The Possible Museum

These are the slides, and some notes, to give an impression of the talk I gave at the International Symposium on Museums and Climate Change, in Manchester, April 11-13, 2018. I wanted to point to my new toolkit, and campaign of sorts, for a Possible Culture.

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My proposition is that museums – everywhere – need to do more ethical, expanded, and ecologically forms of ‘anticipatory work’, and that they need to do this more frequently, more rigorously and more imaginatively, in ways that both work with staff on organisational futures, and with their communities and visitors to envisage possible futures at a time of climate emergency.

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I didn’t have long to speak but a fuller, 6,000 word essay on this will be published in the book to accompany the symposium (University of Hamburg/Springer).

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We in Flow aim to help organisations thrive, supporting them and their communities to learn, create, connect and flourish. In addition, we want to build people’s capacities and character to have a positive impact on the world. I’m not an academic so I wasn’t presenting a controlled study but drew on a range of thinking and work. The thinking has its origins in my own awareness of climate  change, and environmental and peace activism since the 1980s.

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The work presented also draws on my professional experience of evaluation, horizon-scanning and facilitating change in cultural organisations, in national policy and funding bodies, and in places and local partnerships. This work includes supporting people to imagine future scenarios, as in our Future Views toolkit and workshops with young people and cultural workers, to imagine the future of cultural learning.

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The core and original purpose of museums is stewardship of cultural and natural heritage for posterity. Posterity means for future generations of all people. If museums are going to continue to exist and to enact their role as stewards, they need to consider quite how much they need to change in an era of radical disruption from long-established norms. This point was echoed in a later talk by Andrew Potts of the US  branch of ICOMOS, who asked questions about the job descriptions of museums and heritage staff, who need to begin shifting their frame to deal with catastrophic losses and displacements of people.

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How much do we need to expand our current models and frames for predicting the future and managing risk and change? Research showed 24 years ago that climate change would disrupt the Gulf stream and its weather patterns, but we didn’t expect it to happen so soon.

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Despite the rapidly unfolding climate emergency, the predicted future is hitting us faster than expected, elites are pushing the horizon of unpalatable change further and further away in their minds, and managing our media so that we all believe we can safely delay action. National politics are increasingly corrupted by propaganda, certainly in the UK and US. Behind this corruption lies a cabal of ‘oiligarchs’ (or extractive capitalists) manipulating truths so that they can delay climate action and continue to profit from their ecocidal and iniquitous modus operandi. This is ‘predatory delay’, a term promoted by Alex Steffen. In my diagram above, I’ve also shown another dimension, that of place. As the impacts of climate change spread across the globe, elites continue their ‘parasitic globalism’ exploiting the devastated places (Arctic, Middle East…) and their search for safe zones (New Zealand? Sea steading? Mars?).

The next two slides are central to my proposition. It’s key to understand that there is increasingly no overlap between the catastrophic probable scenarios, and the extremely difficult preferable scenarios. In this context, we must expand our thinking to take in and deal with all possibilities.

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To do this we have to start imagining the future in a different way. Most of us are too limited in the ways we frame it, with many wishing the future is like some time in the past (retrotopian), most people focusing on their present experience (normative) and with most standard futurism extrapolating from current trends. Most speculative or imaginative futurism is too limited by extreme tropes of either dystopia or utopia.

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So, we need to be more ‘possi-topian’.

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Although it is hard for us to imagine the mental capacities of other animals, we can be sure that imagination is, if not a unique trait amongst species, a distinguishing one for humans. The downside of our imaginative nature is that the technologies arising from it have begun to threaten the entire global habitat for humans and other species, due to a combination of population growth and consumption based on extraction of natural resources, and then the unpredictable concatenations of us having breached the boundaries of the planet’s operating system. Our capacities for imagination have been extended by our practices of symbolisation – crafting objects by hand and ideas by tongue – fertilised by the crossings of cultures. The image is taken from Stan Letovsky‘s collage mapping the universe. If we can see and model this much of the universe, can we use imagination to see more of the future, to our limits of capacity? And because the Earth is still the only planet we know we can inhabit, doesn’t that tell us why we need to be possi-topian?

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In museums, the objects of our imagination and the material traces of our lived experience are interpreted using visual and verbal language, making museums a crossing place of the imagination. Museums contextualise objects so that we can imagine past events or lost cultures more holistically, while also connecting them to our contemporary world. The image shows a children’s gallery installation by studio GGSV, in the Pompidou in Paris. They are loose parts to play with, which, in many ways resembles all museum collections. The configurations and possible re-contextualisations of materials, forms, meanings and places are endless.

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The futurism often seen in media articles is not systematic enough as it typically describes phenomena based on trends – patterns emerging now – and then applies wishful thinking to project desirable futures. Current anthropogenic Climate Change is a Gordian knot of slow, medium and fast trends, liable to explode in unpredictable ways. As such, it cannot be termed a trend but a ‘critical uncertainty’. One approach to overcome simplistic ‘anticipatory work’, is to use a Scenario Planning method in which trends are considered alongside the explosive and disturbing potential of Critical Uncertainties. The book article describes this process in step-by-step detail, and you can find it on my Possible Culture toolkit as well.

This slide explains how you might use a matrix to combine a focal trend (e.g. VR) with a focal Critical Uncertainty (e.g. a global pandemic).

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What happens when you do futurism without considering all the possibilities, and when you don’t include geophysical realities, and the lived experience of people? You could end up with an Impossible Museum, like the Museum of the Future due to open in Dubai, 2019.

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Futurism, or anticipatory work, must be done with an ethical mindset, if it is to stand any chance of helping a museum be relevant, helpful and sustained. The following is a kind of manifesto for the ethical path of a Possible Museum. My talk described each case study very briefly.

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See more about the Oil Sponsorship Free pledge, which Chris Garrard, Culture Unstained, also mentioned in his talk.

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Read an account of the Past is Now exhibition here.

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See my team’s contribution to the Cambridge Museums’ Climate Hack 2018 (which was also presented at this conference), which was the Ngaru Ghost Boat installation.

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The Happy Museum Project is working with a growing (and potentially international) network of museums across the UK, on the following principles, in ways that test aspects of this ethical path. Hilary Jennings followed my presentation to map all the types of Happy Museum practice onto the features of ‘wicked problems’.

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I’ll be doing some more research around the possibilities of the Happy Museum community over the next few months, and the conference concluded with a discussion about where next for a co-ordinated ‘museums for climate’ response to international efforts to meet targets of the Paris Accord, and to support local communities as they adapt to change. So, there’s a lot of thinking to do!

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3 responses to “The Possible Museum

  1. Pingback: The Learning Planet·

  2. Pingback: As the world burns you have a choice | Climate Museum UK·

  3. Pingback: Greening our work | Climate Museum UK·

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