Digital vision for climate engagement

Screenshot 2020-08-28 at 14.10.43

This post reflects on a discussion we held on 20th August about the possibilities for a digital commons collection on climate and ecology. We asked:

  • How can we collaborate to create an accessible UK-wide digital collection that gives a climate & ecology lens to cultural artefacts in museums, archives, heritage sites and born-digital resources?

…and more broadly…

  • How can digital collections power activism to tackle the big challenges of social and environmental justice?

These questions, especially the second one, are so large that the discussion was a little too wide-ranging. We were also navigating between the idea of us (CMUK) as an organisation leading the creation of a digital project, and the participants simply sharing experiences or ideas for existing or potential projects.

We began by outlining the context of the Activist Museum Award that has enabled this enquiry into extractivism, and into commons-based (non-extractivist) ways of doing digital engagement and museum collecting. To gather views about this, we suggested a hypothetical project we might create, in which asset-holders ‘donate’ relevant objects into a digital repository and encourage participatory interpretation of them, illuminating their relevance to climate and ecology. Objects might be heritage sites, or born-digital documents, or natural history datasets, or more typically, artworks or artefacts in museums. By donating, they keep the object but point to the repository with a digital label (e.g. QR code on a gallery label), and actively invite diverse interpretations of the object which can be added to metadata directly by participants or by the asset-holding organisation.

We issued a survey to find out what possible donors felt about it, and received (only) nine responses, but at least 70% said they were extremely interested in contributing! About half would be able to contribute fully by donating, inviting interpretations, doing talks/events, and supporting/promoting the project.

The topics that most feel their collections are relevant for – were colonialism, landscape and food/farming, but also underpinned with values, imagination, empathy and storytelling. Some specific topics suggested were

  • Horticulture of enslaved people in contributing to health, creativity, safeguarding cultural traditions, survival and resistance.
  • Collections related to peoples displaced by climate change
  • Protest movements & art
  • Energy generation and transport.
  • Colonialism & environment in relation to shoes (and specific types of collection such as clothes, cars, or advertising.

Objects that might be ‘donated’ include: Singer sewing machine; an overstuffed walrus; miner’s strike badges; an electric storm surge machine developed in the wake of 1953 floods; armour from Kiribati.

Ideas for digital tools to collect with include: Twitter hashtags; the Gift app; Omeka; and Wikimedia. You can see some more examples of digital commons collections or collecting tools in our Pinterest board for the Stories of Extraction enquiry here.

We talked about some inspiring or useful projects. For example, the Youth Panel of the Kids in Museums campaign, are running a project called Objects Declare Emergency. With this, they’re inviting museums and young people to suggest objects that illuminate the climate and ecological emergency, and are building up a collection of object-stories in Instagram.

We also talked about the possibilities of the digital museums programme, Towards a National Collection. This is a “major five-year £18.9 million investment in the UK’s world-renowned museums, archives, libraries and galleries. The programme will take the first steps towards creating a unified virtual ‘national collection’ by dissolving barriers between different collections – opening UK heritage to the world.”

The discussion included concerns about copyright, whether to focus on a specific audience (e.g. young activist adults), how much it could broaden out to born-digital content such as films, an idea from Rebellion Academy to host or enrich their online courses, ideas to create something like Wikihow, and suggestions to focus on topics such as food and farming.

In the discussion, it was suggested that we take the lead and more concretely define an ideal project. Something like this:

  • One or more tools that sit horizontally across several existing digital collections, including cultural collections (GLAM – galleries, libraries, archives, museums), and informational resources (e.g. Wikipedia, databases of imagery & environmental data, educational toolkits).
  • Identifying a growing audience of people who want to use cultural resources for purposes of activism and social change, whose needs can be best served with online tools.
  • Aiming to breach gaps between disciplines, cultural collections and institutions in a light-touch way so that user enquiries lead the direction of the project.
  • Breaching gaps may help provide insights and tools for sub-sectors that are missing them. For example, science and natural history collections might lack tools to engage their audiences with metaphor, whereas art or design collections might lack insights to interpret art in relation to environmental issues.
  • Providing narrative tools that enable users to mine, interrogate/re-interpret and present cultural resources in ways that expose systemic injustices and necessary shifts, which encourage and support conversation and action (rather than simply sharing or creative work).
  • The ideal solution would be as integrated and interoperable as possible, so that users can search across multiple or large datasets. However, taking an agile approach we might begin simply by listing datasets that could be explored, and suggesting search terms or places for fruitful browsing.
  • These tools do not need to be primarily for re-publishing of digital content, but can be based on linking to it (like Wikipedia), reducing complexity and copyright issues.
  • Users’ narratives could be visually enriched by their own uploaded material and by visuals that are available for open source re-use (e.g. some of Climate Visuals).
  • To enable further visual sharing, encourage donations or uploads of climate/ecology objects from any institution, community group or individual into a repository e.g. using Omeka
  • Inspired by past projects like Campaign: make an impact! (which I devised in my role as Head of Learning at the British Library). A new project might provide a narrative tool using a model such as: 1) Find your motivation – what is your emergency/ injustice/ campaign/ enquiry? 2) Find your inspiration – what histories/ sites/ cultures /knowledge can you tap into? 3) Express – create questions / narratives / propositions for change.
  • The project could also involve blogposts by contributing partners or researchers, or social media campaigns, or volunteer experts taking the chair to answer queries for short periods, or live online events.

If you’d like to share your questions or comments on this idea, you can do so on this Google doc. Thank you to everyone who took part.

We’re now using the hashtag #EcoLensOnThings to use social media as an experimental platform for interpreting and inviting interpretations of collections with a climate and ecology lens. See this Twitter thread as an example.

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