The English Obsession with the New

23 02 2010

Here’s a presentation

The English Obsession with the New

that I’m giving for the British Council in Moscow at the end of this week. I’m sharing it here for your comments. It’s about new museums, whether they increase cultural learning, whether we can afford them and so on. Comments most welcome here or on Twitter @bridgetmck

Effectiveness of culture in environmental change

21 02 2010

I’m reading this review of research published by ACE in preparation for their major policy consultation. It opens with a situation analysis that concludes with a small section on climate change. Also, I’ve just written a ‘situation analysis’ for digital heritage, covering both cultural and environmental heritage, using the PESTLE model. The Environmental dimension of the PESTLE model comes at the end. I believe we need to reorganise the way we review the big context, by putting environment first.

I do applaud ACE for acknowledging climate in its review, as it is so often ignored, and for including sustainability in one of its five goals. In particular, I’m pleased that they don’t just fixate on making cultural buildings carbon neutral but also show they’re thinking about how we can be resilient in facing an uncertain future. However, I think they still overplay the first and downplay the latter. I’m also intrigued by this statement:

“The arts may be well-placed to engage with and shape this debate [about facing an uncertain future] and there are opportunities for artists to lead and influence society on environmental issues. However, this review found little evidence of the impact of such activity to date.”

I’m very interested to know more about that evidence. Is it just that there are at least 100 events or reports each year entitled something like ‘Will the arts get us out of this mess we’re in?’ which fail to conclude in a bullish way with bullet-pointed facts that show the planet would be a bit more saved because of artists? There are so many ways in which the work of arts, science and heritage organisations (not just artists, who are only one part of the picture) use creative means to develop the capacities of people to think critically and imaginatively, to develop skills in design, to bring about well-being and so on. It is proven that cultural and creative learning nurture the qualities that make people resilient and more aware of complexity.

I’m hoping that it’s possible to provide more evidence of the value of culture in this situation. Climate disruption is at best ‘game-changing’ for civilisation, and at worst it is ‘game over’. We can only plan for the more positive scenario (that it’s ‘game-changing’) so we need to respond by changing the game of culture and heritage. Amongst the many change agents, I believe the most important are:

  • a drive towards contextualisation, so that artefacts and heritage knowledge are more dynamically placed into an ecology of landscape, biodiversity and human economics
  • a greater equality between people with disciplinary and demotic knowledge
  • a shift from a transactional to a participatory model with audiences
  • an embrace of digital technologies to be used primarily for open knowledge generation

Centre for Contemporary Art & the Natural World

15 02 2010

CCANW is a place I’ve wanted to visit since I first heard about the idea of it in 1995. It opened in Haldon Forest Park in Exeter in 2006 and still I haven’t been. I had been hoping to go on a planned trip to Devon in April so was a bit alarmed to see a tweet that it may have to close in March if it can’t secure some matched funding that will help ACE look kindly on a renewed funding bid. Their target of £15k seems very achievable, and it’s easy to make a donation if you can help them. The centre runs exhibitions and participatory projects, led by contemporary artists, responding to constructions of ‘nature’. Although there is aesthetic response to the forest setting too, I’m struck by this emphasis on thoughtful reflections on the meaning of nature and how we can best live in it. Their current exhibition is ‘Art, Ecology and the Economy’, about how environmentally-aware making can have a positive impact on the creative industries and how creativity can positively impact the environment. Although I’ll miss it, it looks as though all their exhibition content is made available for download after the shows are over. I’m hoping that the Centre will contribute to the Ecology in Culture & Heritage week (or Ecomuseums Week, name TBC), perhaps by providing a write-up from their forum event on Establishing Cultures on 18 March.

Ecomuseums Week – how about it?

14 02 2010

In the week of March 20th-27th there is a coincidence of three events in the UK about museums/heritage/galleries and climate change or environmental sustainability. The week kicks off with a symposium on climate change at Tate Modern, including a screening of The Age of Stupid. Then on Monday, VAGA is holding a seminar in Bury St Edmunds on reducing your carbon footprint in museums and galleries. Then on Wednesday, Museum-ID is holding an event on Sustainability strategies in museums (including me on public engagement, and Rachel Madan from Greener Museums). There’s also an event in Snape, bringing together all the enquiry groups, including museums, heritage and artists, exploring approaches to rising sea levels and erosion in the Alde and Ore coastal region.

