Museums for the Future

3 06 2011

I’ve just written and produced, with my Flow colleagues, the Museums for the Future Toolkit. I’m really pleased to have been given this opportunity by Ruth Taylor and Sharon Bristow at Renaissance South East, as you’ll know if you read this blog that this is a big area of interest for me. I was concerned by the lack of structured guidance helping cultural & heritage organisations develop environmental sustainability work with their communities, integrating their work with audiences with the more operational aspects of sustainability. At a time when museums are being asked to prove their value, it’s so important that they align their mission and practices towards the possibility of solving the most urgent problems we face.

The key message of the toolkit is that being a truly sustainable museum isn’t just about having low energy lighting (or similar small actions). It’s about museums striving to transform themselves, and the lives of their visitors, schools and local communities, in order to have a wider impact on the planet.  The toolkit provides a framework and materials for museums to become agents in forging a more environmentally sustainable future. Although aimed at museums, it would equally be of use to heritage sites, arts organisations, archives, libraries, botanic gardens and wildlife centres.

It is the legacy of Renaissance South East’s Science Links in Museum Education (SLIME) network. This network of museums and individuals was established in 2006 to support and promote museums as places for science learning. Green SLIME was one of the network’s initiatives, part of the MLA funded Strategic Commissioning Science in Your World programme. Its aim was to explore how museums can link with schools and communities to address environmental sustainability. We helped co-ordinate Green SLIME, by supporting eight museum projects, a professional event and producing this Toolkit.

The Toolkit takes a practical approach, that can help museums sustain their own organisation as well as local people, by pioneering the use of sustainable materials; protecting or growing green spaces for wildlife; becoming a base for local food knowledge and heritage, or starting a movement for ‘collaborative consumption’, helping communities share their possessions, skills and time. It shows how museums are the perfect bases for such work because most collections represent the different ways that humans have grown, exploited, invented, recycled and disposed of materials, in ways that are both damaging or healing to the environment. These collections can lead to an exploration of sustainable ways that we can use materials differently for a better future.

Dr John Stevenson, Director of the Group for Education in Museums, says of the Toolkit: ‘Climate change and environmental sustainability are not normally top of the agenda for most museums. This toolkit provides a balanced and realistic approach to tackling these issues not only with children, but also with families and other audiences – and not forgetting museum staff.’ It has also been received with enthusiasm by the team running the Happy Museum Project, because it supports the role of museums in promoting well‑being.

The Green SLIME projects and Toolkit were built on some earlier research done by Claire Adler. This suggested that young people actively want museums to educate them about sustainability, but that they also want parents and influential adults to be involved, so that the responsibility is not just placed on children’s shoulders. The Toolkit, with its case studies, suggests ways of drawing people of different ages together for intergenerational exchange.

To avoid taking an overly general approach to sustainability, the Toolkit suggests that museums choose a particular theme to help convey clear messages. It focuses on eight thematic pathways, indicating which kind of museum might be suited to each pathway:

  • Materials and things
  • Well‑being
  • Biodiversity stewardship
  • Green your organisation with people
  • Place-making and adaptation
  • Energy and new technology
  • Transition to a sustainable economy
  • Food, farming and horticulture

The kit consists of: an information pack; suggestions for a kick-starter event including a PowerPoint presentation; case studies from museums which piloted the different themes, and a comprehensive directory of resources.  It can be downloaded for free from:

To give your feedback or for further information, write a comment on this blogpost or email me on (and I can pass your query on to the right person at Renaissance SE).

Grounded route to a Big Society

31 03 2011

On the New Public Thinkers site, Dougald Hine wrote a really useful analysis of the criticism that has been flying around about the Big Society. It was a great example of cutting through the agonistic culture of politics, where something like the Big Society idea is used as an arena for two-sided contest. Dougald suggests that whatever your political colour, the necessity for social reform to reduce alienation and increase agency is being forced on whoever has any power to make change, by the erosion of economic security and social fabric. I commented on Dougald’s piece but as I was doing so, Paul Kingsnorth sent some provocative tweets about arts funding which I wanted to respond to in relation to this Big Society debate. So, here’s a  post to explore this further.

