Category Archives: Ecocentric

Greening our work

I’m sharing this from my Learning Planet blog. See at the end some explanation about organisational plans for Climate Museum UK.

Yes, I’ve been active and vocal about the planetary emergency for as long as I can remember. But I’ve never been very strong on environmental management of one’s work and life. I don’t want to say that I’m unconcerned with my own footprint: I do all the things I can. I don’t fly, don’t drive, eat mostly plants, only had one child, and use 100% renewable energy. The only air miles I count are the ones involve in transporting my food. But that said, I’ve always pushed back against the way ‘environment’ is put in a box labelled ‘eco-naggery’: saving energy, smart meters, and light bulbs, and now plastic packaging. I’m just not interested in the detail! I’d rather we spend time campaigning or fundraising to promote an international law against ecocide, to end the influence of fossil fuel companies, to end deforestation, and to encourage a ‘regenerative’ revamp of economy and society. I think that cultural organisations should support and normalise ecological education, activism and enterprise, and that they should be braver at facing the truths of the climate emergency. They should prioritise such work over reducing their own operational footprints, which they should do but only as one of many other activities.

However, I’ve been aware recently how vital it is to show daily leadership in one’s practices. Not because you expect to make a difference to the global temperature dial by turning off your kitchen light, but because your actions can affect how much people care about that temperature dial. It is better to do the right thing than not to do it, when the stakes are so great (and when the steaks are doing so much damage). This awareness has been raised by reading Peter Kalmus ‘Being the Change: Live well and spark a climate revolution‘.

Last week I led a Twitter chat on the #MuseumFreelance hashtag about being a sustainable leader in one’s freelance or sole-trading work in the museums sector. I’m not strictly a freelancer as I run a small company of 2-3 people, plus associates, but I haven’t worked as a staff member in an organisation since early 2006, so have a strong ‘freelance’ identity.

I asked these questions:

  • How can we reduce our impact when we run focus groups or workshops?
  • Freelance work can mean a lot of travel: is digital communication the best alternative?
  • How can we help clients and audiences have more planetary awareness? What if that’s not in your contract?

It was a lively chat and generated a lot of advice and mutual support. Some ideas included:

Christina Lister showed us her kit to minimise dependence on single use plastics:

Screenshot 2018-09-30 15.24.14

Reducing in-person meetings after a set-up meeting, using collaborative and conferencing tools where possible, but taking care and preparing well in advance to ensure they work well. Hilary Jennings shared this guide from the Transition Network on how to work better together online.

Using digital tools like Mindmeister to share and develop ideas with clients rather than using paper, or having to meet in person.

A great tip from Steve Slack:

Screenshot 2018-09-30 15.41.17

For anyone who wanted to go a bit deeper on this, I shared:

Christina Lister summed up her takeaways from the chat: 1) start now 2) share what you’re doing with freelancers & (potential/) clients 3) question things that could be made greener 4) baby steps are better than no steps (e.g. recycled paper) 5) think all aspects of your practice.

My own big takeaway came out of my third question: How to help clients have more planetary awareness, even if it’s not in the contract. One suggestion was to be more overt about sharing one’s own environmental policy, including it in the way you pitch and negotiate contracts. It was interesting how rarely we were ever asked by clients about our environmental policies. I realised that I hadn’t revisited our own company’s one since dashing one off to a boiler plate template perhaps 10 years ago on a single occasion when it was required for a tender.

So, I made a pledge to rewrite one, and will do this with colleagues as part of process of creating a new organisation: Flow Experience. This will be a more charitably-oriented company than Flow Associates, and we will gradually shift all our projects into it. It will also be a platform for Climate Museum UK. I had the realisation that instead of tagging a footprint-reduction policy at the end of a business plan, start with the big purpose of eco-social change. Environment isn’t an ‘issue’, or only about the smallest level of detail. It’s the biggest possible expanse. It’s the world that makes our existence possible, from time immemorial – but only for the time being. In writing this policy, we’ll follow our own  change planning model, where we begin with ‘Discover’ – taking an expanded perspective to discover all drivers for change. Then we’ll zoom in to focus on the impact we are able to have with the assets we have access to. Then we’ll start to Design the organisation in terms of how it uses resources and generates value, thinking in a regenerative and ecocentric way throughout.

