Will you be a curator of the future?

Today is Ask a Curator day. I want to ask curators: If there was a global alliance of curators committed through their work to ensuring the continuity of human civilisation beyond this century, would you sign up to it?

Curating involves acts of care and stewardship. Museums exist to conserve cultural and natural heritage, both material and tangible, for posterity. They achieve this both by caring directly for that heritage and by changing cultures to be more capable of common stewardship.

This sounds all very well. There are two problems.

The challenge of ensuring the posterity of human heritage is extreme and urgent. Posterity will not be ensured by ‘business as usual’. The rate of Arctic melting this summer shows that the tipping point of climate change has passed and our only hope lies in global concerted action over the next two years and beyond to stabilise emissions and set in place massive biosequestration measures. Oil companies hope to exploit the melting Arctic to extract more oil, which in turn will cause more melting. The impact of continued oil extraction will be a potential temperature rise of 6 degrees by the century’s end, which would also spell the end of civilisation.

The second problem is a splitting or specialisation of sectors which causes many of us in any kind of organisation to take diminished responsibility. Museums, especially larger ones, are not immune from this. Museum curators believe it is their prime responsibility to care for and grow their collections, and to increase visitors and funds to do this. They may feel that this duty is an ethical one, so in turn, that it is ethical for this to be funded by oil companies or other sources of income that originate in, or exacerbate, ecocide. It is difficult for individual curators to steer the culture of their museums against this genocidal and ecocidal tide when their functions are so separated, their structures so heirarchical and their efforts at democratic participation by visitors are only superficial.

Maybe what’s needed is solidarity? Would it help if there were an alliance of curators (and other museum staff) who want to see a future for the next generations and other species, who want to reawaken people to the human capacity for stewardship, and most importantly, want their museums to be agents in this change?


  • The Arctic has been shown to be warming twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet, with average warming of 1-2 degrees since the 1960s. According to the Met Office the earliest date at which the Arctic would be ice-free during the summer would be between 2025 and 2030. However, experts such as Professor Wadhams believe that the earliest ice free Arctic will be in 2015. This will have direct effects, causing greater disruption to weather, but it is also a sign that tipping points are passing. The melting will lead to emissions of methane, far more potent than CO2.
  • Burning fossil fuels globally is the main cause of the ice melting, but the drilling process in the Arctic also has a direct impact, increasing the melting. Also, if there is an accident in winter months, the oil gush may not be fixable for months causing devastation to pristine ocean and wildlife. Spilled oil hastens the acidification of oceans that carbon emissions are causing.
  • More about the ethics of cultural organisations being funded by ecocidal enterprise can be read on this post.
  • More about how museums can act as agents for change can be found on this recent post Making the case for heritage learning and many others throughout this blog.
  • There is actually an international network called CultureFutures, which aims to engage the cultural sector to create an Ecological Age. Please join and help to activate this group.

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