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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