I’m not a political theorist so, although I appreciate structural analysis of the Big Society and think it’s essential, I can’t contribute greatly to it. What I can do is to advocate for persistent and pragmatic action in communities. Eleanor Saitta commented that we need to develop alternative organisational structures that skirt both market and state, but that without large-scale wealth distribution all these efforts will still leave us as ‘starving peasants fighting in the gutters over scraps of food puked up by the rich’. While I’m shocked by wealth inequality, I’m not sure the scenario is currently quite as stark as this. Because, for me, hope lies in imaginative participatory strategies to grow nourishment so that we don’t have to scratch around in the gutters of the rich.  By nourishment, I mean food but also all the other goods that will help us eat, help others eat, and otherwise allow us to stay well. By ‘us’ I mean all life, not just humans.

While we must talk about capitalism, we must also eat and help all the places where eating is going to be increasingly difficult. The way to do that is to harness technology to art in the service of ecological innovation. Note, technology is just a tool whereas art is the force that generates ideas, motivates people to participate and helps spread spores of ideas. Here are a couple of examples:

Farm:Shop is an urban farming project led by artists in an empty shop in Dalston. It uses hydroponics, aquaponics and other technologies to grow food indoors. Some may this isn’t art, it’s growing food. Partly the art comes through the creative social activities they are doing with visitors. But fundamentally, this is the kind of art we need to develop. Francesco Manacorda calls it an “emerging kind of art…that is interested in cycles, natural materials, growth and roots rather than ‘original’ creations that hang disconnected, in time and space.”

Another example is the vision of ‘bioregions’ to replace the outdated idea of developing places through ‘high-entropy knowledge hubs’ and ‘iconic cultural buildings’. These ‘bioregions’ can still be cultural without a new build major art museum. John Thackara writes here about how artists are working on such projects in the Basque Country. An example in the UK is Heartlands in Cornwall, a new bioregion which is also a cultural centre.

The triad of sustainability where economic, social and environmental capital are held in balance has to be challenged, and it is by these examples. If you focus on generating ‘biosphere capital’, then prosperity, social wellbeing and biodiversity can ensue. The Big Society discourses have not easily admitted talk of ‘bioregions’ or ‘biosphere capital’. That, I think, is because in order to develop such capital you need to bring both techne and poiesis into play together, both technology and the imagination. UK society is profoundly technocratic, and is extremely uncomfortable with metaphor being applied in arenas of work and public planning. On the other hand, the cultural elite are profoundly resistant to art being instrumental to social and environmental wellbeing.  The two domains of culture and public services resist porosity with each other (while there are many examples of partnership experiments of course).

Back to Paul Kingsnorth’s challenge. Yesterday, ACE issued its funding news, and many organisations had 100% funding cuts, some lesser percentages and some had an increase. So, there were a lot of hurt feelings at the unfairness of it all. Paul asked “Is there any cut to our services which we in the rich world would be prepare to tolerate? And if not, isn’t the Earth screwed?” and said “the arts, like all human industry, rely on an economy fed by a dying planet. We have to live with less.” This is a fair question and a good one. But I do profoundly believe in state funding of experimental and participatory culture.  Public funding doesn’t have to mean salarying middle class artists and discounting the purchase of culture by middle class audiences. However, ACE made decisions yesterday which cut many of the organisations, like Proboscis, who are doing the kinds of work that is most likely to generate biosphere capital and most likely to bridge the gulf between public planning and culture. Moreover, almost invisible in media coverage of culture cuts is the devastating reduction of museum and archive services, especially in education and outreach. These services directly help with community cohesion and place-making. If their funding is cut, then we need to show philanthropists and corporations that their future prosperity depends on collaborating with creative thinkers and creative communities to generate biosphere capital.

Your money or our lives?

12 10 2010

I’ll be taking part in an online discussion on the Our Place network called Greening Up Your Projects on thursday 21st October 2010 11am to 12.30pm.

The network co-ordinator Rebecca Vallins invites heritage, museum and cultural outreach professionals: “Environmental sustainability is one of the most important issues of our time, even – especially perhaps – in a time of economic decline. Come and chat to our two experts about how and why the green agenda matters in engaging communities with heritage and breaking down barriers to inclusion. Our experts leading the debate are Maria Adebowale, director of Capacity Global and author of Social Inclusion and Environmental Concern, and Bridget McKenzie, director of Flow Associates and author of the blog Climate Action in Culture. Previous chatroom debates have been very lively indeed. I look forward to meeting you there.”