I’ve recently written and spoken about the idea of the Possible Museum, or any cultural organisation that is more eco-centric, socially just and future-facing. I outlined an ethical path for such an organisation:

  • It will take a ‘Possitopian’ approach, not being stuck in either wishful Utopian or despairing Dystopian positions about the future, but look imaginatively and openly at the widest cone of possibility.
  • By looking honestly at what is happening in the world, and imagining the future, this organisation will see that the path of relevance is an ethical one.
  • It will proactively work with communities to shift towards more regenerative and circular economies.
  • It will explore ethical and participatory forms of entrepreneurship in order to sustain itself when or where public funding dries up.
  • It will provide safe, inclusive spaces for envisaging possible futures, for learning from past and indigenous cultures and from the capacities of nature, and for helping communities take action for eco-social justice.

These will be the principles to underpin our thinking as we dream up Flow Experience, and build on our 12 years of work to become an organisation that services and supports others to create a Possible Culture.


Unsafe ideas

Photo by Steve Cadman, via Wikimedia Commons

Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A and former Labour MP/Shadow Minister, has written a piece for the Art Newspaper, responding to protests about the Museum’s acquisition of  a portion of the Robin Hood Gardens housing estate. This social housing was/is an icon of Brutalist architecture, and its proposed demolition has been one of the most contested issues of architectural preservation, rumbling over the past 10 years. Read Stephen Pritchard to get the view of those protesting the V&A’s acquisition and display of this architectural fragment at this year’s Venice Biennale. He suggests that this is ‘accumulation by dispossession’ as the residents have been decanted and displaced, while London’s new property is snapped up by foreign investors. The acquisition objectifies the lived experience of its inhabitants.

New research was announced yesterday that the UK has 9 of the 10 poorest regions of the whole of Europe. A major contributing factor is expensive housing. This poverty and inequality will only increase as we descend into the unknowns of Brexit, led as we are into it by hard Brexiteers who want corporations to be free to evade ‘red tape’, in other words, human and environmental rights.

I’m interested in what Tristram Hunt said: “Leaving aside the new social housing planned for the site or the constructive role that cultural institutions can have in promoting much-needed urban regeneration, behind this critique is the increasingly popular conviction that not only can museums not be neutral sites, but that they also have a duty to be vehicles for social justice.

“Rather than chronicling, challenging and interpreting, we should be organising demonstrations and signing petitions. I am not so sure. I see the role of the museum not as a political force, but as a civic exchange: curating shared space for unsafe ideas. And in an era of absolutist, righteous identity politics, these places for pluralism are more important than ever.”

This is setting up on the one hand museums as ‘political force’ as ‘organising demonstrations’, and on the other hand, museum as ‘civic exchange’ as a ‘shared space for unsafe ideas’.

However, those who argue that ‘museums are not neutral’ are not saying that museums should be organising demonstrations or signing petitions. (In a timely manner, this campaign was relaunched today and images of new T-shirts are all over social media.) They are saying that “museums have the potential to be relevant, socially engaged spaces in our communities, acting as agents of positive change”. In other words, they curate shared space for unsafe ideas. They advocate that this curation should be informed by enduring and common ethical principles, resisting the more negative outcomes of identity politics. A shared space has to exclude or critique violence, hate and injustice, otherwise it cannot be a shared space.

A key here is in Hunt’s suggestion of “leaving aside…the constructive role that cultural institutions can have in promoting much-needed urban regeneration”. His use of positive terms in this sentence suggests he believes that museums do have a political role, as promoters of regeneration. But, just as museums are not neutral, the processes and outcomes of urban regeneration are not neutral. Regeneration is not always ‘much-needed’, or rather it is not always the solution to the structural needs in a community of multiple disadvantage. And if it is a solution, it is rarely done in a way that allows for regeneration of nature, for community ownership of common assets, or for truly affordable access to shelter. It is usually done too fast, with Community Consultation, Cultural Strategies and even Sustainability bolted on as Corporate Social Responsibility. Museums can have a great role in regenerating areas, but this does not work for people or for nature if the measures are purely economic. (There are possibilities for a more helpful mindset for regeneration.)

