Category Archives: Museums

Tate Modern + Climate

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Martin Creed’s ‘Everything is going to be alright’ seen with visitors & Shard

A planned strand of Climate Museum UK is to run tours of museums or open heritage sites, adding (more, or more pertinent) climate and biosphere content to their stories. These tours might be in collaboration with the museum, or more independent and paid for by those on the tour.

I tried out a possible format and approach yesterday, at Tate Modern, coinciding with the Rise for Climate rally outside it. I set up an Eventbrite page with free tickets, limiting it to a small number of 20 people, and it sold out.

The rally was intended as a creative activism event. An art toolkit offered many tips and templates for the 100s of worldwide rallies, around the symbolism of the sun for renewable energy, and an orange cross for an end to fossil fuels.

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I identified myself as guide by wearing Olafur Eliasson’s Little Sun solar light, an artwork/social enterprise supported by Tate Modern as a legacy of The Weather Project, which had filled the Turbine Hall with a strange mirrored sun, and turned it into a kind of beach.

The tour was a 90 minute session, exploring the building and its history, the cityscape, the institution and its interpretation, and a series of artworks as stimuli for conversation. It included two symbolic risings, or mindful climbs up the Blavatnik building and the Boiler House, before joining a third rising – the rally outside.

We began in the Turbine Hall, with an overview about Bankside Power Station and its conversion into Tate Modern:

Tate Modern is iconic for its re-generation of a building from a redundant industrial technology to promote the new future-facing economy of creativity and art. However, the oil industry is still in receipt of massive public subsidy and continues to provide the bulk of our energy, despite this industry being fully aware of the facts of climate catastrophe and its contribution to it. Public spending on Culture (and recreation/sport/media) in the UK is the second lowest in the EU, despite being the 5th (now 6th) largest economy in the world.

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Public money – donations in the Turbine Hall

Bankside was generating power from 1891 to 1981. At first, it lit street lamps, and then supplied printing presses in Fleet Street. It’s located on the river to use its water for cooling. (We talked about the location of all four Tates right by tidal waters, that the impacts and imminence of rising sea levels were known while all buildings have been expensively revamped. Yet, very few could foresee quite how quickly the permanent Arctic ice is melting. How are museums like Tate making contingency plans for these impacts?)

The power company had often been fined for creating a smoke nuisance, so later they also used Thames water to filter out the pollution. They used 10 million gallons of water an hour (!) and ended up polluting the river. By the 1930s it was considered inefficient and polluting, and in 1948, after a coal shortage and the nationalisation of the electricity industry, the power station was converted to use oil, the first in Britain. It was redeveloped, and the new building was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, known for designing the red telephone box and Battersea Power Station. Oil was shipped by barge from the Shell Haven refinery. The oil tanks held 4000 tons of oil, now ‘The Tanks’, holding art installations.

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Tate display: Poster of Beuys event in Scotland.

In 1973, Britain experienced the oil crisis when Arab countries imposed an oil embargo. This triggered a stock market crash, rising inflation and food prices, and unemployment. It also triggered an interest in sustainability and growing your own food, and the Ecology Party (now Green) was born. The Government meanwhile poured money into North Sea oil rather than the new renewables available. Due to oil prices and its location, Bankside became too expensive, so it was disused. In 1994 Tate announced plans to turn it into an art gallery. In 2006, EDF passed the switch house over to Tate and the new Blavatnik building opened in 2016, the same year they announced the ending of the sponsorship arrangement with oil company BP.

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Time and clocks was an undercurrent theme for the tour: How much time do we have? What do we do first? What really matters?

As more was understood about the devastating impacts of climate change, its direct link to fossil fuels, and the  impacts at extraction sites, there was growing protest about oil companies, who in turn used sponsorships as a way to seek Social License to Operate. BP sponsored Tate for 26 years, increasingly challenged by the Art not Oil coalition and particularly by the actions of one of its members, Liberate Tate.

It is very interesting then to consider that the new Switch House building is named for its main donor, Blavatnik, the richest man in Britain. His fortune is built on the oil industry, in part through a joint-venture between BP and a Russian oil company. He gave an extraordinary £50 million towards the largest ever cultural fundraising project in the country, at £266 million.

