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).
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.
As we count down the last few days until the Copenhagen COP15 summit, the number of possible things I could blog about here is overwhelming. The numbers of events, exhibitions and initiatives hoping to tackle climate change is intense. I could write about Buy Nothing Day or the 350 vigil or the Wave, about the eARTh exhibition opening at the RA or about the RETHINK climate and contemporary art programme in Copenhagen. I could report about efforts to introduce greener energy around the world, for example, how Spain has exceeded its targets for renewables. I could, and I really should, tell you more about my business partner in Flow, Mark Stevenson, and his extraordinary travels around the world seeking reasons to be hopeful where scientists and change-makers are saving the planet. But you’d be better off reading his blog and then buying his book next year.
I could tell you all that and much more. Meanwhile, the bad news about the evidence of warming and resistance to act on it is relentlessly dripping into my Twitter stream. It’s difficult to be upbeat in the face of it. The climate negotiations are based on out of date predictions. Last night, I heard that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing 57 gigatonnes of ice a year (a gigatonne is a billion tonnes) and that the temperature there is now 6 degrees warmer. Last week there were reports of over 100 icebergs heading slowly for New Zealand. If the sheet melts entirely the sea levels will rise by 64 metres. Almost the most depressing thing about that is that the predictional film most likely to come true is Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.
Angela Palmer is the artist behind the Ghost Forest which landed in Trafalgar Square last week en route to Copenhagen. She was so depressed by deforestation and its links to climate change that she couldn’t sleep about it. So she undertook a major challenge, went to Ghana and transported these stumps to Europe. I found the installation an odd experience, unsettling, being in Trafalgar Square surrounded by these great uprooted things while people looked on respectfully at this combination-at-once of creativity and destruction. The labels told us that some of the trees had stood as tall as Nelson’s column. We were just looking at the feet of the giants, all washed of their soil.
Afterwards I went over to St Martins in the Fields to the Hard Rain exhibition, which although unconnected to Ghost Forest, showed photos of the Ghanaian logging operations and other evidence of environmental destruction. There is an image of a small boy stretching out his arms in front of the disc of a chopped trunk, a vibrant orange colour. The text for this exhibition said ‘If we can understand the horror we can dare to hope.’ My next stop was another exhibition by Angela Palmer, called Breathing In, in the Wellcome Institute. This is the result of journeys to China and Tasmania to collect evidence of the effects of climate change and pollution on people’s lives. For example, she compares white clothes and face masks worn in both places, China showing itself as one of the polluted places on earth by the black grime.
I liked these three exhibitions and I was glad they had been made. But I felt a kind of tedium or hopelessness, a feeling that art as eco-propaganda isn’t going to work, all these images of destruction and dystopias, that it wasn’t actually planting trees but using them up.
My final exhibition that day was Points of View, about 19thC photography from the British Library. Having just been to see the Ghost Forest I was struck by the first image, blown up large, a ghostly tree, all brachial white against dark. This was the negative of An Oak Tree in Winter, the first photograph by Fox Talbot, the first photographer, the image itself a ghost. He was excited that in a few seconds you could make an image that would take a skilled artist weeks or months. This process is still something we can get excited about, and photography is a primary means by which artists show us the abuses of nature and peoples around the world. But it is all part of the mechanisation that accelerated the materialism which has brought us to this state.
The next day I went for a walk in Honor Oak, up to One Tree Hill and found myself transfixed by an oak tree. A man came along the path and stood there quietly looking at it with me, then after a while he nodded, smiled and walked on. Oaks were planted by Joseph Beuys in his 7,000 oaks work in Kassell and are still being planted around the world in a legacy to that project. The tree of doors and of endurance.