Questions for the Museum of East Anglian Life

22 12 2009

By Tony Butler, Director of the Museum of East Anglian Life

The musings of Nobel laureates, economists and scientists are coming to the market-town of Stowmarket as the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) plays host to the University of Cambridge’s 100 Questions (produced by its Sustainable Leadership Programme). The installation contains provocations from amongst others Wangari Maathai, Nicholas Stern and Jonathan Porritt. Visitors, it is hoped will be inspired to add their own prescient questions to press policy makers as they grapple with the political challenges of climate change. Two questions grabbed my attention, one from Simon Schama, “How do we mobilize culture –  pop and high – to create the words, images and music – that will make the destruction of the planet and its irreversible loss to our posterity, the cause of the world’s people?” The other question was from Sarah Severn, Director of HorizonsHow might we break through the paradigm of continuous economic growth as the only viable future for humanity?”

To me there is moral and social imperative to enjoying more with less. A range studies have shown that despite GDP tripling in 30 years, people in the West live in poorer environments, suffer from greater levels of mental illness and are generally more unhappy than their counterparts in many developing countries. According to the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet index Costa Rica and Vanuatu are far better places to live than the UK which was 74th out of 200 countries surveyed whilst the US languished in 114th place. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s brilliant The Spirit Level (2008) drew on research from over 100 countries and concluded that more equal societies almost always do better. People who lived in countries where the gap between rich and poor was narrower were invariably happier and had a lower carbon footprint.

At MEAL we’ve been attracted to the idea of interpreting the lives of people in rural East Anglia in terms of their well being. In 2009 we launched an online exhibition  When Were We Happy which tried to compare comparative levels of well-being in the village of Stowupland in 1850, 1901, 1940 and 2009. The museum’s business planning is now based on NEF’s five ways to well-being. All our activities should ensure that people make new friends, are more active, learn something new, look at the world differently and give back to their communities in some way.

Next year we are putting on a small exhibition about Trust. We are trying to articulate why levels of trust appeared to be higher in communities 100 years ago than they are today. There are many everyday objects such as bottles of herbal medicine prepared by the village ‘midwife’ which show the health of a community was based on reciprocity, non-monetary transactions which built strong social networks and relationships  (‘social capital’ in today’s parlance). According to the economist and Labour peer Richard Layard in his book Happiness (2007), those societies which are more trusting have high levels of democratic participation and religious faith and are made up of communities which are homogeneous and whose members have strong family ties and common interests.

However if living a good life which doesn’t cost the earth consists of having less and living in strong, safe but almost static communities, the future seems wholesome but unattractive. The cultural challenge remains trying to steer a course between the devil of hair shirt environmentalism and the deep blue sea of Daily Mail reaction.

Museums in the Winds of Change, from Douglas Worts

5 07 2009

A post from Douglas Worts
Culture and Sustainability Specialist – WorldViews Consulting
LEAD Fellow (Leadership for Environment and Development), Toronto, Canada

I have been working recently on identifying museums that are actively engaged in responding to the ‘winds of change’ that continue to blow across our communities, and around the world. For more than a decade, I have been shifting my view of what opportunities are open to museums if they want to serve the cultural needs of individuals and communities. Raising the question of what is meant by ‘culture’ is a tricky proposition, however, I have come to believe that culture is far more than discipline-based collecting by institutions and the leisure time-oriented public programs that are the mainstream public offerings of museums. Culture is not simply a niche of the entertainment and tourism industries based on activities designed for consumption in leisure time. Rather, it is a complex dynamic between elements that ultimately manifest in how we live our lives.

Many museums these days are attempting to become more relevant to citizens and to construct public programs that deal with the important issues of our day. I am looking to learn about museum and/or artistic initiatives that have been created to engage citizens in such issues. And I am especially interested in how these issues were identified by museums as focal points for treatment in public programs (including exhibits).

The last element in my inquiry pertains to how these museums are measuring their successes (and failures). For example, what metrics of success are being developed? Are these targeted at the level of individual participant? …at a community level? …at an organizational level? Do these include shifts in behaviour, attitudes, or knowledge of individuals? Are there desired social outcomes; environmental impacts; economic effects? Perhaps there are other focuses not mentioned here.

The work I have been engaged in for more than a decade, specifically on the relationship between culture and sustainability, has lead me to understand culture as an adaptive function that links humanity to the many ways that the world around us is changing. This function is also essential in determining the degree to which individuals and collectives are able to adapt, so that humanity remains a species that is sustainable on the planet. As many authors have pointed out along the way (eg. Jane Jacobs’ “Dark Age Ahead”, Thomas Homer-Dixon’s “The Upside of Down”, Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, etc) human beings have proven their ability to be maladaptive and have in fact brought about the demise of societies that once were strong.

My question to you is, to what extent, and in what ways, are museums functioning as catalysts and facilitators of the kind of human mindfulness that is required to deal with the current set of crises that are expanding around the world. This list is long, but could include such items as:

– climate change
– unemployment
– urban sprawl
– loss of biodiversity
– increased ethno-cultural diversity in cities
– desertification
– globalized economics
– use of energy (renewable and non-renewable)
– equity/inequity (economic, education, employment, social, etc)
– immigration (as an essential component of economic growth)
– an economic system based on continuous growth
– any social, environmental, cultural or economic issue that is rooted in a given community
– … and lots more.

