Museum Learning and The Earth Crisis

It was a pleasure to speak as part of MuseUnconference back in August to provoke a discussion about how museums might rethink their learning and public engagement in the context of an Earth crisis. This blogpost – a little delayed – sums up what I said, what participants contributed, and a few thoughts in reflection. 

A little bit about me: I’m a cultural learning consultant with Flow Associates, and more recently call myself a Regenerative Culture leader as founding director of Climate Museum UK, and co-founder of Culture Declares Emergency. 

About Climate Museum UK: A mobile and digital museum stirring and collecting responses to the climate and ecological emergency. A team of creative people based in the UK, passionate about the planet, we produce and gather art, objects, ideas, games and books, and then use these to activate people. These activations help people to play, make, think and talk about the Earth crisis and to open their imaginations to possible futures. See more on climatemuseumuk.org 

My session was described like this: “Museum Learning and the Earth Crisis: how can museums be catalysts for public understanding of the ecological, social justice and climate emergencies? Is it possible to be holistic enough without losing clarity? And if tackling the root causes of the Earth Crisis involves radical and political actions, how can museum workers navigate this in more traditional or resistant institutions or communities?”

What do I mean by the Earth crisis? 

I mean that all the breached planetary boundaries – including climate change – are intersecting and causing unpredictable, non-linear emergencies. The ecological emergency has given rise to Covid-19, alongside other health emergencies, which in turn worsen the impacts of the pandemic. We are directly feeling the pandemic, but people are also directly experiencing famine, displacement and conflict as a result of the Earth crisis, mainly in the Global South. Now, though, the impacts are being directly experienced in the Global North. See, for example, megafires in America, not predicted to happen until 2050. 

What’s behind the Earth crisis? One big culprit is extractivist capitalism – essentially stealing land, nature and labour for profit. 

As Greta Thunberg says, ‘our house is on fire’, meaning that IF our own house was on fire we would respond to the emergency. Actually, our home planet IS on fire. 

When the future is so uncertain we have to rethink museums’ role as caring for culture into posterity. We need to shift timescales to think less about collections being used in the distant future to being maximised now for urgent learning. We also have to expand our focus of care from things to caring for people, places and the planet. The role of museums might become:

  • To educate and alert people to danger
  • To create safer places and care for those affected, including other species
  • To overhaul the extractivist, growth-obsessed system to stop the causes of the crisis.

I talked about some of our activities and partnerships as examples of what museums could get involved with, towards some of the above outcomes. I mentioned our collecting project, Everyday Ecocide, which gathers incidents of eco-blindness and nature disconnection in everyday media and culture. We’re involved in Culture Declares Emergency, which has a current campaign to share examples of how #CultureTakesAction. I also pointed to the annual Remembrance Day for Lost Species on 30th November, a chance each year to explore the stories of extinct and critically endangered species, cultures, lifeways, and ecological communities.

There are plenty of challenges with being an activist museum, however. Even as a small, independent collective of creative and museum practitioners, it can be tricky to be directly involved in activism. 

  • As a Community Interest Company, we have to be non-political and to act for the good of the community rather than for a political cause. 
  • As we need to raise funds from delivering for clients and funders, we have to serve a range of agendas. (We do rule out any partnerships with fossil fuel companies or similar.)
  • We operate with a distributed model with a team of members doing their own work in their own localities. We do have common cause and principles to bring us together around our different passions and local needs. 
  • The Earth Crisis itself is a challenge! For example, Covid-19 throws up restrictions, and more of different kinds are likely. 
  • Finally, the dominant system (of economics and power) is geared to suppress attempts to dismantle it. By speaking out, when environmental activists are described as extremists by our current Government, feels risky. 

Opening up the discussion, participants were invited to speak about challenges in their organisations, and ideas for how we support each other. I offered this Google Jamboard for them to drop ideas. 

There was a sense of inequality – that some workers sacrifice and risk more to tackle these big systemic issues, whereas others who are less precarious in their roles could take more risks. 

A good question from a participant was: Are Earth crisis issues more radical to deal with in institutions than other issues? My response would be that all issues are inside the Earth crisis. The root causes of social and environmental injustice are the same. Even the most purely environmental challenges cannot be tackled in a technical way, and always require radical shifts in how we imagine our relationships with each other and the more-than-human world. To assert this is radical, unusual and not easy to be clearly understood. It seems to be overclaiming, and overly holistic and vague. However, the more you dig the more truthful it becomes! 

Thank you to everyone who took part for their questions, thoughts and links, some of which made its way to the Jamboard. 

Extract from the Jamboard

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