific and policy research that paves new ways forward.

And look at us all today. As the World’s nations update the Nationally-Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the commitments of the Paris Agreement, the United State is poised to re-enter this global partnership and officially resume its commitments and responsibilities. An important component of that Biden-Harris approach must be full engagement of cities, states, businesses, colleges and universities, cultural institutions and other key partners in the coalition effort to tackle the climate crisis. Climate action is no longer primarily the domain of scientists or policy experts, no longer the sole domain of federal governments – here or abroad. For every country committed to global climate action, the path forward engages other levels of leadership and impacted communities as partners; the cultural sector is an excellent partner for this work.

Cultural institutions do this through museum-community partnerships on urban heat island effect and social justice (The Science Museum of Virginia); innovations in energy generation (The Science Museum of Minnesota); traditional ecological knowledge (Abbe Museum) and historical understanding (The Henry Ford); energy reductions (The Field Museum, Missouri Historical Society, and Detroit Zoological Society); energy generation (Cincinnati Zoo, Seattle Aquarium, and The Exploratorium); public engagement (National Network of Ocean and Climate Change Interpreters, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and The Climate Museum); social justice (King Manor Museum); and resilience planning (Strawbery Banke Museum).

Sustainable Museums is grateful for the examples set by these institutions. With the shift that is the Biden-Harris Administration, cultural institutions are ready to increase their engagement through expanded partnerships, and are signaling their interest by supporting the new declaration hosted by We Are Still In on the anniversary of the Paris Agreement:

You’ll find them there, and everywhere you look for sensible community climate solutions.

United States Cultural Institutions Support The Paris Agreement

Courtesy, We Are Still In

The New York Times reports that President Trump has just announced the formal process for withdrawing the United States from The Paris Agreement. Those of us who care about the current and future health of the only planet on which we can live are still going to do the critical work to reverse the damaging effects of human activity in our biosphere. As we do so, we create a healthier, more just way of living for us all.

Sixty-six cultural institutions have joined We Are Still In and are making their contributions to the Agreement by reducing energy use, generating clean energy, reducing materials use and food waste, and enhancing public engagement on climate issues to help broaden awareness and support collective action. The list is here – see if your favorite museum, zoo, garden, aquarium or historic site is on it. Ask them to join if they are not. Please go to to sign on, now.

Climate action comes in all shapes and sizes. The Field Museum leads the way regionally in managing food waste (think of how many lunches those school groups bring). It offers public engagement programming, and has redeveloped a resource-intensive lawn into a new local ecosystem for as native Wild Rice garden as an educational, ecological, and cultural resource.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science is practically zero-waste even with all their school groups, too. Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, FL, regularly feels the effects of sea level rise and is doing its part to raise climate awareness, educate the community, reduce waste impacts from programs and events, and take steps to protect a cultural resource in the face of overwhelming change. As it restores Vizcaya Village it creates an educational space for local food production and sustainable practices.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, California Academy of Sciences, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and New England Aquarium all support the Paris Agreement. So do the Brick Store Museum, Abbe Museum, Monterey Museum of Art, Strawbery Banke Museum, and the Madison Children’s Museum.

Artwork by Maggie Dimon

While President Trump is doubling down on a disastrous course of action, he is ignoring this key piece of information: the majority of Americans support the Paris Agreement.

  • Over three-quarters (77%) of registered voters support continued U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Agreement, including almost all Democrats (92%), three in four Independents (75%), and a majority of Republicans (60%).
  • By more than 5 to 1, voters say the U.S. should participate in the Paris Climate Agreement.
  • American states, cities, and businesses committed to the Paris Agreement represent nearly 70% of GDP and nearly 65% of the U.S. population.

We all have a role to play. The Association for Science-Technology Centers, American Anthropological Association, America Public Garden Association, Environment and Climate Network of the American Alliance of Museums, the New England Museum Association and the Southeast Museums Conference, and the Arizona and Florida museum associations ALL support the Paris Agreement. Do you? Does your museum or association?

The future IS climate. We must manage our impacts on the climate if we wish to thrive in it. But it takes all of us to work together to teach each other and to do work together. We can walk a shared path to keep from damaging natural systems so badly that they do not support the ways of life we hope to enjoy for ourselves and our descendants. We can walk a shared path to make this a healthier, more just place for us all.

Please show your support for The Paris Agreement through @culturalforparis and @wearestillin.

Book Review: Curating the Future

Editors: Jennifer Newell, Libby Robin and Kirsten Wehner, Routledge: 2019. 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.