We passed this list of donors and these weather items in the shop, and entered the Blavatnik building.

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The Clock is an artwork by Christian Marclay about time, coming soon
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Another theme was stairs upwards; aspiration & rising. These go nowhere but show traces of the original working use of the tanks.

We visited Robert Therrien’s giant Untitled (Table and Four Chairs), in one of the oil tanks.

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We stood underneath this and shared how we felt: Small, powerless, like Alice in Wonderland, like a Borrower, subversive, not able to have a seat at the table. We discussed climate change as a hyperobject, unthinkably large and complex, and many ideas about scale and power.

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We ascended some stairs

To Helio Oiticica’s ‘Tropicalia, Penetrables‘ installation from 1966-67 which is a very early example of participatory installation art by this major Brazilian artist (who died in 1980). Fittingly, his name Helio means sun. This piece enables the visitor to ‘penetrate’ it, to experience real lived objects, albeit out of a lived context in a gallery.

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Walking on the sand

There is sand to walk on, colourful shack buildings, living plants, and a video of two parrots (which were alive in his original version). We talked about photosynthesis, the inclusion of plants in a museum that alter the controlled atmosphere, the poetry of the everyday, the deforestation of the Amazon and the museum-isation of the world.

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Spectrum of Brick Lane

With David Batchelor’s stacked light piece, we discussed how he sees the world differently from Helio Oiticica, living in a different urban context. He responds to our environment being largely constructed from metal, plastic and artificial bright light. We talked about colour, and how our experience of colour has changed with technology, and the energetic requirements of a lit up world.

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Jenny Holzer Artist Rooms

From here, we entered the Artist Rooms display, to consider how Holzer perceives the contemporary environment as constructed from words or information, which frazzles and disconnects our emotional response to it, and also conditions our thoughts. We sat on one of the marble benches, onto which were etched the words ‘My fear grows more powerful with every second. I am powerful like a second of fear. I am the universe’. This was stimulus for a wonderful discussion about the dissonant and shifting perceptions of time, scale and one’s power, when living daily with a climate-changed world. This led to talk about the role of fear in communicating climate change, and how this translates to education and talking with children. We also touched on Holzer’s work about war, e.g. some words ‘The beginning of the war will be secret’, and whether we are already in a hybrid war waged through information manipulation.

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Monika Sosnowska, Pavilion

This piece led to discussion about architecture, Communism, people-power, and collapse. It refers to the artist’s experience in Communist Poland, where architects such as Oskar Hansen expounded about Open Form Theory, a position that defines your relationship to reality, and the idea that people would humanise and evolve a simplistic or brutal environment. Although this ideal still informs participatory art and architecture, the artist felt it didn’t work in her reality, and represents the collapse that she experienced in modernist urban environments. We talked about climate-linked collapse, top-down utopianism, Buckminster Fuller and biomimicry.

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Tate Exchange current project

We then began our ‘mindful climb’ – being aware of our bodies as energy convertors – up to the viewing floor. (Most chose to take the lift, but some of us passed Tate Exchange, and remarked that this current project about production indicates how the environment is so often erased – as all the banners are about humans and society).

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St Pauls cathedral from the viewing platform

At this level, we considered the building as an artwork, the symbolism and function of the single tower opposite the dome of St Pauls. We talked about Canary Wharf, the rash of towers enabled by foreign investment, the role of oil and other natural commodities in fuelling the financial industry. We also talked about St Pauls as a symbol of resilience against fire and the Blitz, and its links with justice campaigners.

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After making a symbolic descent in lifts to ‘zero’, thinking of zero carbon…

…we then used escalators to rise up a second time, but only as far as the Artist and Society display, as we were running short on…time. We had been intending to pop into the Weimar Germany display to look at a painting of Krupp’s arms factories, for a reminder about links between oil, arms and viscissitudes of the economy.