I’ve been thinking about relaunching this blog as an online network for people supporting the Framework for Climate Action in the sector, with a better brand and higher profile. My timetable for doing that had been, well, some time around March 20-27th.

Trevor Horsewood (fromVAGA) and I had the idea that we could pull together the events and debates from all the week’s events into one web space, and name it Ecomuseums Week. Please share ideas and comments, as it would be good to hear of more events and contributions.

Learning from Australia

9 02 2010

While the media plays out the debate about denial and science in climate change, it is already reaping severe effects for the poorest people in the world. It’s been said that we have 82 months (at time of writing) to arrest the tipping point of irreversible climate change, but that doesn’t account for observations that melting at both the poles and methane emissions from tundra are accelerating faster than predicted. There are some mild causes for hope, such as the warmth speeding up forest growth, and confusingly, that aeroplanes create a cooling atmospheric barrier. But, a radical response is still needed and the causes for hope are either ‘offsets’ or potential ideas. So whilst it’s more urgent than ever to reduce the damage, it’s also time to think much harder about adapting to it. What is the role for museums and heritage in these two forms of action?  I think they can play an exceptional role in connecting and motivating professionals and the public to make positive changes, but that this has been untapped and unrecognised in the UK despite a number of initiatives.

The DCMS has a Sustainability Plan (2008-2011), with a working group and research by Arup on the impact of climate change. Alongside, English Heritage, National Trust, Royal Parks and CABE are developing research and public projects, and the Science Museum, Royal Academy and Tate are amongst others modelling sustainable operations.  However, given the situation, there is an inadequate breadth and holistic thinking in this response. For example, ARUP’s questionnaire assumes that all DCMS bodies are based in a physical site and focuses on local climate impacts.

We might learn something from museums in Australia, where there is more substantial and visible emphasis on public engagement.  They make good use of social media, with Powerhouse Museum running a blog called Free Radicals and the Museum 3.0 network running a climate change group. There have been some large-scale exhibitions such as Climate Change, Our Future Our Choice at the Australian Museum, supported by plenty of debate and media coverage. While these examples are science-based there have also been projects addressing cultural aspects of climate, such as the Adelaide Migration Museum showing the effects on the people of Tuvalu and National Museum of Australia supporting work on the cultural dimensions of climate change.

Australia’s collaborative or higher-level projects emphasise public engagement too. Australia ICOMOS held a public forum and symposium on climate change and cultural heritage. University of Western Sydney is leading partnership research (worth £766,645) on the agency of museums in tackling climate change. Early findings are that the public rate museums as trustworthy and neutral, that they have the authority to convey climate issues.

I can see a number of reasons for this emphasis. The Australian museums sector has a reputation for being pragmatic and responsive to the contemporary context, for example, by leading in digital innovation. The physical distance between museums means they need to use virtual tools to collaborate, helping multilateralism and openness. Collaborations between heritage and environment are aided by all being part of the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. More viscerally, Australians have direct experience of climate change, exposed as they are to forest fires and drought, and with 80% of them living in coastal areas at risk of rising seas. They also have an imperative to deal sensitively with the cultural rights of indigenous people in threatened lands.

I want to see the UK learn from this but going even further, for example, by:

  • Continuing to reduce emissions and conserve heritage sites, but shifting to prioritise community engagement, working more closely with agencies involved in natural environment, place-making, engineering and sustainable economics.
  • A drive towards contextualisation, so that artefacts and knowledge are more dynamically placed into an ecosystem of landscape, biodiversity and human economics.
  • A redefinition of audiences as communities of interest, groups of people who need to learn and solve problems.

This sounds difficult. It will be difficult. But there is a momentum building up here, with conferences and training coming up in March and June, including the Museum-ID event ‘Towards Greener Museums: Sustainability & Environmental Strategies’. Maybe we can pull together at this time to respond as the global situation demands.


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