13 December 2018


Museums on Earth | Jordan Fee

For the past two weeks, an image has sprung up in my mind. I imagine the Royal Ontario Museum during a flood. Correction: I imagine the ROM during the flood, the one that is creeping up on us as I write this article. I imagine basements and storage rooms filled to the brim with water and objects, taxidermied animals being thrust forth from the depths of the museum, and spilling out into the main halls. Perhaps this would be another chance for the museum to discover yet another long-lost dinosaur skeleton.

Gordo, the Borasaurus discovered in 2007 at the ROM. Source.
This vision began after I started to look into the connections between waste, sustainability, climate change, and museums. A professor had assigned our class some readings on museum collections – one of them was a chapter from Active Collections, a book that explores how many museums are being “held hostage” by their massive, cumbersome collections. You can read the Active Collections manifesto on their website, and there you can also explore the different resources, case studies and “crazy ideas” that they are attempting to promote in the museological world.

"Stop...The Collections Avalanche!" Source.
The chapter that we read dealt mainly with the notion of assessing museum objects for their value to society, rather than simply acquiring them for the sake of doing so. This sentiment also is echoed in the Active Collections manifesto:

“There’s little point in preserving collections if they don’t actively support the mission. We believe collections must either advance the mission or they must go.

In most cases, museums don’t even know what their storage rooms contain – the article about the ROM that I mentioned earlier shows this, but similar stories could probably be found at all levels of the museum world. The fact is that museums – and history museums, in particular – are becoming hoarder houses. In an article titled "Museums and Sustainability", published by the journal Cultural Trends in 2008, Nick Merriman notes that most museum professionals “were unwilling to embark on programmes of rationalization until they had greater knowledge of their collections through documentation initiatives.” However, to gain full knowledge of their collections would in most cases take years and years. In that time, the museum would most likely continue the annual 1-2% growth in their collections, thereby extending the improbability that such a task could ever be accomplished. When I mentioned this fact to my professor, he noted with a grin that these people are not museum professionals–instead, they are addicts.

What might this addiction say about the future of museums? To be perfectly honest, it saddens me that so little has been done to confront this issue. Clearly most museum professionals are aware of this problem. Many museums across the world acknowledge their lack of storage, and yet these same museums continue to house more and more objects. The fact is that sometime this century, many museums across the world will come face to face with the realities of climate change.

Hurricane Sandy spelled catastrophe for a number of New York City’s museums and galleries, and this storm was by no means an anomaly. Storms like this will continue to occur around the world, with increasing frequency, for the rest of our lives. We can develop new preservation techniques to combat them, but one day these disasters will overwhelm our abilities. Nature always does. Here, I think it is fitting to include a quote from a gallery worker from New York responding to the storm that swept up so many artworks:

     “We prepared, but the amount of water that came in was above all the highest estimates.”

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I must say that this is only a tepid sign of what’s to come.

"Hurricane Sandy Flooding East Village 2012." Source.
Recently, in my free time, I have been reading A Song For a Blue Ocean by Carl Safina, which examines the destruction of tuna fisheries across the world. In this book, Safina provides details on a wide variety of conferences, meetings and debates between government officials, conservationists and recreational fishers about what should be done to halt the rapid decrease in tuna populations. In each and every case, absolutely nothing is achieved that might realistically slow or stay the decline. Quotas are cut in half, yet are quickly restored. The conversation exists, but action is never taken.

Just as fishing corporations and recreationalists have a historically unhealthy relationship with tuna,  museums have an unhealthy relationship with objects. As many articles on the subject of deaccessioning state, what museums are doing is the very antithesis of sustainability. Museums stack up objects in decrepit, unkempt storage rooms until one day they can hand it off. To who?

To us.

We inherit the world that generations before us have created. We also inherit the collections that these professionals have been collecting. What matters now is what we choose to do with them. Do we continue on this Sisyphisian quest towards creating comprehensive museums, or do we take real action to change our collecting practices? Ultimately, this is not simply a question of objects; it is a question of how we perceive material culture in a world affected by climate change. Collections have a massive carbon footprint, and while deaccessioning objects may only make a tiny, tiny dent in our flawed environmental practices, it would nevertheless serve as a statement of acceptance.

"Flooded Piazza San Marco in Venice." Source.
Acceptance of what, might you ask? Acceptance of the fact that collections are meaningless if they are hidden away. Acceptance of the fact that the world will wait no longer. A flood will one day take place in our backyard, and in various backyards across the world. Perhaps we should engage in some extreme measures of preventative conservation and begin a drastic program of deaccessioning. What good is an object if it sits, unseen by the public, in a poorly kept storage space? I can only hope that something will be done with these collections before a storm like Hurricane Sandy hits Toronto.

If you’d like to read more about which areas of the world are at risk of flooding, here is an insightful article from Der Speigel. While I understand that this is not necessarily the cheerful kind of content that people look for at this time of the year, I do find it necessary to improve our understanding of future implications for the museum world. Happy holidays, everyone! I'll see you all in the new year.

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