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Toguo, Purification

We had to stop at this marvellous work by Bartelemy Toguo, an artist from Cameroon. It depicts African people tortured, poisoned and in all manner of ways afflicted by abuses of human rights. The writing on the piece is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Toguo wishes to see a regeneration of culture, a more ecological and just revival. Although the label didn’t reference this, the flowing interaction between blood and green/grey colours relates to his interests in the interconnectedness between life forms, both human and more-than-human. This relates to his concern about deforestation and extraction of raw materials in Africa. We talked about the impacts of climate change on people in the global South, and its links to ecocidal extraction and colonialism.

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Writing to Tate, next to Beuys’ blackboards

Our final stop was with Joseph Beuys, looking at his blackboards from his Information Action performed in the Tate in 1972. He had become more involved in Green politics, and art as eco-social sculpture, and he founded a group dedicated to direct democracy through referenda. We touched on how the referendum to leave the EU had perhaps not justified Beuys’ utopian thinking on this, partly due to the interferences of interests of those who want to do away with environmental and human rights and protections. The writing on these blackboards seems incomprehensible so we talked about how we communicate complex ideas such as climate change.

During this action, the audience voted on whether it was anti-democratic for him to keep the microphone. We finished by talking about power, voice and institutions. Had I talked too much? I handed out cards provided by Tate inviting our feedback, and suggested they could write anything, perhaps about how Tate might better reflect that we live in a biosphere, at a time of climate breakdown, and the problematic history of the building.

We then went off to have lunch and to join the rally…to try to speak the truths of climate breakdown and the necessary action we must take to those in power.

Here are some more photos from the day.

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Talk about climate: Power of three

The first rule of Climate Museum UK is talk about climate change. You could read this article for some insight into why talking about climate change is so vital. It quotes psychologist Renee Lertzman: “The reason why, I think, we have a pervasive environmental melancholia is directly related to the fact that we’re not really talking about this.” 

On Friday 20th July we will have our first prototyping workshop to develop the narrative and structure of the mobile Climate Museum installation. The installation will be a space designed to enable conversations about climate change (and related threats to our biosphere and society) that are emotionally healthy, intellectually rigorous, inclusive of all participants and enabling of a sense of empowerment.

Below are some of my own thoughts about what might help model good practice in using objects, images and spaces to support these conversations.

Being inclusive

Verbalisation is not easy for everyone – as there may be shyness, language barriers, learning difficulties etc etc. ‘Talking’ about climate change could take the form of writing, drawing, choosing, designing or making an embodied response, as well as verbal conversation. We could expand ‘talking’ to mean ‘multi-modal creative conversations’. To make activities more conversational, visitors could comment on another person’s artwork, or a drawing could be created collaboratively, or somebody might be invited to read a story to another person.

The experience for any participant could have three steps:

  1. Explore, absorb, learn
  2. Make a personal response
  3. Respond to others and/or have a conversation

Being situational

After trial runs, it’s hoped that the installation will work in sympathy with any context it visits, whether that’s a library in a former industrial town, a small museum in a coastal village, the HQ of a big tech firm in London, in a university where scientists are training in public engagement, or in a school where some children have lived outside the UK. It may include space for new elements each time, added through an initial co-design process with staff or representatives of that community before it is open to general or invited visitors. These new elements might include any or all of these:

  • the heritage and/or values of that place or organisation, or perhaps scientific research/knowledge
  • its current concern, question or need in relation to climate change
  • contributions that could be made to a better future (e.g. a plan, an idea, or simply potential for change)

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Finding common ground

The hope is that the installation will create accessible common ground for productive and healing conversations. Below is a summary of Katharine Hayhoe’s 3 steps to better climate conversations:

  • It makes sense that you first have to Bond rather than antagonise, so the design of Climate Museum will need to aid social connection.
  • The next step, Connect, could be seen as contextualising, showing a bigger picture and systems – which is something that museums do very well.
  • Inspire is very important, as people need to go away from an experience with a sense of agency. Climate Museum will aim to inspire by drawing out the solutions and ideas for action from the participants themselves, not just simply showing.

