I’ve just written and produced, with my Flow colleagues, the Museums for the Future Toolkit. I’m really pleased to have been given this opportunity by Ruth Taylor and Sharon Bristow at Renaissance South East, as you may know from my other blog that this is a big area of interest for me. I was concerned by the lack of structured guidance helping cultural & heritage organisations develop environmental sustainability work with their communities, integrating their work with audiences with the more operational aspects of sustainability. At a time when museums are being asked to prove their value, it’s so important that they align their mission and practices towards the possibility of solving the most urgent problems we face.
The key message of the toolkit is that being a truly sustainable museum isn’t just about having low energy lighting (or similar small actions). It’s about museums striving to transform themselves, and the lives of their visitors, schools and local communities, in order to have a wider impact on the planet. The toolkit provides a framework and materials for museums to become agents in forging a more environmentally sustainable future. Although aimed at museums, it would equally be of use to heritage sites, arts organisations, archives, libraries, botanic gardens and wildlife centres.
It is the legacy of Renaissance South East’s Science Links in Museum Education (SLIME) network. This network of museums and individuals was established in 2006 to support and promote museums as places for science learning. Green SLIME was one of the network’s initiatives, part of the MLA funded Strategic Commissioning Science in Your World programme. Its aim was to explore how museums can link with schools and communities to address environmental sustainability. We helped co-ordinate Green SLIME, by supporting eight museum projects, a professional event and producing this Toolkit.
The Toolkit takes a practical approach, that can help museums sustain their own organisation as well as local people, by pioneering the use of sustainable materials; protecting or growing green spaces for wildlife; becoming a base for local food knowledge and heritage, or starting a movement for ‘collaborative consumption’, helping communities share their possessions, skills and time. It shows how museums are the perfect bases for such work because most collections represent the different ways that humans have grown, exploited, invented, recycled and disposed of materials, in ways that are both damaging or healing to the environment. These collections can lead to an exploration of sustainable ways that we can use materials differently for a better future.
Dr John Stevenson, Director of the Group for Education in Museums, says of the Toolkit: ‘Climate change and environmental sustainability are not normally top of the agenda for most museums. This toolkit provides a balanced and realistic approach to tackling these issues not only with children, but also with families and other audiences – and not forgetting museum staff.’ It has also been received with enthusiasm by the team running the Happy Museum Project, because it supports the role of museums in promoting well‑being.
The Green SLIME projects and Toolkit were built on some earlier research done by Claire Adler. This suggested that young people actively want museums to educate them about sustainability, but that they also want parents and influential adults to be involved, so that the responsibility is not just placed on children’s shoulders. The Toolkit, with its case studies, suggests ways of drawing people of different ages together for intergenerational exchange.
To avoid taking an overly general approach to sustainability, the Toolkit suggests that museums choose a particular theme to help convey clear messages. It focuses on eight thematic pathways, indicating which kind of museum might be suited to each pathway:
- Materials and things
- Biodiversity stewardship
- Green your organisation with people
- Place-making and adaptation
- Energy and new technology
- Transition to a sustainable economy
- Food, farming and horticulture
The kit consists of: an information pack; suggestions for a kick-starter event including a PowerPoint presentation; case studies from museums which piloted the different themes, and a comprehensive directory of resources. It can be downloaded for free from:
To give your feedback or for further information, write a comment on this blogpost or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org (and I can pass your query on to the right person at Renaissance SE).
I went to a fascinating workshop at the October Gallery yesterday with George Nuku, a Maori, an artist, a collaborator with museums and champion of young people. He was also the first contemporary Maori with a complete body tattoo. The trail that led me there started when I was wandering round Sheringham, my Norfolk ‘ancestral home’. I’d just visited the newly opened Sheringham Museum and seen a photo of my great great grandfather, who had been coastguard and promenade inspector. He had also been to Japan & the Pacific as a naval officer, training the Japanese navy in British ways. I was thinking about how I had his eyes and nose, about my belonging to that place, yet also my distance from the town now. My relative (‘the Old Chap’) must have felt an odd dislocation travelling East, and I was wondering what he saw through his eyes and what stayed with him, what knowledge he brought to Sheringham and how it infused the place. That led me to reflect on my husband Brian’s ancestors who went from Scotland to settle in New Zealand. I wondered about what changed in them, despite always looking Scottish, in becoming part of a place that was another people’s.
I was carrying my camera, as I have on and off in Sheringham for 30 years, looking for something different to photograph. As it happens I always find something different even in a small place like that: evidence of change, of erosion of the coast or evidence of moments in time like the 1st World Cup English game. But, then I saw George. I’d never seen anyone in Sheringham like it before. I was stunned because in a second I knew he was Maori, and realised the resonance with all my thoughts at that moment. So, that sense of interest led me to his workshop in London. He’d been working at the October Gallery with young people related to the EthKnowCentrix exhibition, which included his work, and the resulting Cut it Out exhibition can be seen there now. He’s a sculptor who brings traditional Maori forms into new materials and locations. For example, he reconstructed missing parts of a war canoe, using perspex rather than wood, for the National Museums of Scotland, and he loves to carve in polystyrene.There has been some criticism from Maori for this, that he’s not using proper traditional materials. He says to them ‘don’t worry, plastic will be traditional by this afternoon’.
