Make Change Happen, the Museums Association Conference 2022

By Dorry Fox

The Museums Association’s (MA) conference, held in Edinburgh in November 2022, was an informative and thought-provoking event that focused on the critical role that museums can play in addressing some of the most urgent challenges of today. Structured around the call to Make Change Happen, the programme explored the interconnected issues of climate, anti-racism, decolonisation and wellbeing, providing critical insights into both the field of current practice as well as providing a platform to imagine the future of museums.

I joined the conference as a volunteer—a highly enjoyable way to meet like-minded young people hoping to establish their place in the museum sector (while saving quite a bit of money in the process). As a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership student whose research centres on ‘curating climate change’, I was eager to learn more about the ever-expanding and ever-diversifying field of climate change-related practice in UK museums.

The conference brought together a diverse group of captivating speakers, including museum professionals, researchers and leaders in sustainable practice, to discuss ways in which museums can act as advocates for the Earth and promote sustainability. Something that had a marked impact on me was just how kind, thoughtful and engaging the speakers and attendees were. I had volunteered for large events before, but I was genuinely amazed at how successfully the MA created such a friendly and dynamic atmosphere for people to share their stories and be moved to create change.

The conference’s environment-focused sessions took many forms. From presentations and panel discussions by inspiring practitioners in the field, to interactive workshops. Helping to embed environmental consciousness into the event as a whole, the catering was entirely vegetarian and plant-based.

Centring the planetary crisis as one of the key themes of Make Change Happen forms part of the MA’s organisation-wide push towards climate and ecological action, intersecting this work with efforts to decolonise museums. Indeed, this summer it launched its Museums for Climate Justice campaign, dedicating a special issue of the Museums Journal to the movement in its September/October 2022 edition.

One of the standout demands of the MA is for museums to be proactive in addressing climate change, rather than simply reacting to it. It does so through the lens of climate justice. Instead of framing climate change as a purely technological challenge for scientists and engineers to grapple with, climate justice situates the many related problems of it within structures of social, economic and political inequality. Such structures are not only intrinsic within society but are intrinsic within the histories and collections of museums themselves.

The scope of the climate justice frameworks is wide, understanding the legacy of colonialism and the oppression of people and the environment, while also looking to a future where past wrongs have been put to right. Accordingly, key to the fight for climate justice is a recognition from the political and financial elite that climate change is disproportionately impacting marginalised individuals and communities who bear the least responsibility for it. In other words, effective mitigation and adaptation strategies cannot be undertaken until such imbalances and injustices have been rectified.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that climate justice—with that semantic emphasis on climate—does not immediately pay heed to the wider injustices resulting from the Earth crisis. When it comes the impacts of extraction and abuse of environments, species and people, it is important to think holistically.

Beyond the changing climate and the extreme weather events that have been provoked by greenhouse gas emissions, an Earth crisis mindset illuminates the bigger environmental, social, political and economic picture. A picture of exploitative actions leading to repercussions such as mass extinction and depleting biodiversity, harm to animals, displacement, loss of heritage, resource conflict, health issues and food and water scarcity, which, in a feedback loop, aggravate the crisis even further.

Within this mindset, it could be valuable to adopt a multispecies model of justice. Such a framework includes an awareness of social justice issues, recognising the disparities in accountability alongside the unfair distribution of impacts from the Earth crisis. But it also brings ‘nonhumans’—beings other than humans—into its remit. Such a view can help to demonstrate how humans are so entangled with the ecosystems in which they live, evoking a perspective shift that recognises the parallels and tensions between social and ecological issues. Meanwhile, it highlights that animals, plants, fungi, rivers, forests, soils and other beings and ecosystems have, too, been subject to the injustices of extractivist and exploitative practices.

Nevertheless, by even acknowledging the justice issues of the Earth crisis, climate justice still presents a stimulating framework for museum action. This bold decision on the part of the MA does more than simply entreat museums to reduce their carbon footprint. It challenges them to adopt an anti-establishment view. To reimagine power structures. To amplify suppressed voices. To instil care and wellbeing into their practices.

While the Museums Journal has imparted some interesting critiques on how museums have confronted the systemic relationship between inequality and climate change (see art historian Sria Chatterjee’s ‘Climate and Colonialism’), the Make Change Happen conference fell slightly behind.

Looking back at the programme, events relating to the practicalities of museum work and buildings—and the race to Net Zero—outnumbered those that explored the pivotal role of museums in tackling the intersectionality between the Earth crisis and broader socio-historical issues.

That is not to say that such sessions were unenlightening, however. ‘Adapting to Change’ and ‘Industrial, Independent, Small and … Green?’ provided impressive insight into sustainable museum practice, framing decarbonisation as a tool to rethink the entire organisation of museums—where climate, ecological and social consciousness is incorporated across the range of museum activities.

More explicitly addressing the interconnectedness between the Earth crisis and social and ethical issues was the fascinating ‘Museums for Climate Justice’ panel chaired by Sara Kassam, a Sustainability Advisor within the sport and cultural sector. Kassam was joined by fellow practitioners Farah Ahmed (Julie’s Bicycle), Lewis Coenen-Rowe (Creative Carbon Scotland) and Katherine McAlpine (The Brunel Museum).

Representing diverse institutions from across the UK, their discussion shed light on the sheer range of activities that museums are undertaking to engage communities—especially those who feel disconnected from the climate movement—in connecting the planetary crisis with social issues, both historical and current. Particularly compelling was the moment when Farah Ahmed invited the audience to consider whether their organisations’ sustainability policies aligned with other socially responsible work, such as anti-modern slavery statements. This poignant juncture brought into sharp relief that sustainable actions can only go so far if they are viewed in isolation from systems of inequality and injustice.

Providing an opportunity for audience dialogue was the ‘Sustainable Museum Design’ workshop. Prefaced by case studies—such as the Gressenhall Environmental Hub project, which brings together culture, heritage and the arts to inspire knowledge and care for the environment—the session invited attendees to discuss how sustainable museum practice could be used as a launchpad to engage audiences and bring about environmentally-friendly behavioural change.

Overall, Make Change Happen provided a clear demonstration of the MA’s commitment to addressing the Earth crisis and promoting sustainability within the museum sector. Taking place in the wake of catastrophic, record-breaking heatwaves; in the midst of an energy and cost-of-living crisis; and in the looming presence of a pandemic catalysed by environmental degradation, the conference was a valuable and timely event.

Providing a platform for discussions from across the sector, it proved that—more than ever—museums have both the capacity and the encouragement to undertake meaningful activities that address the intersecting issues of the environment, society and politics. Such action, in the long term, will help to transform the museum sector into a key pillar of support and inspiration for audiences who are increasingly coming face-to-face with the widespread consequences of the Earth crisis.

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