 

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What’s to come

Yesterday I was at NESTA’s Future Fest, the theme of which was ‘Occupy the Future’. I was happy that the programme included a bit of heritage occupying the future, and to hear Caitlin deSilvey speak. This was in a session called Curated Decay, led by the AHRC Heritage Futures programme. Caitlin is someone I’ve been much inspired by through her writing on ‘anticipatory history’ – taking a nuanced and ecological approach to conservation and curation of heritage. Her work (and that of her colleagues) suggests that although we are well supplied with scientific information about environmental change, we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully and to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.

This work resonates with me because I think we fret too much about small losses when nature takes its course while ignoring massive losses due to the actions of accumulators of wealth, developers and grabbers of land, and delayers of climate action. You can see here slides from my talk on why we need to do much more anticipatory work, and resources to imagine possible futures for cultural organisations.

Caitlin talked about a Cornish tin mine that had been beautifully clothed in ivy but then stripped in its ‘restoration’, and about the ‘creative wake’ held by the community for Orfordness Lighthouse which is on the brink of falling into the sea from coastal erosion (made more rapid by climate change). I had been in touch with Caitlin when I developed a project called Lighthouse Songs, part of this creative wake. Yesterday, she talked about the media overreaction to the idea of ‘managed retreat’, interpreted by reporters as abandonment. Rather than abandonment, she proposes ‘palliative curation’, which is caring for something as you let it transform through loss, while capturing what matters so that others can be safe, or learn or benefit in the future.

In Lighthouse Songs, I chose to work with children from Orford Primary School as carriers of what matters into the future. Together with former lighthouse workers and museum staff, building on my own family history and some archive material, we cared for those stories and translated them into a song cycle performed at a concert in Orford church.

During this project, I reflected a great deal on time, and how these children born in 2008 would fare as climate change hits home in the coming decades. Or perhaps only years, not decades. When I was staying in Orford, I heard that my grandma Nancy was lying ill in hospital in Canada, but fully believed that she was back as a little girl in Orford. (My great grandfather was a coastguard on the ness, and she used to stay the night sometimes in his lookout, next to the lighthouse.) She had projected her self back into a time when she was happy, rather than into a possible future. Part of the ‘managed retreat’ process for the lighthouse has been to remove its light. Perhaps when you are dying, or when something precious has to be let go, you go inwards to the light, to keep it warming and guiding you for as long as possible.

But before that there is a phase of resistance, of ‘raging against the dying of the light’. In terms of the whole biosphere and its threats from climate change and other breached planetary boundaries, I’m still raging.

On my walk back from Tobacco Dock, which is incidentally a heritage warehouse building restored into an events venue, I came across a wonderful ruin which has a possible future.

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This little building, with no roof and trees growing out of its brickwork, still bears the sign of the Nature Study Museum.

Here’s what an interpretation panel tells us, splashed with bird poo…

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This felt poignant. In 1903 or thereabouts, museum staff envisaged a possible future for children in London’s East End, and believed in the value of learning about nature. And teachers and parents must have valued it too as 1000 a day would visit. Just a few metres away from this little (tiny) museum was the tobacco warehouse, full of imported nature: tobacco, spices, wool and animal skins. And also nearby was Charles Jamrach’s Exotic Animal Emporium. This little place offered an opportunity to get close and to understand, rather than to be entertained by or to profit from consuming nature. As Caitlin deSilvey suggested in her talk: In order to care for heritage as subject to natural processes of decay and change, we have to get up very close and to really understand it.

I wonder where plans are to restore this, and whether it will have functions of educating children about nature when and if they do. I wonder whether nature inside is more informative than nature explored outside. In the Future Fest, a garden had been constructed in a dark basement room, with weedy plants transplanted to seem to be growing in the gloom. It felt uncanny. Indeed, natural history museums feel uncanny too, and although they do valuable work of collecting and educating about biodiversity, they are not immune from ethical questions, or above their own histories linked to colonialism.

These are all thoughts that will inform what’s to come with Climate Museum UK. This will, I hope, help people come up close to nature while also taking an expanded perspective on the possibilities of the future.

 

Unsafe ideas

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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.

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