7 February 2018




Welcome to the inaugural posting of Musings’ newest column: Museums on Earth. Between the key words “museum” and “nature”, one might imagine a natural history museum, a science centre or natural conservation site. Here, we go beyond the archetypal – we probe into contemporary issues of nature and the environment found in all cultural realms. So… everything?

How does one approach the topic of “everything”? Museums! 

The museum field packs an intensely diversified workforce and a wide range of infrastructure operating in, out, and between various topics, localities and powers that be. However, before us museum folk blush at our own potential, we must acknowledge that much of our soft power is tied up in cautious and layered organizational systems – in other words, museums, from their conventional roots, can be slow to react. In particular, museums have been slow to realize the inescapable and increasing relevance of the environment – not even the Museum of Ice Cream is spared.

The environmental crisis is everything.

What makes climate change and its rippling effects so difficult to tackle is how nebulous the problem is. Solutions will involve increased awareness and decision-making at the individual and system scale, sourcing traditional and cutting-edge information from all walks of life – not just human! So, as museum professionals, how might we begin to loosen our knots and reach out?

Revving the cultural engine

Over different periods, many have suggested the leveraging of cultural capital – just as one might invest in natural capital – to raise environmental awareness and engaging local people in the decision making of their own sustainable futures. Yet, as R.R. Janes points out, responsiveness requires an individual museum professional to reach beyond the hierarchy within a given museum via interdisciplinary synergies with other individuals and organizations. Speaking locally, this idea is embodied in the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice (CMCJ). 

Photos courtesy of Lana Tran.

CMCJ recently put together its first peer-learning circle, which brought together students and workers from around North America to engage in a theory for “everything” problems – systems thinking. Led by Douglas Worts, the group practiced mapping climate change cause and effect relations across disciplines, discovering potential tipping points for intervention. Focusing on these points, the group was tasked with dreaming up concepts and activities, many of which could be integrated into museum mandates and programming. A detailed write-up can be found here.

Photo courtesy of Lana Tran

There is still much to be explored in Museums on Earth, and the CMCJ is very much a collaborative and growing body. If you’re itching to know more, be sure to stop by the upcoming Museum Talks: Museums and the Environment at the iSchool!

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