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).

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:

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:

Sustainable Schools Forum, Friday 13th March, red letter day of sorts…

19 03 2009

Bridget, who set up this blog has expressed doubts about work being done to address climate change and the broader ecological crisis and that maybe it should be uncoupled from ‘sustainability initiatives’.  A timely remark I feel given the day I spent on Friday at the London Sustainable Schools Forum.

In this case it seems somewhat sadly belated (but better late than never?) that the SSF featured an absolutely mind-blowing presentation by  David Gardner from the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority)  called Sustainable Development in Action- curriculum guidance for schools.  This presentation seemed to be indicating that government has finally got its head round the need to embed the principle of sustainability throughout the education sector, in particular the lumbering bureaucracies that are our secondary schools.  The news was that, no, as I mentioned in the comments I made to Bridget’s first post, sustainable schools are not ‘statutory’, but yes, policy makers and the QCA have written a plethora of policy documents (and even Mr Gardner admitted that the amount of documents produced was off-putting to frightening for any one with a nascent interest in these issues) that invoke the sea-change that is needed if our schools, and by extension, our communities, are to become sustainable.  But somehow without explicitly stating that this is an imperative or diktat from Whitehall.  To me this was what I heard this morning described by Erica Grigg (Carbon Outreach) as government ‘doubletalk’ at its most blinding.  I was impressed, being someone who likes to wield words and knows the power of the diplomatic approach.  However we were left in no doubt that it is down to us, the humble foot soldiers of the ‘green revolution’ (or some such phrase) to carry the metaphorical torch forward, in spite of the impressive array of policy documents, which I am sure I can go into more detail within later posts.

This truly seems to be a ‘people’s crusade’ and something that the government is prepared to address with little authority at the moment.  I’m thinking particularly about the controversy over  the new coal fired power stations that are planned.

And talking of Kingsnorth, for that is what I believe that the first new coal power station is known as, this leads me to the ‘people’s premier’ of’  ‘the Age of Stupid’ which I attended at Shepherds Bush on Sunday. Sold out which was great.  Bridget pointed out that the Postlethwaite character is actually a curator, sitting alone in a vast shrine to the doings of humanity, marooned amidst a watery dessert of a sea.  Is this our future?  Cataloging and preserving the calamity of the twenty-first century that we wrecked upon ourselves?  One of the key problems that was highlighted in the film is that people often object to wind farms on the grounds that they ‘spoil the view’.  I personally cannot see what is so unattractive about wind farms, I actually think they are quite beautiful.  This seems to be a particularly British form of ‘nimbyism’, symptomatic of a larger obsession with property value and prices.  A wind farm nearby means that property might be worth less and hence it has to be fought at all costs.  It is incredibly short sighted.  I don’t personally think that wind farms alone can be the answer to our energy problems and am not personally against nuclear power, when you see the violent opposition to wind farms and such like you need practical solutions and I am of the shade of green that feels okay with nuclear power.  I suppose that it part of the issue with the whole phenomenon of climate change, we know that is caused by too much carbon in the atmosphere, but there is no consensus, or in my opinion measured and sophisticated debate about the problem.  The trouble is that the green lobby are apt to moralise and there are plenty of people who unfortunately are utterly alienated by the preaching and associated fatalism.  It turns into a slanging match when we need to be utterly focused and organised to sort out this massive problem.  Work in schools is crucial because the more young people that see the environment and climate change as their problem, we can overcome some of the entrenched attitudes of many of the older generation who are quite happy to consume and be damned.  It would be fantastic to hear some really inspirational talk by Obama and it seems such a shame that our own government is knee deep in the financial crisis and the news that record numbers of people are out of work now, that they don’t seem to be able to prioritise this crucial issue.

I am taking a student  to a climate champion conference organised by the British Council in just over a week. She is mature, thoughtful and articulate, just the sort of leader we will need, if as I read in The Guardian today, from Professor John Beddington the Government’s chief scientist, we are approaching a ‘perfect storm’ where ‘food, water and energy shortages will unleash public unrest and international conflict’.

Just to lead back to where I started, one would think that yes, sustainability and climate change and the broader ecological crisis does need to be pulled apart.  This afternoon I interviewed on video with Phil Maxwell from the Tower Hamlets Waste Education project a handful of girls from year nine at Bishop Challoner School about their attitudes to climate change, sustainability and so on.  We were talking to the girls about their understanding of these issues.  They are lovely girls, really bright and articulate, but even they were struggling with the complex interdependence of the aforementioned concepts.  I think we expect people to take on board things that are incredibly complex and that the system is not really set up to allow the kind of thought that is needed to be fostered to move the situation on.  For example, at the SSF there was still anxiety about attacks from students who might still be climate change sceptics (hard to credit but they are still around), let alone the nuances of the debate that exists within those who wish to help ameliorate the situation or exactly how we are going to do that.  Sadly we can’t put the carbon back in the petrol, back in the oil, back in the ground.  But we need to address the fact we are stifling ourselves with carbon, that we live in a world where great swathes of the population are industrialising rapidly and climate related problems are already manifesting themselves.   Is it a form of imperialism that we are to tell Indian people that they shouldn’t enjoy low cost air flight?  If all the people in India who currently pile into trains find their wings and fly how can we hope to control carbon emissions?  Is the only way forward to take the moral high ground, reducing, reusing and recycling, or science having got us into this mess, can maybe get us out?  I am not a scientist, but a teacher of Media Studies.  Clearly we need to address what a wasteful society we live in and the paradigm of economic growth damn the consequences, but we also need to reconcile the facts that we live in a globalised world, and within that the importance of the aviation industry (also the fact that aviation fuel is not taxed and so flying is effectively subsidised by government), coupled with the fear of our leaders that we are going to be left behind on the world stage is we do not aggressively promote our capital as a great place to do business and the fixation that capital must continue to be allowed to flow unabated, although perhaps the stark realisation has hit home now after events of recent months that this is not a wholly good idea.  Furthermore  I am not convinced that by appealing to morality you can stop people travelling by aeroplane even though air flight is responsible for a great percentage of carbon that goes into the atmosphere.  At the moment, air flights are down, but that is due to the fact that the economy is shrinking, and all the mainstream commentators seem to be hoping that growth will continue once this recession is over!  In many ways air travel is positive, people broaden their world view, see other cultures and so on, exactly what cultural education aims to do.  So no easy answers. I feel honoured to be asked to contribute to this blog, I hope it will be a place for considered thought and a dialogue that will be a place where we can strategise to meet the challenges of Climate Change and associated issues and how it can be addressed through cultural heritage and related sectors.


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