This interview first appeared in Tired Earth.
Reimagining Museums for Climate Action represents the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council Heritage Priority area contribution to the UK’s time as host of COP26. The Priority Area is led by Rodney Harrison, Professor of Heritage Studies and UCL, and the project is co-led with Dr. Colin Sterling, University of Amsterdam, working with Henry McGhie (founder of Curating Tomorrow) and developed in close co-operation with Glasgow Science Centre.
What was the idea/inspiration behind creating Museums for Climate Action?
Museums are often seen as static and backwards-looking, more concerned with the past than with the present and the future. While this impression is slowly changing, museums are not the most obvious subject to focus on when thinking about climate action.
The urgent challenges of a warming planet can seem quite distant from the contemplative world of museums. Climate change however is much more than simply an environmental or scientific concern. It impacts on all aspects of social, cultural, political and economic life, including museums. Questions of sponsorship, carbon emissions, waste, transport and the need for more sustainable buildings are currently being debated across the sector. At the same time, museums have an important role to play in communicating the climate crisis to the public. For many people they remain a trusted source of information, with the capacity to inspire real change in individuals and society. Far from being relics of the past, museums are increasingly called upon to help shape a more just and sustainable future for all.
The project began life as a design and ideas competition, launched on International Museum Day 2020. Responding to the two main pillars of climate action – mitigation and adaptation – the competition asked how museums could help society make the deep, transformative changes needed to achieve a net-zero or zero-carbon world. Rather than focus on a specific location or type of museum, the competition invited proposals that aimed to unsettle and subvert the very foundations of museological thinking to support and encourage meaningful climate action. We specifically asked for design and concept proposals that were radically different from the ‘traditional’ museum, or that explored new ways for traditional museums to operate. The responses, which could address any aspect of museum design and activity, ranged from the fantastical to the highly practical.
Tell us about your organization’s initiatives concerning getting museums involved in sustainability, climate change education, action, research and partnerships?
In terms of Reimagining Museums for Climate Action (RCMA), this draws on the individual work of Rodney Harrison, Colin Sterling and myself.
Our website www.museumsfoclimateaction.org gathers together a range of thinking about how museums might address the challenges of a warming world. Divided into three sections – Rethink, Reimagine and Mobilise – our website includes research material from the project team, a suite of concepts imagining possible museum futures in the climate change era, and key resources to inspire radical climate action in the sector and beyond.
We have been working on other resources, with a book edited by Rodney and Colin and a toolkit written by myself. These will be published during the time of COP26, and available on the website.
We also provide just a few of the many resources, networks and initiatives that anyone interested in accelerating and enhancing climate action through museums can draw on. ‘Networks’ includes networks that museum professionals and other interested people and organisations can join. ‘Initiatives’ showcases programmes that museums and museum professionals can support and empower people to participate in by providing relevant activities. ‘Books’ features a number of publications focused on museums and climate action. In addition, you will be able to find many references to further material in the MfCA book and toolkit, when these are available in November.
This year The International Committee for Museums and Collections of Science and Technology (CIMUSET) which is a scientific committee of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) during its 48th #CIMUSET Annual Conference: “Museums & Environmental Concerns, New Insights” -7-11 November 2021, will address our planet’s environmental concerns and how Science and Technology museums can approach and present this important issue via education and exhibitions. When did your organization get involved in climate change and what programs has it instituted in collaboration with Museums/COP26?
In 1992, the world’s governments committed to address the rapidly growing threat of global climate change by adopting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Convention came into force in 1994.
Since then, governments have met annually to monitor progress, evaluate what further action is needed, and agree programmes of activity to combat climate change. The main meeting is often referred to as the ‘COP’, which means the ‘Conference of the Parties’. As the first COP was held in 1994, the next COP will be COP26, and it will be held in Glasgow in November 2021.
Although the UNFCCC, and other important agreements including the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, are signed by governments, they need involvement from all of society. The UNFCCC and Paris Agreement recognise the importance of public education, staff training, public awareness, public access to information, public participation and international co-operation in order to address climate change. Museums can support all of these activities, and their role was recognised in 2018 at COP24, when they were included in the operational plan for the Paris Agreement, called the Katowice Package.
RMCA, was launched as a project in early 2020, and the design and ideas competition launched on International Museums Day. We are a project rather than an organisation.
Our project aims to support radical climate action in and with museums before, during and after COP26.
I launched a guide, for galleries, libraries, archives and museums (‘GLAM) which was published by Curating Tomorrow at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) (Nov 1-12). This guide is empowering everyone who works in galleries, libraries, archives and museums to connect their work to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and to use them as they are intended to be used.
During World Science Week (Nov 7-14), I presented this guide at the 48th The International Committee for Museums and Collections of Science and Technology (CIMUSET) Conference (Nov 7-11) to address our planet’s environmental concerns and how Science and Technology museums can approach and present this important issue via education and exhibitions.
What partnerships does Museums for Climate Action have? Does it collaborate with the UN?
RMCA was developed in close collaboration with Glasgow Science Centre. The project draws heavily on the Paris Agreement, which can be viewed as a form of informal collaboration with the UN, at least with the principles of the international agreements. RMCA, and Museums for Climate Action, were developed as the AHRC Priority Area for Heritage contribution to the UK’s time as host of COP26.
How can people reach Museums for Climate Action?
Anything else you might want to add.
Society needs institutions that can provide opportunities for people to debate, imagine and begin to create the futures they want to see. Museums can be one of these institutions, tailored to local challenges and contexts. Climate change is a symptom that something needs to change, and that means the institutions as well as emissions.