I was very interested to read Leo Hickman (in this Guardian article) call for a museum of the environment. He says that there is no ‘major institutional place solely dedicated to the environment’. This is a little like the justification of proposals for a major modern art museum in Birmingham being that the UK’s only other one is Tate Modern. If you think on a less grand scale than Tate Modern you can find plenty of major modern art venues across the regions, many of them spanking new and all worried about how they are going to survive. If you look worldwide, you can also find plenty of dedicated environmental institutions, not natural history museums, as major visitor attractions, including the Eden Project, Klimahaus,the Green Museum in San Francisco, the Brower Centre in Berkeley and more. There are also many international touring projects, for example led by the NMSI (with the Science Museum under the direction of Chris Rapley) and others. And of course, those thousands of natural history museums, wilderness centres, zoos, parks, gardens and biospheres are dedicated to the cause of ecology. At these places, we may only see the icons of nature and the naming of fragmented parts but underpinning all of them is passionate staff thinking about how these parts fit together. They care deeply about how we can respond to communicate the destruction of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity.
It also reminds me of the call for a Museum of British History, considered by some to be needed because …there isn’t one. These calls are worthwhile however because they raise an important question: ‘what are museums for?’ Are they research institutions or places to visit? Are they to look after lost things or change the way we are? Hickman assumes that they do function to communicate messages such as ‘let’s be nice to people and to the planet’. I hope they do, and as we have museums already we may as well use them for good as hard as we can, but before putting faith in a new museum to do this we should consider if there are more effective ways, such as the educational impact of broadcasting, public campaigns and curriculum changes.
Hickman’s article is headlined ‘We need a monument to Earth’. We have monuments to dead heroes and groups of people but, how sad that we may need a monument to our whole earth. Museums have a memorial function, they preserve and remind us of what we have lost. As we destroy our places, museums mop up the relics and attempt, inevitably feebly in comparison to reality, to recreate some authentic context or at least a narrative frame for us to glimpse that knowledge. Last weekend I met Robin Boast at a camp to discuss culture, utopia and ecology. He reminded us that museums are archetypal utopias, that utopia means ‘no place’. They are ‘no places’ where the parts of a broken environment or cultural context are transported into an artificial construct for our edification and entertainment. As such they are antithetical to natural ecology. This should not stop us envisioning museums which help to restore ecologies but it reminds us what museums fundamentally are.
Hickman goes on to say that a ‘bricks and mortar museum’ is not a very sustainable option and suggests instead a global chain or franchise like the Guggenheim, or a major online museum. This is a very familiar question to me in scoping cultural projects for many clients: do we focus online or in one place, or take some hybrid mobile outreach approach? Hickman suggests that we should create an online museum as a monument, a ‘one place’, to the environment, but we’re learning that this isn’t how the web works. It works instead in tentacles and flows of information. There are already many places online that tell stories about ecology and environmentalism, and initiatives that attempt seriously to synthesise environmental information. Perhaps it is the case that we need better awareness of these resources and better online networking and crowd wisdom to improve them and use them. I do think that the cultural heritage sector has been very slow to embrace the significance of environmental destruction and to make the best use of their resources to halt it, hence this blog and the Framework for Climate Action. I think there is something in Hickman’s suggestion of a global franchise or network of like-minded institutions. We have seen this kind of cross-museum collaboration working with the End of the Transatlantic Slave Trade programme in 2007, with the National Museums Online Learning Project and, coming soon, the Stories of the World projects for the Cultural Olympiad. Can such an approach work on an international scale using online media to galvanise the sector towards public education about the environment? I had been thinking there is a need for an international network of individuals doing environmental work in cultural heritage but maybe we need this to be much grander and more ‘branded’ or public-facing. Maybe the kind of initiative that Hickman is proposing is already happening? It would be great to hear news or ideas.