Reinventing and mobilizing museums for climate action


Key words: climate action; Sustainability; Museums

Thirty years of climate action – and inaction

This year marks the 30e anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit, where representatives of the world’s governments came together to address the continuing degradation of the natural environment. One of the outcomes of this event was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which includes an article (Article 6) on the importance of public education, staff training, public awareness, access to information, public participation and international cooperation cooperation in the face of climate change: six actions that museums are well placed to support. This initiative is now called Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) and is supported by all UN member states. At COP26, in Glasgow, in 2021, a new program of support for ACE was agreed, which will continue until 2031. It mentions the key role that museums, cultural and educational institutions must play in supporting and realizing Action for Climate Empowerment (see McGhie 2022).

Reinventing museums for climate action

How can we connect global challenges, political agendas and people’s right to participate in building a better future? How to respond to the inadequacy of current institutional forms and practices, and where should the ideas come from? In 2020, we launched an international design and ideas competition, Reimagining Museums for Climate Action. The project was co-led by Rodney Harrison (UCL, London) and Colin Sterling (University of Amsterdam), in partnership with Curating Tomorrow (Henry McGhie) and the Glasgow Science Centre, as a contribution from the Heritage Priority Area of ​​the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council at COP26. Reimagining Museums for Climate Action asked people – artists, curators, architects, designers, members of the public and others – to share their ideas on how museums could be reimagined, creating either “twists” on current forms of museums, or to create entirely new “forms” of museums. The goal was to provide people with creative opportunities to imagine the kinds of institutions that would help them take climate action.

The design and ideas competition received 264 ideas from 48 countries. Eight of the suggested ideas were selected by an international team of judges and then developed into exhibits which were shown at the Glasgow Science Center before and during COP26. The Glasgow Science Center was the official public face of the COP, referred to as the ‘Green Zone’, acting as an interface between international climate policy work, civil society and the public. Around 60,000 people viewed the exhibition in Glasgow; it was also featured in Google Arts and Culture as one of five “incredible ideas” for the Green Zone, which also served as the exhibition’s digital format.[1]

Existences dome model of the project, part of the Reinventing museums for climate action exhibition (2021) © Reimagining Museums for Climate Action / Jonathan Gardner

Eighty-one of the ideas submitted for the competition can be found on the project’s website; these ideas can serve as a resource for the museum sector and its partners to question the meaning of what is possible. What if museums were small ephemeral places? What if they were centered on social adaptation to climate change? What if indigenous territories were a kind of eco-museum where you could discover ways of life closely linked to nature? What if museums were centers for community climate action? The possibilities are limitless.

What if museums became centers for community climate research and action? (2021) © Stuart Wallace

The project has seen the development of other open-access resources to explore how we can rethink the form and purpose of museums, imagine new museum formats, and mobilize the potential of museums – in current and new forms – to accelerate, amplify and transform climate action everywhere. For example, an open access book (Harrison and Sterling 2021) explores the project in more detail and includes interviews with teams of exhibitors and a wide variety of practitioners working on climate action in relation to museums. The Mobilizing Museums for Climate Action (McGhie 2021) “toolkit” is a collection of practical tools, frameworks, with essential climate knowledge and suggestions that museums and their partners can adopt. The toolkit is organized into short sections to break down the complex and sometimes confusing nature of climate action work. It is available in PDF format and in a web version suitable for machine translation, which makes it accessible in different languages.

Mobilizing museums for climate action toolkit, a freely available resource to inspire radical climate action © Museums for Climate Action

A climate action plan in and with museums

The Mobilizing Museums for Climate Action Toolkit offers five main approaches for museums to contribute to climate action, which are covered in the other sections of the toolkit:

  1. Mitigation by museums.

Museums must help society as a whole to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, quickly, in line with the Paris Agreement, by encouraging and empowering people to participate in climate action and showing that they have the skills to do so, through actions such as producing less waste and ensuring that everything they use is renewable. They can foster support for nature conservation efforts that increase nature’s ability to absorb greenhouse gas emissions.

  1. Mitigation in museums.

Museums must aggressively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in all aspects of their activity, in line with the commitments of the Paris Agreement. They can ensure that all staff and all people and organizations in the value chain understand their role in climate action and are empowered to take climate action through policies, decisions day-to-day and procurement practices.

  1. Adaptation by museums.

Museums must help society as a whole to cope with the current and projected impacts of climate change.

  1. Adaptation in museums.

Museums need to understand how they will be affected by climate change and adapt their practices, location, programs and collections to be ready for the future.

  1. Climate action within the framework of sustainable development, climate justice and just transition.

Museums should ensure that all activities related to climate change are undertaken in a way that does not themselves deprive people or communities, locally or globally; and recognize that, in the fight against climate change, other sustainable development challenges must be addressed at the same time.

Bringing ICOM’s Resolution on Sustainability to Life

The ICOM Sustainability Resolution established at the ICOM General Conference in Kyoto, 2019, is a strong mandate for climate action. The new Action for Climate Empowerment support program is a ready-made framework that museums can start using to make the sustainability resolution a reality. We hope that the resources of Reimagining Museums for Climate Action will help museums and museum workers around the world build their skills and confidence to join in this work, for the benefit of current and future generations, and for the future of museums.

References and Resources

Museums for Climate Action, https://www.museumsforclimateaction.org/

Harrison, R. and C. Sterling (eds.) (2021). Reinventing museums for climate action. Museums for Climate Action, available at https://www.museumsforclimateaction.org/mobilise/book

ICOM (2019). N-resolutionoh.1 ‘On sustainability and the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, Transforming our world’. Paris: ICOM. Available at: https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Resolutions_2019_EN.pdf

McGhie, H. (2021). Mobilizing museums for climate action. Museums for Climate Action, available at https://www.museumsforclimateaction.org/mobilise/toolbox

McGhie, H. (2022). Action for Climate Empowerment, a guide for galleries, libraries, archives and museums. Curating Tomorrow, available at https://curatingtomorrow236646048.files.wordpress.com/2022/03/action-for-climate-empowerment-curating-tomorrow-2022.pdf

[1] https://artsandculture.google.com/story/tAWB_rRlcmpjkQ

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