Museums do indeed have a role in curating shared spaces for unsafe ideas about how we might live well together and thrive in our places, whether local places or our shared planetary home. Museums being ‘agents of positive change‘ (or ‘not neutral’) is the opposite of being agents for groups who have exploitative agendas (e.g. property developers or oil companies) or the narrow identity politics that Hunt rightly does not want to support. Museum professionals need to have heightened awareness of the values and historical frames that form their assumptions about growth, regeneration and justice. They also need to be aware of the impacts of their relationships with partners such as developers, corporate sponsors, object donors or politicians. We together need to explore the possibilities of curating these shared spaces, in ways that are sociocratic, pluralistic and also eco-centric.

I have a great deal of respect for the V&A, its staff and programmes, and believe that they have contributed greatly to professional practice in this area. The appointment of Helen Charman as Director of Learning and National Programmes will see further positive development.

The Robin Hood Gardens project and Hunt’s defence of their approach seems to be a misstep as part of a progressive shift. The V&A’s article about the Robin Hood Gardens acquisition does not indicate anything of a desire to be a shared space for unsafe ideas. There are no links to residents’ voices, no reference to the local people involved in the campaign (only the architects), and no invitation to express views in relation to it. Adding these would be positive steps to take.

Climate Museum UK is intended as both a museum in its own right and an agency for developing the capacities of museum workers to curate shared spaces. These shared spaces of museums will increasingly have to deal with more contested issues and sites, as the climate emergency comes home. They will need to embrace unsafe ideas in an incredibly unsafe global situation.

The first step

Yes, I’m taking the first step to making a Climate Museum for the UK!

In fact, the first steps came many years ago:

  • In 2006 when I left my great job as Head of Learning at the British Library, wanting to set up my own organisation for thrivable culture (Flow Associates).
  • In 2008 when I set up a website called Climate Action for Culture and Heritage.
  • In 2009 when I became involved in the Dark Mountain Project and contributed to the Happy Museum manifesto.
  • In 2010, after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, when I became involved in the Art Not Oil movement.
  • In 2014, becoming involved in the annual Remembrance Day for Lost Species.

And so on, year after year, taking part in one initiative or another, up to:

  • Autumn 2017, attending the Julie’s Bicycle Creative Climate Leadership course. At the end of this course I pledged to create an organisation that would be dedicated to creatively stirring a response to the climate emergency.
  • January 2018, attending the Cambridge Museums Climate Hack and producing an idea for Ngaru, the Ghost Boat.
  • April 2018, attending the international symposium on Museums and Climate Change in Manchester, I heard Miranda Massie from New York’s Climate Museum speak, and realised that I needed to be inspired by this, and to create a public-facing, open organisation, a platform for others to lead and shine.

So, this is it. Things have heated up. It’s time to do this.

A first step will be to apply to do something at the Festival of Change during the Museums Association conference in Belfast: “We need to talk about climate justice”

I’m going to be at the Under Her Eye conference next weekend, about women and climate change, organised by Invisible Dust, keeping eyes and ears open for ideas and collaborators.

I’m working on a visual handbook for self-help to planet-help, called Find Your Flow and Change the World. Some of these visuals will become a small exhibition for Climate Museum UK.

A key part of CMUK will be a core display that is replicable and hireable. I want to create a small ‘exhibition’ that I can carry in a backpack as a prototype for this. I’m thinking about setting up a co-design workshop as part of the Season for Change this summer.

In terms of working out the constitution of CMUK, I’m hosting an Action Learning Set next week, of 5 women with similar goals and interests, taking each of our visions in turn.

I’m thinking about a project with others making a range of textiles and garments inspired by these these graphs of rising temperatures. (There’s already some people making blankets using the data but there could be more possibilities.)

Please get in touch if you have ideas or want to chat.

Annual temperatures in central England from 1772-2017 Image source Climate Lab Book