Ecosystems as metaphors

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On a spectrum of alive to dead, museums and their contents are usually thought of as ‘more dead’. Some museums are literally dead, closed by their funders in austere times. That’s why it’s heartening to see a conference called Museums Alive! that explores the ways that museums are like ecosystems, resilient, evolving and therefore, alive. Some of the talks are using the theme broadly to explore ‘bringing collections to life’ through relevant and contextualised participation and interpretation. Some are also about natural sciences and environmental ethics (such as Jessica Shepherd’s talk on Museums and Oil Sponsorship). I’m not there but I am watching the tweets, helpfully illustrated with the slides.

The ecological emphasis of this conference is encouraging because rare. But something irks me. It is to do with this question: what happens when ecosystems are used as a metaphor? If we see museums ecologically, we can’t rest at the level of seeing a museum itself as a discreet ecosystem. We have to analyse how they function in relation to the big global forces such as capitalism, climate change and conflict.

It isn’t bad per se to use ecosystems as a metaphor. But it all depends how much the actions or mission of any organisation are eco-positive. Crucial to this is how much its idea of community extends to other species. To give an extreme example, an oil company might be inspired by ecological systems-thinking and increase their productivity by analysing interconnections, flows and stocks. By saying ‘we’re thinking ecologically’ they can look greener. However, by increasing their productivity of oil, they are destroying the biosphere. That said, it is possible that thinking more ecologically about industrial or social systems can lead to ecologically positive actions and behaviours. If an oil company really did think ecologically, its staff would notice that in order to stabilise and sustain itself it must shift from oil to renewable energy or fusion, and would become an active agent to reduce consumption rather than fuel it.

We don’t tend to see oil companies thinking ecologically, but the use of ecosystem metaphors in business is pretty widespread, especially in media and technology industries. It’s compelling because ecosystem-thinking makes sense in a complex world. It fits with our lived experience to be reminded of the porosity of boundaries, of our shifting identities and the importance of conversations in shaping our knowledge. It’s buzz thinking. Media and technology companies like to give an impression of cleanliness and that they are promoting a new co-operative society. However, they (and we as their consumers) are a major force behind growing mineral extraction, labour exploitation, pollution, waste mountains and a soaring carbon footprint.

So, museums are clearly not in that realm. They don’t tend to extract natural resources, produce stuff and make profit. Indeed, they arguably exist now mainly to provide a safe harbour for natural and cultural artefacts that are at risk from the disruption of lands and cultures caused by industrialisation. They nurture experiment, diversity and creativity when outside forces threaten to homogenise, repress or commercialise culture. They save some items from the dissipation of common assets due to the hoarding of wealth. (Many museums around the world are still also trophies – demonstrations of national or individual power, wealth or taste, but even so, their benign role is protective and conservatory.)

The role of educators and interpreters in museums of ‘bringing things to life’ is actually a deeply unnatural one, even though the best kinds of practice are imitative of and respectful of nature. A museum is very much like a zoo, a bio-imitative utopian environment. (An art gallery is more like an experimental biosphere for breeding.) The act of ‘bringing to life’ in a museum is about reconstructing missing context, trying to make information more charged with authentic meaning. It is also therapeutic, providing a creative outlet in the midst of a mechanised society, assuaging us for the extinction of species and languages, recapitulative of our ancestral connections with nature and our inherited myths. All of these things are beneficial but we have to look at why these benefits are needed, and what we can do to stop the escalation of these needs.

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2 thoughts on “Ecosystems as metaphors

  1. You are dead right that we should not see a museum as the system. It can only be part of a bigger of the much more complex systems of societies or cultures. I’m not sure museums are just there for preservation but whether they are there for that or there to have an educational, attitude-changing or having an call-to-action role, then it is not possible to begin to make that happen without thinking in terms of systems. And as all good cybernetists know, you can’t understand a system by only looking at individual components of it 🙂

  2. I agree museums don’t only exist for preservation, but it is what makes them distinctive from other kinds of cultural organisations that are more distinctly for producing or regenerating culture. I see their educational, attitude-changing role as being essential to feed their preservation role. I emphasise preservation because this aspect is neglected in debates and reports about the value and role of the cultural sector, which focuses on the arts as generator of revenue and wellbeing.

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