If you know of projects or museums that are grappling with these issues, I would greatly appreciate hearing from you. I am setting up a website in which such projects will be described and which will encourage conversations about the complexity of ‘cultural indicators.

Many thanks!

personal website:
WorldViews website:

Climate crisis and the MLA sector

3 03 2009

Here’s a post imported from my Culture, Learning, Innovation blog which explains my current thinking:

If, like me, you follow environmental news, you will be feeling a tad unsettled these days. I’ve been unsettled about the environment for decades but lately it is clear that a drastic ecological crisis is unfolding, with the threat of runaway climate change. For some time it has troubled me that the cultural heritage and collections sector in the UK has approached this crisis so weakly. There are a small number of standout organisations, such as English Heritage and now the NMSI (helped by its new director Chris Rapley being a climate scientist). However, it has mystified me that there is so little central co-ordination and so little evident drive or publicity in whatever central activity that exists.

The first place to look for action is the DCMS. They held a conference in January 2008, which appears from the website to have led to no follow up action. (That said, see below for an update.) Of the DCMS family organisations attending this conference, those which really seem to be alert to the nature of the crisis are in the performing arts or contemporary arts sectors. These include Tipping Point and RSA Arts Ecology, supported by the ACE Arts & Ecology team. The cultural collections or MLA sector by contrast appears to be very timid and partial.

The MLA (the body which oversees museums, libraries and archives for the DCMS) has published nothing that I could find on its website about this issue. MLA does have staff responsible for sustainability but this seems to focus on economic sustainability (future funding and so on).

The Museums Association published a consultation document on sustainability, which does mention environmental sustainability as one of several themes, including economic and social sustainability, but there is no mention of an ecological crisis and the environmental actions proposed are very weak. None of these initiatives explores how the sector will need to adapt to the effects of climate change, nor do they really address the power of the sector in raising public awareness and helping us cope with a climate-changed future. They make the common assumption that environmental action is all about making operational changes to reduce carbon footprint.

I’m intending to do some more research and take further action on this so if anyone out there can help answer my queries below with information or just vague thoughts I would be really grateful:

1. What agreement does the Department for Climate Change & Energy have with other Government departments, such as DCMS and DCSF, to help them in taking urgent action (not just in internal action to reduce carbon footprint)?

2. What actions are the DCMS Museums Sustainable Working Group taking? What progress have they made? Who is representing the sector? How can other stakeholders contribute to their work?

3. Should work to address climate change & the broader ecological crisis be uncoupled from ‘sustainability’ initiatives? (Sometimes these seem to exist to define the several distinct meanings of the term, and there is a danger that in a recession economic sustainability i.e. where are we going to get money from? takes over.)

4. Would a sector environmental crisis initiative be more effective if it was structured in the following way:

– Uniting sector leaders but also involving a wider public & independent agencies (e.g. using digital media)

– Covering both measures to ameliorate the crisis and adapt to future change (given that this is not an ‘if’ scenario but a ‘happening now’ scenario)

– Covering both pragmatic/operational measures and public engagement

– Covering both climate change (the crux of the crisis) and broader aspects of environmental degradation including the loss of biodiversity and pollution

– Encouraging intersections with higher education, creative industries and science & technology research industries to promote innovation

– Investing in digital culture

– Using the set of risks posed by climate change in the UN report as a basis for adaptive actions, see my chart in this essay on Cultural Education for a Changed Planet ?

Update: I had a brief chat with Patricia Mandeville (followed by an email exchange), responsible for sustainability at DCMS. She told me that although the Sustainable Working Group doesn’t have resources to be continued, some more things are happening:

– She told me about this strategic plan

– A focus group on Feb 25th covering five topics of waste, lighting, events, setting up an Environmental Management Strategy and staff awareness.

– Having realised there wasn’t a lot of research on climate change and the cultural sector, they are undertaking research led by Arup which includes work on adaptation, using the UK climate change projections that will be published in April. This will include considering the impact of loss of land mass.

– I asked about work in public engagement: She does get involved in the outreach side but is aware that the DCMS can’t be too prescriptive. She says that more public-facing initiatives are happening and in the pipeline, including a major Science Museum exhibition coming on climate change.

– In terms of relationship with MLA, she said there is no formal agreement but they do encourage them to reduce their carbon emissions as an organisation. This is clearly an area where they could do more.

– On a question about their relationship with the Dept for Climate Change she said they are bound to reduce emissions across sector bodies by 80% by 2060, must follow sustainable procurement rules and must complete an annual report on Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate.

– In answer to a question about how people could interact on these policy areas, she mentioned English Heritage’s site: (Given that I meant how we could interact on DCMS/MLA policies on environmental issues, this isn’t quite what I had in mind, but I do think English Heritage could potentially lead in online community building around this topic.)

– She also mentioned a new website coming soon called set up by a freelance consultant called Rachel Madan.


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