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 

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

Neurodiverse Networking for Museum Professionals

This blog post was written by one of the leaders of the Neurodiverse Networking for Museum Professionals Session, Lisa Collinson. Muse from Nowhere is grateful to the participants in this workshop for their thoughtful, accessible and meaningful contribution.

The process of developing the Unconference session ‘Neurodiverse networking for museum people’ was, like the writing of this blog, a tentative, early-stage exploration of some of the ways in which neurodiversity might shape social interaction amongst people working in and around museums. From my perspective as a neurodivergent but (in this field) academically non-expert person, both the act of co-creation of an ‘unconference’ session and the act of crafting this blog-style text on the theme have been ‘experimental’ in a broad sense, in that both have been opportunities to explore new, relatively open-ended forms of academic and professional communication. Although the longer-term outcomes remain to be seen, the short-term impact on my own thinking on this topic has already been overwhelmingly positive, with a real increase in clarity on several points.

The original idea to propose the session came partly from exposure to various discussions of autism, in particular, and partly from reflection on my own professional practice (formerly as a medievalist, now as a museum worker specializing in academic liaison), as well as that of past and current colleagues, in a variety of settings. Most significant of all was recent discussion with members of the Scottish Women’s Autism Network (SWAN), which had raised many questions for me, relating to diverse forms of communication in a range of all-autistic and apparently non-autistic, or (perhaps more commonly) mixed contexts. (For those interested, the fast pace of development in this field means that Twitter offers a genuinely useful entry point. Two key names are Dr Catriona Stewart OBE and (Dr) Damian Milton.) However, the more I discovered I was learning about social interaction amongst autistic people, the less I realised I knew about this aspect of other profiles, including (but not limited to) ADHD and dyslexia, and it seemed to me that it would be extremely useful to explore this further, in open discussion —ideally with other neurodivergent people, amongst others.

A second motivation to take the leap of proposing the session was a sense that there might be some real urgency to the challenge of tackling this topic. As the unconference demonstrated, there is (quite rightly) an increasing need for museum workers to be able to discuss a number of acutely sensitive issues in depth, both within and outwith their organizations. However, there has been (to my knowledge) little discussion of the possibility that participation in such high-stakes communication might be, on the one hand, extremely desirable for some neurodivergent people (who may have much to contribute), yet on the other, a source of particular anxiety — especially if communication has proved difficult and painful in the past. Preliminary discussions with people with other relevant profiles suggested that this might be an area of interest for a wider group, and that there was potential for open discussion to be helpful (and hopefully thought-provoking) for the sector as a whole.

For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the exercise was the way in which it highlighted the often excellent nature of networking amongst neurodivergent people —before, during, and after the event. Since I had some worries about the open-ended and online nature of the session, as well as my own lack of experience in a field which itself requires sensitive communication, I contacted Marion McLaughlin, whom I had met through SWAN and the One Stop Shop in Aberdeen, for advice. Marion immediately offered to come along and co-lead, along with another colleague, autism consultant Felicity (Flick) Goodhall. The next day, Lise Bos, a new museum colleague with ADHD and ADHD-training experience, also expressed interest in the session and very kindly accepted an offer to join us. This change was made possible thanks to the exceptional flexibility of the unconference organizer, Jen Walklate, and the four co-leaders were then able to plan the session together, as a team. (I also had a very fruitful pre-session conversation with Chris Gray of the University of Aberdeen, for which I am extremely grateful.)

The planning of the session, and the session itself, were both hugely enjoyable and intellectually stimulating, and it was excellent to see session participants feeling comfortable enough to join in using the online chat system, looked-after so skilfully by Jen. As we explained, one of our aims as session leaders was to ‘show’ as well as ‘tell’ something of the potential nature of neurodiverse networking, by demonstrating communication processes which were partly entirely natural, and partly planned, with ideas of accessibility in mind (for example, ensuring adequate breaks from the potentially intense social interaction).

Another of the accessibility measures we introduced was adding a short note to the session description, inviting any session participants to meet me one-to-one before the session, in the hope this might help lessen any potential anxieties about meeting new colleagues in the highly unfamiliar, loosely structured, online unconference space. In the end, none of the attendees requested a one-to-one meeting, but it did lead to a thoroughly useful and enjoyable online meeting with a hitherto unlinked colleague with related interests.

All in all, the unconference provided an absolutely excellent opportunity to explore some very early-stage ideas with a range of extremely thoughtful colleagues, both within and outwith the sector. For this, I’m hugely grateful to Jen Walklate and the Muse from Nowhere team, as well as all the session attendees, and of course, the wonderful neurodivergent networking co-leaders: Marion McLaughlin, Flick Goodhall, and Lise Bos.

We’re Back!

Well, goodness. Muse from Nowhere went quiet there for a while. The term has been hectic, but I just wanted to pop on to say that we’re back planning the ‘Spring’ edition of the Unconference for April 8th and 9th, 1000-1700BST, via Zoom, subject to confirmation.

It would be great to have contributions from a wide variety of speakers, as we did last time, as well as participants. If you would like to participate, then please read the guidance on the Home Page and on the About Unconferences page, and if you’d like to lead a session, submit a Suggestion Form. The suggestions will be open until February 19th, 1700.

I also wanted to say that in the next few weeks I’ll be posting some reflections from our last conference from session leads, which I’m excited about. Keep an eye out!

What and Why? Welcome to Muse from Nowhere

This is the first post here on the Muse from Nowhere Blog. We’re hoping that you’re well.

These are strange times, and the museum community, amongst others, has been hit by closures, furloughs, and cancelled events.

Muse from Nowhere was intended to ‘make up for’ some of those cancelled events by offering the opportunity to have a conversation. We find that some of the most important developments at conferences happen not in the presentations, but in the conversations during the breaks and at the bar. We want you to have a whole conference-worth of that – so, Muse from Nowhere was born.

Muse from Nowhere is what you, the attendees, make it. You have two days in August to fill with conversation about the topics that matter to you. Do join in.