Four things cropped up yesterday, to slow me down and make me reflect, on what was otherwise a fretful day. I was fretting because it was the day of the AV referendum and most people were voting against a small step towards better democracy. Also I had heard all the bad news, again, but this time worse than ever. (The Arctic melting faster than thought, higher temperatures predicted than thought, clearer realisation that time is running out…) The four arresting things were:
1. The Hot Science conference in Australia, about the role of museums in climate change communication; 2. George Monbiot’s article responding to Paul Kingsnorth about the role of stories in helping environmentalists find their way; 3. Finishing Keri Facer’s book ‘Learning Futures: Education, Technology and Social Change‘; 4. Ending up with late night discussion on the power of the media in influencing people’s political decisions.
So, I was reflecting on the role of: museums and heritage; the narrative arts (or all the arts, if you want to say art is all about stories in the broadest sense); education; and the media…in both their institutionalised and informal states, in dealing with the problem to end all problems, that of the planet’s state of health.
I was struck by how difficult it is for everyone, in each of these sectors, to tell a story that is big enough, and to bridge technology and imagination in ways that are nuanced and practical enough. In many debates about how to change attitudes towards the environment, too often we conflate all the contributing sectors into two sides: ‘science’ and ‘communicators’, and call for more interaction between the two. Will that be enough? Do we understand enough what that looks like? What might it look like in these four domains? First, museums.
Hot Science Global Citizens is a major partnership project between museums and researchers in Australia of a scale that we can only dream of in the UK. It explores the agency of the museum sector in climate change interventions. In the UK, work in this area is patchy, small scale or specialised. Examples include the Science Museum in their planning of climate exhibitions, research by individuals such as Lucy Veale, the Happy Museum project (albeit with a focus on wellbeing) and some work by MLA/Renaissance including a training toolkit I’ve written called Museums for the Future (soon to be launched).
I was keen to follow the Symposium proceedings, which included two admirable UK speakers, Mike Hulme from UEA and Giles Lane from Proboscis. I could only follow by Twitter, trying to stay awake for their day/my night, so I can’t accurately report proceedings (while awaiting papers to go online). The talk was mainly about how to communicate the science of climate change, and how museums might need to broaden their horizons to help. I commented that the whole museum paradigm needs to shift from one of communicating knowledge to one of problem-solving. Elaine Gurian had said that our idea of museum communities needs to change from being place-based to ideas-based. I think the shift needs to be from ideas to problem-solving (in places, with ideas). Museums are the right places for situated problem-solving because of their unique three-fold function: 1) they are places to experience culture and to gather with others, 2) they expose us to knowledge beyond ourselves (increasingly, with digital culture, forming part of a global knowledge ecosystem), and 3) they conserve material heritage so that we combat destruction and promote learning and creativity.
The Twitter discussion also hovered around a question about the need for new climate icons, to draw attention to the potential loss of things that people really care about. I wonder though about whether we are already fatigued with too many icons. I suspect people believe they could actually bear the loss of things they might simply appreciate but don’t know that they need, such as birds, trees or coastal beauty spots. I think people need to know how the whole damn lot of icons is connected, how they all go down together in environmental collapse. Alongside that, people need to understand that climate change is not separate from other aspects of environmental disruption. The debate seemed a little limited by focusing on the role of science museums and on the challenge of communicating climate science. Engagement needs to broaden from climate to planet, but retain meaning in people’s lives by focusing on how we live in places.
On to the narrative arts…
George Monbiot wrote an interesting piece, responding to Paul Kingsnorth, the founder with Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain project. Monbiot summarised the big problems tearing apart the environmental movement encapsulated in his point number 7: We have no idea what to do next. I feel his desperation sometimes, but I think it was interesting that he didn’t mention the adaptation, resilience and transition movements that are making positive headway in bridging technology and culture to know what to do next. However, I was heartened that he admitted the potential in Kingsnorth’s call for new stories, as the environmental movement is too led by numerical strategy. I felt, though, that Monbiot’s notion of stories needs expansion. Stories are powerful not so much because they give us answers but because the narrative arts, in treatments that are not too dogmatic or closed, offer opportunities for people to reach a shared horizon of understanding. So, this is stories not telling us what to do but being a way to work out what we should do. The call for new stories has to be for content that relates to this extraordinary crisis, and moreover for new forms of engagement. The forms of engagement have to be powerful enough to push against the mainstream stories that quietly or overtly endorse consumption, innerism and violence against the other. The Passion, by Wildworks, performed at Easter in Port Talbot, is a good example of the kind of participatory storytelling that could be powerful enough. Richard Kearney explains the role of stories in terms of mythos (plot), mimesis (recreation), catharsis (release), phronesis (wisdom) and ethos (ethics). If we can expand this to how narrative engagement might help tackle George’s problem:
- Mythos: using plotting to devise new futures, imagining ways that we might overcome conflict and resolve problems
- Mimesis: holding a mirror to the state of the world as it rapidly changes, showing us what we cannot see
- Catharsis: providing an essential therapeutic function to help us be resilient and calm
- Phronesis: recording and channeling deep knowledge, so that we might better know how to think in systems, make decisions and apply innovations
- Ethos: shifting our ‘deep frames’ from values that are self-enhancing to values that are self-transcendent and altrustic.
The other two domains (media and education) will have to be dealt with in a much more cursory fashion, but I have written about them in more depth elsewhere.