The first words he spoke to us were in the tongue of his mother’s people, the Ngate Kahungunu from the Heretaunga region of the North Island. It was an incantation to draw in our ancestors to the meeting. I was reminded of the way that many indigenous people make decisions, consulting with generations of ancestors and successors, not just the living. Immediately I was struck that agency was a central theme for him. He talked about the relationship of his people with the British. The Maori were honourable and generous, to be in a position of agency, to give and ‘treat’ in order to be equal. They have been disenfranchised and alienated but he feels the story isn’t over yet, that having no hope for equality would make all that suffering in vain. When the ‘knives and blankets and tables and chairs’ started coming, Maori saw they must be part of that change, to see the value of those things and deal in them. ‘You had to be part of that change, to direct change rather than be directed by it. Nobody is more equipped to deal with these changes than yourself’.
He showed some images from a ceremony in which he performed, at the Pasifika Styles exhibition in Cambridge, associated with the birth of a child and he talked about how creativity and procreation are the same thing. He feels that men in particular have a longing to create, to be closer to the miracle of creation of people which women are blessed and pained with. Creativity is an utterly human power, and human agency is all around our potential to convert materials and to ride change. One kind of material at the moment that is giving the planet a lot of grief is plastic and of course the oil that it’s made from. I asked if those who object to his use of modern materials most object to the use of plastic for reasons of marine pollution causing biodiversity loss and climate change. He said that plastic is from the earth, it is indigenous, and that through art we can give it its divinity. It was an optimistic moment for me, in a week in which I felt mired in worries about the unrepairable cracks in the ocean leaking millions of gallons of oil. I don’t know yet what reasons for optimism there are but I felt stronger for his example.
This blogpost was written for my other blog: Ecology in Cultural Heritage, where you can see and add comments. It was also written for this month’s newsletter of Museum-ID.
While the media plays out the debate about denial and science in climate change, it is already reaping severe effects for the poorest people in the world. It’s been said that we have 82 months (at time of writing) to arrest the tipping point of irreversible climate change, but that doesn’t account for observations that melting at both the poles and methane emissions from tundra are accelerating faster than predicted. There are some mild causes for hope, such as the warmth speeding up forest growth, and confusingly, that aeroplanes create a cooling atmospheric barrier. But, a radical response is still needed and the causes for hope are either ‘offsets’ or potential ideas. So whilst it’s more urgent than ever to reduce the damage, it’s also time to think much harder about adapting to it. What is the role for museums and heritage in these two forms of action? I think they can play an exceptional role in connecting and motivating professionals and the public to make positive changes, but that this has been untapped and unrecognised in the UK despite a number of initiatives.
The DCMS has a Sustainability Plan (2008-2011), with a working group and research by Arup on the impact of climate change. Alongside, English Heritage, National Trust, Royal Parks and CABE are developing research and public projects, and the Science Museum, Royal Academy and Tate are amongst others modelling sustainable operations. However, given the situation, there is an inadequate breadth and holistic thinking in this response. For example, ARUP’s questionnaire assumes that all DCMS bodies are based in a physical site and focuses on local climate impacts.
We might learn something from museums in Australia, where there is more substantial and visible emphasis on public engagement. They make good use of social media, with Powerhouse Museum running a blog called Free Radicals and the Museum 3.0 network running a climate change group. There have been some large-scale exhibitions such as Climate Change, Our Future Our Choice at the Australian Museum, supported by plenty of debate and media coverage. While these examples are science-based there have also been projects addressing cultural aspects of climate, such as the Adelaide Migration Museum showing the effects on the people of Tuvalu and National Museum of Australia supporting work on the cultural dimensions of climate change.
Australia’s collaborative or higher-level projects emphasise public engagement too. Australia ICOMOS held a public forum and symposium on climate change and cultural heritage. University of Western Sydney is leading partnership research (worth £766,645) on the agency of museums in tackling climate change. Early findings are that the public rate museums as trustworthy and neutral, that they have the authority to convey climate issues.
I can see a number of reasons for this emphasis. The Australian museums sector has a reputation for being pragmatic and responsive to the contemporary context, for example, by leading in digital innovation. The physical distance between museums means they need to use virtual tools to collaborate, helping multilateralism and openness. Collaborations between heritage and environment are aided by all being part of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. More viscerally, Australians have direct experience of climate change, exposed as they are to forest fires and drought, and with 80% of them living in coastal areas at risk of rising seas. They also have an imperative to deal sensitively with the cultural rights of indigenous people in threatened lands.
I want to see the UK learn from this but going even further, for example, by:
- Continuing to reduce emissions and conserve heritage sites, but shifting to prioritise community engagement, working more closely with agencies involved in natural environment, place-making, engineering and sustainable economics.
- A drive towards contextualisation, so that artefacts and knowledge are more dynamically placed into an ecosystem of landscape, biodiversity and human economics.
- A redefinition of audiences as communities of interest, groups of people who need to learn and solve problems.
This sounds difficult. It will be difficult. But there is a momentum building up here, with conferences and training coming up in March and June, including the Museum-ID event ‘Towards Greener Museums: Sustainability & Environmental Strategies’. Maybe we can pull together at this time to respond as the global situation demands.