A Museum of the Environment

13 09 2009

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.

Climate change begins at home: the world is our home

12 09 2009

Yesterday I was at a meeting at DCMS about how the cultural, tourism, heritage & sport sectors can adapt to climate change. Roger Street of the UKCP09 was there with a great set of maps showing flood risk across the regions. Heritage sites such as listed buildings, churches and museums were marked, many swamped by blue (flood water). Central London has thousands of these sites. The bluest region is East Anglia, and this region doesn’t have a flood barrier. I went up close to this map and saw the place I grew up in, my home, a tiny Broads village called Dilham, covered in blue. My mind lurched back to childhood, remembering the expanses of those Norfolk fields and broads, the dense wet woods that nobody walked in, exploring for miles on our bikes. My home was a vast space but on this map it was insignificant. If ‘managed retreat’ is applied in this area, it will also be gone for good not just damaged.

I was thinking about the concept of home throughout this meeting because the discussion was dominated by talk of tourists – visitors not being at home. Culture and heritage were seen within the paradigm of ‘pleasure and leisure’ (escape, fun, culture as commodity and so on) rather than ‘knowledge and learning’ (including ethics, science, community ownership of its heritage, media as educator and so on).  Tourism was probably the focus because it contributes so much to the UK economy (the sector is worth £114.4bn).

Much of the talk was about how a visitor attraction might cope with and make an opportunity from an extreme event such as drought or flood, with positive suggestions including ‘selling more ice cream’. Because we weren’t exploring specific situations we couldn’t articulate the risks and impacts with great clarity. It was stated that if UK has heatwaves and drought, it will be a less enticing place to visit, not taking into account that the UK will be less hot than other places. A key risk was noted to be that our organisations’ reputations will suffer if affected by extreme events, which doesn’t account for public equanimity when a crisis affects us all.

Like most Government departments, the DCMS doesn’t have an international remit, so its sustainability strategy focuses on ‘home’ and therefore only looks at the UK Climate Projections and focuses on regional or local effects. This is an echo of the problem with the DECC assessment of its GHG emissions, because it neglects to account for outsourced industry and so it puts a positive gloss on its own ratings. It is part of the same closed logic which obsesses about carbon trading rather than collaborating internationally to support alternatives and geoengineering solutions. The UK is amongst the countries likely to be least affected in physical geography terms by climate change. However, we are an exceptionally globalised country – our home is the world in more ways than one. We rely on non-domestic sources for our food supply and many of our raw materials and manufactured goods. As more countries suffer severe consequences of climate change, there will be pressures on our aid commitments, our investment in preventing terrorism and war and our management of mass migration. In assessing how climate change will affect the DCMS family, and what we can do about it, we have to take these global impacts into account first and foremost.

These (rather big) quibbles aside, I was really pleased that DCMS is doing this work and talking about adaption strategies (not just mitigation) and I did learn a lot.  I was also very thankful to be invited and hope my quibbling won’t prevent involvement in future. I think that my quibbling may be more effective if my insight can be sharpened by challenge and support from others so do please comment on this and on the Framework for Climate Action for the sector.  I need to know if I’m begging big questions because narrow logic is one of the biggest obstacles to effective action.

Time to get serious

1 09 2009

I just heard a BBC presenter stating that it is too late to reduce emissions to avoid dangerous effects of climate change. We’ve known this some years but the trusted voice of the BBC now confirms it. The topic was the Royal Society report on Geoengineering Climate, launched today with James Lovelock and others. Their point is that although we should continue to reduce emissions through industry and lifestyle, on a nation by nation basis using carbon trading as the basic mechanism, we also urgently need more radical and imaginative global solutions such as carbon scrubbing, carbon sinks and algal blooms in the sea.

The carbon emissions approach, termed ‘mitigation’ or ‘amelioration’ is vital but it needs to move into a new phase where we adapt to the effects of global climate disruption, which includes continuing to mitigate it. This balance of the terms ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ is quite complex, as you can see from this report on Scotland’s Climate Change adaptation framework. Can you separate the two terms? What do they both mean?

For me, what matters is accepting that change is happening. Polar ice is melting. Wildfires are raging. It also means accepting that climate change is unpredictable, so we must not argue over the precise predictions for the future but plan for wide ranges of possibility. It means keeping a ‘both/and’ approach, that you must both hope and act for a better future and see the worst of what could happen if we don’t hope and act.

On Sunday, I went over to the Climate Camp at Blackheath. It was fascinating: quiet, focused and thoughtful, like a climate university (although perhaps missing some expert lecturers). The focus was ‘what are we going to ask for at Copenhagen? How do we get world leaders to aim for more ambitious emissions targets and look at alternatives to carbon trading?’ I discovered the tent of EcoLabs – with a display of artwork commissioned to illustrate the Future Scenarios in Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees. MIT now believes that the likely temperature increase will be in the range of 3.5-7.4 degrees hotter by 2100 so it potentially exceeds the book’s 6th degree. It was hard to even face looking at the effects of the third degree increase. As I went out of the tent, a smiling dad with a little toddler on his shoulders came in.

I decided whatever I was doing wasn’t enough. So, what am I doing?

This afternoon I’m volunteering at the launch of 1010 at Tate Modern, a huge campaign to galvanise the UK’s businesses, schools, museums, households, councils etc to reduce emissions by 10% by the end of 2010. It is set up by Franny Armstrong, director of The Age of Studid, and is looking like it has the potential to captivate people’s imaginations. After today I want to focus on getting cultural and heritage organisations to sign up to the 1010 pledge.

This weekend I’m going to an event called Moot, to camp with a small group of people who work in museum, gallery and arts education who are concerned about ecology and climate change.

Next week I’m going to a small conference led by DCMS, who have commissioned Arup to develop an adaptation strategy for the cultural & heritage sector.

I’m continuing to work on a project, now called The Tide Clock, about the role of cultural heritage & creative activism in areas of coastal and fluvial flood risk.

I’m developing a framework for cultural heritage organisations to think about both mitigating and adapting to global climate disruption, looking at both their operations and their public engagement mission. I’m considering creating a network called ClimB for climate brokers in the cultural and heritage sectors, who work with clients or within their organisations to implement and improve this framework. I’d be very grateful for any feedback on this draft framework and from anyone keen to support a network of this sort. Leave comments here and/or email me on bridget.mckenzie@flowassociates.com


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