Climate Science, Science Museum and the media

26 03 2010

If you Google ‘Science Museum climate change exhibition’ you get hundreds of results about two current articles in the Times and the Daily Mail. If Times Online had started charging £1 a day for its content today, as was announced in the news this morning, most of us wouldn’t have read their piece. That’s beside the point. The point is that the Times twisted the story, and the Daily Mail twisted it up further and chucked it in the gutter.

This is the story issued in a Science Museum press release. Though mainly I think the Museum deserves defending here, I could pick a few holes in this. My biggest hole is a big murky one, and that is the sponsorship by Shell. I heard from the Natural History Museum that Shell sponsorship had gone wrong for them, so it’s a mystery why the Science Museum accepted (or courted?) it. You’ll note that I link not to Shell’s corporate site but to Shell Facts, so you can get a quick rundown on why this might be an issue.

The second hole might be a hole that isn’t really there, that the exhibition purports to ‘answer questions’ and tell people about science, rather than overtly invite people to ask questions, discover, contribute, act and so on. Without knowing more about the interpretive approach in detail I wouldn’t like to judge on whether it will be more of a ‘telling’ or ‘active discovery’. To see what I mean by this more active approach you might look at Ontario Science Museum’s Challenge Zone. But I expect the exhibition will be lively, engaging and well-considered even if not radical in its educational approach.

The other hole is a bit more of a moth nibble, but still for me it ruins the cloth. I believe that the Science Museum should be developing an overarching public engagement strategy injecting ecology, climate science and future adaptation across its programmes and external channels. I believe this would be more effective and meaningful than a major climate science gallery. However, if any organisation is going to do climate science properly, it must be the Science Museum so I’ll pass a blind eye over that one.

The hole that Ben Webster at the Times found is, to me, quite invisible, in giving the title “Public scepticism prompts Science Museum to rename climate exhibition”. He suggested there was a shift from a propagandist position to one of neutrality. The Science Museum response, reported on a must-read blogpost by Climate Safety, and not at this time via any official press release, is that: “After laying out our intentions for the new climate science gallery, the term ‘neutral’ has been adopted in some articles in the press, which is not an accurate description of our approach.” And which continues to affirm that it would uphold the scientific consensus of anthropogenic climate change. [Since I wrote this post, the Science Museum has responded with a press release, clarifying their intentions more officially.]

I can hardly bring myself to give you the link to the Daily Mail interpretation of the story, which includes sleight of hand with Chris Rapley’s own words. But as it’s out there in the wild you may as well see it. This uses the story of the exhibition to remind us again of Glaciergate and the UEA hacked emails and to suggest that public scepticism is emerging as some kind of restoration of enlightenment.

Within moments of these articles being read online, there were tweets twisting other tweets, reporting that the Science Museum was doing a ‘climate sceptic’ exhibition. Now, hmmm, thinking about it that could work.  Or it could just be very wierd and confusing. Whatever stand is taken, sceptical, pro or neutral, and whatever those terms mean, it must involve exposure to science and allowing people to discuss and debate as much as possible.

Update on Sunday 28th March:

I just saw a post about this story on the Third Estate blog. It’s criticising the Science Museum for welcoming climate deniers and for aiming to ‘satisfy the interests and needs’ of people of all convictions on climate change. I commented on it, which you can read on that blog or here:

My own blogpost on this story takes a slightly different, still critical, view. An answer to your ‘why a second exhibition?’ is that the first was a small temp display to coincide with COP15 and the one announced is a major £4m permanent-ish programme, not just a new gallery. They haven’t changed tack. Chris Rapley is passionate about communicating the urgent threat of climate disruption and gets a huge amount of stick for using public money for that. The phrasing you’re critical of is unfortunate but I know that they mean by it to fulfil their duty to engage with the widest public. They must welcome everyone, people of varying convictions. Moreover, they’re keen not to preach to the converted but to engage everyone in the science. Rapley’s words have been unfairly twisted by the press accounts, as you can read in my blogpost.

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.

Climate change and museums in France, by Marine Soichot

29 06 2009

I am a PhD student in museum studies at the national Natural History Museum in Paris (France) and my work is on how science museums and science centres can be a place to display climate change.  Bridget asked me for a short presentation of my work for this blog. After a long first draft, I split it into three smaller posts. Here is the first one, a short description of the climate change problem in the French context.

Although the scientific label of climate change is powerful, stakes in this problem largely overrun the traditional academic research field. There are many political, economical and social implications. The problem is all the more impregnating in all fields of society as the focus is on carbon and energy. Climate change has become a subject of public debate and authority interventions and now a full public problem as called by political science. A multiplicity of actors – scientists, politicians, think tanks, companies, journalists and media, NGOs etc. – takes part in the public debate and build together what we call climate change.  The final construction is different depending on who participates in it and on how they participate.

