The climate crisis and ‘the happy museum’

Originally posted May 2010: (Since then, the Happy Museum project has launched, and funded six projects and also hosted our Flow/Renaissance toolkit on Museums for the Future)

Tomorrow I’ll be contributing to a discussion about the Happy Museum, instigated by Tony Butler and co-ordinated by the New Economics Foundation. You will have seen from my last post that I’ve just read Clive Hamilton’s ‘Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change’. So, I’m trying to gear up to talk about happiness when what I’m feeling (beneath my habitual buoyancy) is despair at the picture he paints. I’m despairing precisely because this is not a fiction, cooked up with metaphor and catharsis, but because it is a scenario rigorously underpinned by scientific consensus. The truth is: the most likely future is one in which the planet will reach 4C by 2070, which will have catastrophic impacts for humans and many other species.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, more important than that we face the fact that we have made our planet unliveable by our fetish for things. And what is a museum, fundamentally, other than a monument to our fetish for things? If it is solely that, how can I feel happy working in the museum sector? How can museums themselves be happy in this context? How can museums contribute to wellbeing, not just of people but the biosphere?

If you look at it logically (without being too linear) it is not a simple task. David Cameron said the other day that he wanted to lead the ‘greenest Government ever. It’s a very simple ambition and one I’m absolutely committed to.’ It might be simple in concept (in a nutshell: stop exploiting the earth’s resources now, pursue a no-growth strategy, invest in geo-engineering, lead the world to follow suit at an urgent pace) but it is not simple in practice. That he believes it to be simple belies the fact that environmental problems are understood to be treatable with technocratic measures. He believes, like most politicians, that you can turn down the climate dial by investing in a bit of technology, enabling some making and saving of money in the process. Hamilton said that he’s certain that the future is going to be bad, that even if we take extraordinary radical action globally we must face the fact that things are still going to be bad, but that this mustn’t stop us aiming to take that radical action.

So, how can museums help push forward that radical action? The time has come for museums to:

–          stop focusing (quite so fetishistically) on their things and start focusing on complexity and contextual education

–          to shift focus somewhat away from the past to start looking more to the future

–          to stop being so slow as a working culture and to start behaving with urgency.

But what does this mean? Responding to the key causes/solutions in Hamilton’s books, here’s the start of a list of ways that museums can, and must, contribute to tackling this crisis.

Politics above all

Hamilton shares research that says the more people understand the climate crisis the less likely they are to take individual action to green their lifestyles (though many of course may be relatively careful). They understand that the solution will not be individuals (or small organisations) making small changes. The only solutions effective enough will be international political and large-scale industrial action. Museums can and should contribute with dialogue and narrative that helps us see a bigger picture, to see how big changes have come about due to decisions made by those with material and political power.

No growth
Hamilton shows how essential it is we resist the entrenched notion that the priority in politics and the purpose of work is economic growth. Museums have been complicit in this ethos because of their role in showcasing objects of wealth, the spoils of war and exploration, and regional or national growth fuelled by technology and exploitation. Currently, museums are attempting to maintain a sense of pride while admitting alternative narratives, for example, about diverse or demotic cultures.  However, they must take several steps beyond this to critique our growth-led values. However difficult this might be, museums can be an ideal resource for this because they contain the evidence of the damage caused by growth strategies.

Work less
Hamilton analyses economics to show that saving money only defers consumption and probably increases it. We actually need to earn less, so therefore we need to work less. Many people may feel that their lives would be empty without work but perhaps museums offer us a way to see different ways to live and be productive, by showing us how different cultures have lived in the past, by inspiring creativity, or offering opportunities to do voluntary work or informal learning.

Alternative to advertising
Advertising, especially to children, has played a huge role in the increase of consumption. In 1983 companies spent $100 million on advertising to children, but by 2007 they were spending $17 billion or more. He says ‘their capacity to moderate their desires has been systematically dismantled from birth’. So, it’s even more important now that that cultural & heritage organisations engage children with non-materialistic programmes. Also, it’s important for museums to rival advertising, which might mean they have to act like marketers, by using digital social media and games much more. Museums offer a safe, secular space to help resist corporate dominance.

Global emissions
Another issue is that of consumption measured at a global level. We should not rest on our laurels of reducing emissions within the UK when a) we outsource much of our production and b) global emissions are what matter overall. Developing nations such as China, India and Russia are some of the primary emitters. Although there has been a great stress on museums developing a sense of local or regional identity (in many ways a very good policy), we shouldn’t lose sight of the potential of museums to connect us to other countries. We can enhance this by stepping up dialogue, sharing heritage knowledge and an exchange of professional practices with India, China, Russia and other countries most likely to raise global emissions. (Flow Associates is developing museum & gallery learning programmes in India and Russia, in part, for these reasons.)

Ethical sponsorship

Hamilton says ‘the most immediate reason we now face climate disruption lies in the political power of the fossil fuel lobby’. We have seen how BP & others lobbied to resist regulations that would have prevented the Deepwater Horizon spill. Museums and galleries should be scrupulous about resisting sponsorship from companies such as BP and Shell. They should pursue this as a positive strategy because as oil spills from deep water and Arctic drilling get ever blacker and dirtier, and more people see how marine pollution is a major cause of global warming, their continuing reliance on such sponsors will significantly damage reputations. Only this weekend, activists carried out an oily protest at Tate Modern, calling for Tate to wean itself from BP.

Emotion to cognition to action

Humans have evolved to respond to immediate visceral fear, but the threats of climate change require us to rely on cognitive processing. Museums have developed powerful interpretive strategies so that there are closer links between our emotional response and our grasp of big ideas. There is a danger of the museum experience being so emotive and engaging that it becomes hallucinogenic, distancing us from reality, like the way films can make disasters seem cool. Museums should plan their learning experiences so that visceral emotion leads to cognition, and then crucially, leads to action, on a personal and collective level. We (in the UK) need to develop a new framework for planning and evaluating learning and social outcomes, one which takes account of the future we face.


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