It will be the day after the Spending Review announcements so funding cuts will be top of everybody’s mind. But the funding crisis is absolutely woven in to the need to shift to more sustainable practices. The world faces a ‘triple crunch’, a credit crunch, the need to shift from fossil fuels and due to the impacts of climate change. The crunches are coming one after the other, each one likely to be much worse than the next, but they are entirely connected like nested Chinese boxes. The Coalition Government response to the credit crunch involves ignoring the fossil fuel and climate crunches, cutting investment in approaches that will help us tackle them. It’s really vital that the cultural and heritage sector looks ahead, and sees the interdependence of these crises.

10/10/10 work party on climate action in culture and heritage?

10 10 2010

Today is the Global Work Party for people the world over to implement solutions to climate change. I believe that the cultural sector (arts organisations, museums, libraries, heritage sites, creative people, broadcasters etc) has an extraordinarily important role to play in this. Just as we have to step up CO2 reduction 40 fold, I think that the cultural sector needs to up its game to that extent. I’d love it if people can join me today (and for the rest of October) in blogging, commenting, tweeting, however you like to do it, on this topic. You can write an article for a guest post on this blog – send it to me at and I’ll post it for you. You can comment on any of the posts here. You can tweet using the hashtag #cach. You can get a discussion going on any professional forum or network and let me know about it by email or on twitter.

Investing in a culture of knowledge

9 10 2010

Today is the Science is Vital rally outside the Treasury. Thousands of science researchers and academics are gathering to protest against the cuts to HEIs, quangos and specialist institutes that are doing important research. Some of this research might be rather niche and not necessarily clear in its direct benefits. But, overall, the researchers are doing it because putting brains, equipment and method around a problem tends to be helpful to human and environmental wellbeing. Altogether I believe that we need to focus research investment on the following:

– Sustainable innovation – see this TED video of Tim Jackson explaining the challenge we face, to increase low carbon tech 40 fold. Note that he emphasises innovation should be about ‘what it means to be human’, he talks about cultural values and mentions the role of museums and libraries

– Restoring and conserving biodiversity – making innovative use of biodiversity in ways that generate abundance but don’t harm ecosystems. See the work, for example, of the Natural History Museum in supporting the International Year of Biodiversity. There is plenty of rich inspiration there of what research could achieve.

– Mitigating the risks of chemical pollution, marine pollution and other dangerous results of industrial processes. See for example, the Safe Planet campaign from the UN. See also the important investigations by many artists, such as Ed Burtynsky and creative agencies such as 1mile2, researching the effects of industrial pollution.

– Adapting to the increase in environmental disasters such as floods and earthquakes, that are the consequence of climate change. For example, the Institute of Civil Engineers is collaborating with the Royal Engineers Museum on developing understanding of emergency planning and response. Or see the work of Architecture for Humanity, which applies creativity and knowledge to disasters such as the Haiti earthquake.

– Tackling resource scarcity, especially the depletion of food, clean water and energy caused by climate change, peak oil, pollution and growing consumption. One solution to resource scarcity may be nanotechnology, but the Coalition plans to axe the UK’s nanotech research centres. See also the contribution artists and designers can make to forging new solutions to water scarcity, for example through the Acea EcoArt contest, or Emily Cummins water carrier design.

– Enabling human well-being through more effective medical and social care, where problems aren’t simply tackled with drugs but by enabling communities to live well within healthy ecosystems, and where equal access to resources reduces the risk of conflict. For example, the Wellcome Trust has allowed health professionals to think laterally about wellbeing through its Arts Awards. Or the work of Arts Catalyst, with its Arctic Perspective Initiative, enabling arctic communities to use technology (in shelters) to communicate.

The projects I referred to involve creative and cultural organisations. They are real R&D projects that contribute to our knowledge of human and environmental wellbing. My reason for drawing in these examples is to illustrate that Research is Vital, not just Science. I saw some tweets this morning by Matthew Somerville, saying that we shouldn’t divide science research from the arts, and plead for one against the other. What matters is research. I support his view and add that by underpinning science with cultural values and creative thinking, research is likely to have a greater human relevance and greater awareness of systems. Cultural values are not opposed to science. Science could be meaningless and dangerous without them. If we only argue for arts and museums to be saved because of their contribution to the touristic economy we neglect their vital contribution to knowledge, which is the knowledge we need to live well on this planet.