On media, while the BBC was covering the referendum and elections, there was some Twitter discussion with Dougald Hine and others about the need for new TV and radio formats that don’t reinforce political differences through antagonistic debate, but which enable more creative problem-solving. I like this idea very much. My Flow co-director, Mark Stevenson, is already focusing his attention on some ideas for broadcast media to enable people to reclaim the future, solve problems in positive ways and take action.
On education, I will just urge you to read Keri Facer’s book on Learning Futures. This makes a very strong case for schools as centres for community problem-solving. She argues that we have been developing our vision for education with a far too narrow vision of the future, and that we should be embracing:
- The emergence of new relationships between humans and technology
- The opportunities and challenges of aging populations
- The development of new forms of knowledge and democracy
- The challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption
- The potential for radical economic and social inequalities
I entirely agree with her thesis but my only disappointment is that the challenges of climate warming and environmental disruption in particular were not actually addressed, albeit listed as not commonly considered. The book helped us imagine a future school, but it didn’t actually help us imagine the future. That is the challenge for us now, for new stories and learning structures, which help us imagine how bad the future could be whilst simultaneously imagining how we can work it around to provide the means to thrive.
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.
This week Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, was allowed for the first time to appear on BBC Question Time. For non-UK readers, the BNP is an all-white, far right party which promotes sending non-whites (especially muslims) ‘home’ and which has denied the Holocaust. In June this year, the BNP won three council seats and two European Parliament seats, with Griffin representing the North West of England. A shocking poll in 2006 showed that 59% of UK people share their views on immigration, although they don’t all vote BNP. As we come up to Remembrance Day, many of those 59% people will be wearing poppies to remember the war against unthinkable fascism, without thinking of the irony.
In response to Griffin on Question Time there has been a lot of Twitter action. Quite a lot of comments were about the role of cultural learning and museums in changing the hearts & minds of those 59%. @51m0n (Simon Berry of the Cola Life project) tweeted: “In Anne Franks’ House. Harrowing. Nick Griffin where are you?” @KevAdamson suggested Griffin should go on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’
The realisation that so many share these views, or versions watered down by blithe ignorance, has thrown into sharp focus the purpose of proposals for the transformation of the museums sector. These proposals under the Open Culture banner are about driving digital inclusion into communities and harnessing the digital for cultural participation. Put like that, it sounds a little uncompelling, more than a little perhaps. But when you look at the context, the urgent need for co-operation and problem-solving in communities, and when you have experienced of the power of museum learning and engagement, the success of the proposal seems essential.
In the same week as Griffin’s appearance I started working on a project for the Equalities & Human Rights Commission. This is the Young Brits at Art awards, which are about using culture and creativity to promote the values of respect, dignity, fairness, equality and autonomy. When Griffin came on screen I had just been writing about the scientific facts proving that the notion of a human subspecies is a cultural construct not a biological one. In other words there is only one human race, though many cultures. The science is complex and the history of cultural and genetic interweaving on a global scale is massive to understand. You need to grasp the complexity to get the basic facts. One of the best ways to grasp the complexity is to explore museums (real or virtual) and to participate actively in cultural learning, for example, getting into archaeology.
This is all intensive work, intensified by the many other requirements of museums to solve all social ills. Cultural tolerance isn’t the only value we need to develop. We also, urgently, need to support people to develop adaptability to face a disrupted future due to climate change, not a need yet fully acknowledged by the Government. We’ve spent the past 10 years revamping our displays and buildings, building new ones, expanding our shops, and spending quite a bit of money on it all, including a bit of digitisation. Cultural and heritage institutions are more often driven by trustees and managers from hard-nosed business backgrounds, who help spend this kind of money and attract more. You might wonder then why, despite all this expansion of cultural provision, and its claims of effectiveness, are we still seeing these intolerant attitudes in so many of the population? Three reasons (amongst many) come to mind, the first two on a big scale: Global inequality has exacerbated extremist terrorism, leading to greater mistrust of ‘others’. Labour has not tackled the root causes of economic inequality, despite many non-economic initiatives. Thirdly, there has not been enough investment in the most effective kinds of cultural learning in the museum sector to make good work reach enough people and to be sustained. The bulk of investment has been in bricks and mortar, style, spectacle, collections, marketing and so on. The dominance of the business-and-tourism-led management of our cultural sector, fails to adequately value the relational work of those who deliver educational and participatory engagement.
There are, however, many success stories and good things happening within all this investment. These good things tend to be where there is integration between the display (or accessibility) of collections and the relational work to interpret them. For example, the Ashmolean Museum has not only created a new building but has altered the structure of displays and all the interpretation to reflect the formation of cultures through exchange. It’s a shame then that the first press coverage of this revamp by the Times has been to accuse the Museum of ‘dumbing down’ and catering for ‘half-wits’. Kathy Brewis sees museums exclusively as a place to switch off at the weekend from her busy ‘digitally included’ life, to wander the old cabinets of curiosity in a graciously vacant but already well-educated manner, gazing on the otherness of heads shrunken by barbaric people who are not like us. She says she doesn’t want to “discover how civilisations developed as part of an interrelated world culture”. She may already understand the complexity of cultural connections so well she has no need of learning further, but I suspect if she did understand she would realise the responsibility she has to disseminate this knowledge and would make better use of her privileged position as a commissioning editor of The Times in doing so.
There is some truth in what she says, albeit expressed in a way I find offensive. I believe that we have put too many words on the walls, sometimes stating facts too baldly, which has reduced the emotive and aesthetic effect of collections and heritage spaces. The most effective learning takes place through dialogue, mediated in relational and creative ways. A plan to transform the sector needs to focus on making this kind of learning available to all, and that has to mean using digital technologies in many new ways and also working in partnership with public service broadcasters.