A post from Climate Action in Culture & Heritage, 2009
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 http://www.box.net/shared/iroup4vla6 ?
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:http://www.climatechangeandyourhome.org.uk/live/ (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 www.greenermuseums.org set up by a freelance consultant called Rachel Madan.