Climate change was first introduced in the scientific and diplomatic sphere (first international discussion in the late 1970 and creation of the IPCC in 1988). Then the problem was developed at a national scale. In France, different actors converged. There was no strong opposition to climate change such as the skeptic movement in the US. Climate change was early recognized as a true problem by scientists, media, politicians and NGO (that is not to mean that there was an early political action to deal with it). In a simplistic way, the following points structure main discourses about climate change in France:

  • We observed a rise of average temperature over several decades. This increase is caused by human activities and first of all by fossil fuel consumption. Indeed, more and more green house gases are released making the atmosphere warmer and warmer.
  • This rise of temperature will cause climate modifications whose consequences are various: sea level rising, ice melting, species extinction and biodiversity loss, storms and flooding.
  • It will affect human society in many ways. It is an emergency. We have to act now and cut off our green house gas emissions at any level.
  • Everybody has a share of responsibility in this problem and has to act at his own level. We all have to change our way of life and become an eco-citizens.

Climate change is also strongly linked with sustainable development and the idea of a new green way of life. It is becoming a cause without opponent such as road safety or genetic diseases.  That is not to say there are no oppositions or controversies but they are limited in specific fields and given low publicity in the public sphere. This situation is quite different from the way climate change was developed in other countries. Indeed, a public problem is different in each country because of the history and the culture.

Marine Soichot

About time

6 04 2009

I’ve just reread a poem by Primo Levi called Almanac, written on 2 January 1987, 3 months before he fell to his death. It says “The glaciers will continue to grate, smoothing what’s under them” and “Earth too will fear the immutable Laws of the universe. Not us. We, rebellious progeny With great brainpower, little sense, Will destroy, defile…” and it ends “Very soon we’ll extend the desert Into the Amazon forests, Into the living heart of our cities, Into our very hearts.”

An almanac is an annual publication of timely events, mostly of a cosmic nature but also of sacred events in the human calendar. Levi’s is a very rebellious kind of almanac, a prediction of a time to come based on his observation of the human disregard for planetary forces. He plays on the popular notion that people are far too insignificant to affect the great forces of nature, by suggesting that despite the immutable laws of the universe there still can be change on a vast scale. And that it is the very rebellion of humanity against nature which is bringing the desert into our hearts.

Now, you might think that Levi was a prescient genius. Referring to ecological catastrophe in 1987? Surely we didn’t start to think about this until the 21st century? Or at least since late 2006 when the Stern review told us that climate change was serious and most probably caused by man? Well, genius Levi was. But, in this case not so prescient. In fact, the ‘greenhouse effect’ was noticed in 1886 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. Significant global warming was noticed in the 1930’s and one man G.S.Callendar said it was due to the greenhouse effect. Thanks to Cold War funding, scientists continued to monitor the warming climate. In 1967 (the year I was born, the Summer of Love) a report made clear that the temperature would continue to rise with serious results. The 1970’s saw the rise of environmentalism but the research effort was so dispersed and under-funded in such a complex field, that climate change was not taken up as a major concern by the environmental groups. My parents were Green as can be but lived it out through self-sufficiency, thrift and nature conservation. They rarely talked about climate except whether the drought (1976) would mean we’d starve (we went hungry) or whether the rainy winter would make the soil too clarty.

I vividly recall news reports of global warming in 1988, when I was at the University of Sussex, and it had a big impact on me. My close friends then thought the biggest cause was feminism and equality, but I couldn’t agree. We studied humanities not science. The science faculties were over the other side of campus and we didn’t mix.

Since then I have always factored climate change into my thinking about the future,  much to the bafflement of my colleagues in museums and galleries over the years. The other day, chatting to some friends, the climate topic came up and they all agreed ‘it won’t happen in our lifetimes, it’s something that will affect our grandchildren’. I was surprised yet again that the waves of understanding had not caught up even with a group of people who keep up with current affairs and think hard about them.  Today the Wilkins Ice Shelf is collapsing. Jonathon Porritt predicts a ‘perfect storm’ of climate change and economic collapse as early as 2020. When we hear such news we close our ears, turn onto it with a challenge or just freeze. We are faced with so much information that we can be selective and choose not to believe it, unlike the trust felt by the early readers of almanacs.

Meanwhile, the G20 world leaders act with amazing alacrity to bail out the economy but at a glacial pace to respond to the climate crisis. “The glaciers will continue to grate, smoothing what’s under them”. The irony is that if the leaders continue to act at a glacial pace, the glaciers, which have already started to melt, will disappear. The immutable laws of the universe mutate.


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