Free to choose Sustainable Schools

28 09 2010

I’ve received an email from the Department of Education in response to my complaint about the axeing of the Sustainable Schools Initiative. I sent that complaint through a campaign organised by People and Planet.

Here’s an extract from the email, from Robert McAdam, Public Communications Unit:

“The government has committed itself to being the ‘greenest’ government ever. Ministers believe that it is important for schools to be sustainable and for children to learn about the key issues of sustainability. Most schools share this view and are already engaged in teaching pupils about sustainability using the large range of resources which are available. The government is committed to giving schools and teachers greater freedoms over what and how they teach. Ministers have announced their intention to review the National Curriculum in order to restore it to a core entitlement organised around subject disciplines. A smaller National Curriculum will allow schools more freedom and time to build on the core entitlement to provide a rich learning experience for all their pupils and use their professional judgement to organise learning as they see fit. It will still be up to schools to decide if becoming a sustainable school is the best way for them to operate, and the greater flexibility in the curriculum will allow schools wishing to do so an excellent opportunity to incorporate the teaching of sustainability into a broad and balanced curriculum.”

In short, they are concealing their decision to remove their funded support for sustainability in education (events, training, resources, awards, targets) with a mask of freedom and choice. Schools will be free to choose to aim for zero carbon operation and an environmentally aware approach, but they are entirely free not to, and if they want to do it they will have to find their own resources. There was an expectation that schools would make significant progress in eight ‘doorways’ to sustainability by 2020 and, as far as I can tell, there were no sanctions if schools didn’t reach that goal. So, they always were free to progress towards sustainability or not, but the difference now is that resourcing and motivation will be removed.

Another aspect of this response grates on me. This is the implication that Sustainable Schools was entirely a curriculum-related initiative, and that removing the initiative gives teachers more authority to decide what to teach. However, Sustainable Schools is also about how the school is managed and developed, about its buildings and grounds, how it enables the wider community to be sustainable and so on. The response is being used to spin a different aspect of ConDem policy.

There are so many reasons why schools should want to be sustainable. One of these is that it saves money. However, many schools may not grasp these reasons, as they succumb to pressure to be traditional or to specialise in subjects they believe are unrelated to sustainability. The most important reason to be a Sustainable School is that pupils become part of an organisation that is tackling by far the biggest threat to their future that any worldwide generation of children has ever faced.

I’m in the process of choosing a secondary school for my daughter. I may be biassed towards expressions of sustainability but I can see and feel the differences in quality between those that mention sustainability as important and those that don’t. I will name them as this is so important: Charter School and Kingsdale School have new buildings, with sustainable design at their heart, and they incorporate ecology into their arts provision. For example, Charter is the pilot school for the Cool it Schools initiative. Another great school we can choose is Sydenham School. Their vision mentions, up front, their work on environmental and sustainable development, its organic garden and its chickens! Our local school, Haberdashers Askes Hatcham College, on the other hand is a ‘good school’, but it has no mention of sustainability anywhere in its prospectus. What they do mention often are tradition, discipline, standards and skills for work. But it’s becoming clear that the skills for the future will be all about adapting to climate change and creating the conditions for sustained life on the planet. This means skills in engineering, technology, design, local food production, biodiversity awareness, empathy, creativity and imagination.  Though my daughter will opt for this school because it’s local, we’re very conscious of what it lacks. To me its lack of concern for sustainability seems to relate to its lack of promotion of creativity, design and arts education.

I also read a communication from Anne Finlayson, the CEO of Sustainability and Environmental Education, the organisation which has supported the Sustainable Schools Initiative so well. She talks about their negotiations with Government to ensure that this support remains in place and that their good work so far is not wasted.  Their questions include:

How will we all communicate effectively and efficiently with schools so that they can take a coherent, holistic approach to sustainability rather than a piecemeal approach?
How can we encourage schools to keep going with the 2020 target?
How can we continue to offer an updated and dynamic service to schools, signposting them to organisations, new programmes, new resources etc.?

If you want to help answer those questions and support SEEd, join as a member or contact them on Tel: 020 7420 4446 or Email:


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