Why the UK needs a Climate Museum

This is the short talk I gave at the We Are Museums conference. I’ve added things I would have said if I’d had time.

It was part of a panel about Museums as Green Revolution Leaders.

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The environment is not an issue, it’s our living world and everything we are interdependent with. We have to take an expanded perspective, so let’s start from the biggest perspective we can take. Let’s think about the fact that we are in space, and here we are in the universe.

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Now, to zoom in and take a narrower perspective, this blue ball is our home. It’s a place that has held us, allowed life to emerge for millennia and with a stable climate until quite recently, has allowed humans to thrive along with millions of other species. But our recent action has put all of this in peril. The Planetary Emergency is an expanded term that combines the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

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Direct ecocidal actions (deforestation, pollution etc) have reduced wildlife and wild spaces by 60% in my lifetime. The impacts of human-caused Global Warming began to cause problems in the 1900s, but we haven’t seen anything yet compared to what is to come, especially if the Business as Usual course continues.

Zoom in again, to see Britain. (CMUK makes use of open source resources, provided for example, by NASA.) This was the UK last March in a freak snow storm. Frozen is also a metaphor for the UK’s current situation, caught in checkmate over Brexit. How did this come about? In a nutshell, Government policies have increased austerity (nearing 40% children living in poverty) at the same time as giving licence to those with extreme wealth. The UK gives biggest fossil fuel subsidies in Europe, and Brexit has been engineered by a global alliance of ‘pollutocrats’ who want to continue to profit despite the breached boundaries of the planet’s operating system.

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In the past 10 years there has been a lot of activism in the UK targeting the sponsorship of museums and arts by oil companies such as BP and Shell. There’s also been the emergence in that decade of the Happy Museum Project, exploring how museums can work towards wellbeing of people, place and planet.

But until recently, there hasn’t been large scale response to the environmental emergency within the UK museums sector. It has been treated as a technical issue, reducing operational footprint, or seen as a science subject to be covered now and again in exhibitions. However, a shift is happening. School and youth strikes, and Extinction Rebellion, are demanding that civic organisations face and tell the truth, and take action, for the sake of all our futures. The Green Party polled higher than the ruling Conservatives in last week’s EU elections – which is amazing considering that the Greens are virtually invisible in mainstream media.

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There is very little central funding and support for the Cultural sector to work with the public around environmental challenges. However, there is a public shift, with calls for this to change.

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I’ve been involved in such calls, and am now active in a global movement called Culture Declares Emergency. This aims to support and encourage individuals and organisations in arts and culture to declare a Climate and Ecological Emergency. It launched on 3rd April – with a procession around key London cultural organisations including Tate Modern (as seen in this image).

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Amongst the declaring organisations is the Museums Association:

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The MA is keen to encourage its members to declare, and to take action in response too. This slide lists some ways museums can be First Responders to the emergency, and here’s a blogpost that goes into more detail about this.

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So, what about Climate Museum UK? I decided in 2018 to set up a museum that could model this kind of emergency response, to be more agile and radical than a bigger organisation could, and to help develop the capacities of the Cultural sector. The starting point is to talk.

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These are the Museum’s principles:

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This global temperature chart (Warming Stripes by Ed Hawkins) provides a key inspiration resource for many of the Museum’s ‘loose parts’. In itself, as a graphic, it is a kind of museum of temperatures. It is an object for thinking with, and a record of the past. It raises the question, what colours will come in the future, and can we return to the blue?

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These are some images of some of the Pop-up events over the past five months, that have trialled some of the prototype Loose Parts.

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Its Loose Parts include books, artworks, protest ephemera, display materials and infographics. There are also playful activities such as a Climate Confession box and a range of games, such as Impact Dominoes.

There are also paper-based tools that are used for training workshops or for encouraging conversations between visitors to the Pop-ups.

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For example, this can be used to allow people to separate themselves from the frames on the future that they are wedded to, to be able to see through other frames.

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Each experience of the Museum, whether it’s a workshop at a conference, or people dropping into a Pop-up at a festival or in an empty shop, has to take people on a journey. It might only be that they make a confession and talk about feelings of guilt and complicity. Ideally, an experience would allow enough time so that people can explore:

  • Truth: current science and the lived experience of climate impacts
  • Emotions: Mixed feelings, difficult feelings, what feelings we share and how we differ. Our tendencies to deny, rationalise or disavow when faced with the Planetary Emergency
  • Action: Imagining possible stories for the future, and knowing what to do to create a preferable future.

One of the tools is a future scenarios kit called Create Possitopia. This is my word for a mindset that is not stuck in either dystopia or utopia but is an expanded perspective, exploring what is possible.

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So, this is a glimpse into the vision for Climate Museum UK. I want to conclude with a challenge to see the Planetary Emergency as THE issue, not an issue. It is the background to all the social justice, educational or wellbeing issues, or historical enquiries, or conservation projects, that you might be engaged with.

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For example, the question about returning artefacts to source communities is an ecological issue, and is fundamentally seen as such by those communities. The restoration of sacred heritage and living ecoystems is at the heart of any efforts we need to make towards decolonisation.

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Zooming out again: Museums can be places to enable us to collaborate, not to turn against each other, as the Emergency increases the challenges we face.

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We have the technology to perceive the universe. This is a God’s eye view. We have to remember that we are awesome, that we already hold the technical knowledge of what we have to do in order to rapidly decarbonise and restore our planet’s biodiversity.

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Published by: bridgetmck

Regenerative culture leader. Founder: Climate Museum UK, Flow Associates, and co-founder Culture Declares. In a past life, I've been head of learning at the British Library, Education Officer at Tate and similar roles. https://linktr.ee/BridgetMcKenzie

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