Museums and climate change: what ‘should’ they be doing?

Today’s Guest Post is by Henry McGhie, Curating Tomorrow, and formerly Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, University of Manchester.

What ‘should’ museums be doing about climate change? No doubt we each have our own ideas, but in this and a future post I hope to outline some that I think have some usefulness, based on what museums’ strengths and capabilities are, and what the world needs. These 15 ‘shoulds’ are intended to apply to all museums, of any scale or subject, and all museum workers, to help them support climate action constructively.

These aren’t a recipe list, but hopefully they can give some encouragement. I know that sets of ‘shoulds’ are a kind of magic thinking, but bear with me. Museums, museum networks and the museum sector often make claims of their role in society, and this article offers some suggestions on how they can live up to these claims, against a backdrop of global and local climate change. These ‘shoulds’ come from a paper I presented at the Symposium on Climate Change and Museums I co-organised at the University of Manchester in April 2018.

Polar Bear (G Gardner/Manchester Museum, University of Manchester) Museums are filled with the familiar icons of climate change: put them to work to explore alternative futures.

As we are all far too aware, climate change presents a number of challenges to museums, which tend to be most comfortable in dealing with the topics in which they are expert, and focus on presenting information.

How can museums embrace a more future-focused frame, and focus more effectively on the connection between thinking–feeling–doing, and on inspiration, in order to encourage, inspire and realize positive futures?

Henry McGhie

A more positive (or at least constructive) and inclusive vision of the future is very much needed, to help make the rapid, deep shift towards a sustainable future where people and nature flourish together.

Climate change presents particular challenges to public engagement:

  • it is enormous, seemingly beyond the power of any one person or group of people;
  • it is uncertain, and its impacts are impossible to predict fully;
  • it will be experienced in different ways and by different groups of people and wildlife, so defies succinct description;
  • its causes are complex;
  • we all contribute towards it, in different ways.

While climate change impacts represent a huge and wide-ranging challenge to society, climate change is not itself a root cause: it is a product of a systemically unsustainable use of resources, and of gross inequality.

The underlying concern, task and purpose of climate change engagement and related programming are worth clarifying. Climate change engagement often, and quite clumsily, simply raises awareness of the concern – of the challenge of climate change. However, this is to conflate the topic with what we are trying to achieve. That can just be depressing, frightening and disempowering: it can be worse than doing nothing.

Instead, we can ask, ‘because climate change is an enormous issue that people are presented with but disempowered by?’ (the concern), ‘what do we need to do?’ (the task) ‘so that people are empowered to engage with climate action in personally meaningful ways, and to achieve positive climate action?’ (the purpose).

Henry McGhie

In museums, ‘engagement’ is often thought of as a time-bound activity that takes place in museums and is separated from the impact of the engagement. In an alternative model, climate change engagement may be defined as ‘an ongoing personal state of connection’ – as opposed to participation in a time-bound process of engagement – with the issue of climate change, whether in terms of conscious awareness of the issue, or unconscious action that contributes positively towards climate action and, importantly, in people’s day to day lives (Lorenzoni et al. 2007: 446, Whitmarsh et al. 2011).

This approach is worth reflecting on, as the effectiveness of museum engagement activities – their impact – is defined in terms of their impact beyond the museum in people’s daily lives: the impact is the effect of museum activities in supporting people’s ongoing, constructive engagement with climate change action. A state of engagement incorporates a broad range of aspects that constitute what we think, feel and do about climate change – cognitive, affective and behavioral aspects.

Simply knowing more about climate change does not necessarily promote action and, as information has an impact on affective and behavioural aspects, may inadvertently disempower action. People need to know what they can do about climate change and care about it to be motivated to take action.

Henry McGhie

Engaging constructively with all three aspects presents a plausible route towards constructive engagement with the topic in people’s daily lives, connecting people’s thoughts and concerns, with choices and actions (Lorenzoni et al. 2007; McGhie et al. 2018). Particularly important in the context of behaviour and behaviour change is the role of inspiration, which I’ve heard defined as the ‘feeling that moves us to action’ (thanks Lois Burton): of turning concerns into deeds.

However, people can be inspired by a huge range of things, not necessarily positive. People can be inspired by hatred and by fear, and to do terrible things. Museums can focus on promoting inspiration towards positive social and environmental outcomes, connecting personal satisfaction and fulfilment with a wider public good, and focussing on the things people can do something about, rather than things they can’t. By raising awareness of people’s individual and collective viewpoints, museums can support collective awareness and action, reducing the gap between people’s perceptions and real-world situations.

Living Worlds, Manchester Museum, University of Manchester (A Clausen/Manchester Museum, University of Manchester).
Natural history galleries can be reworked to become ‘natural futures galleries’, exploring diverse relationships with nature.

So, here is the first part of my set of ‘shoulds’ for museums to consider in terms of climate change engagement.

1. Museums should not allow themselves to be irrelevant from society.

It is just not believable to claim on the one hand that museums make a great impact and, on the other, that they are ‘neutral’. Museums, their employees and their visitors are all part of the same world, using the same air, the same resources, and producing the same waste. Like it or not, we all make positive and negative impacts on the world around us.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

2. Museums should acknowledge that what they do normalises people’s views on what is acceptable in society.

Museums have generally accepted that racism, sexism and homophobia have no place in a fair, just, tolerant society. There is still a long way to go for museums to recognise that environmental destruction belongs in the same box, of ‘that’s just not ok’. But, museums are implicated in social norms – the unspoken and unwritten rules of ‘what is ok’. They should take their role seriously, especially when they make claims about how trusted they are. If they don’t live up to that trust, once lost, it will be very difficult to regain: museums will have eroded their own relevance to society.

3. It is not enough to aim to connect people with the museum. The museum should aim to connect people with the world.

In the talk of ‘engagement’ that pervades museums, I strongly encourage people to consider how what they are doing is supporting people’s constructive thinking, feeling and doing beyond the museum. Climate change engagement doesn’t happen in a museum event or session, it happens whenever we make a decision or choice: when we shop, travel, eat, get annoyed or upset. Supporting people to act on climate change in a way that connects with their values and thinking is what it means to be empowered. Put collections and exhibitions to good use: use them to help people make meaning and sense of the world/their world.

Climate Control, Manchester Museum, University of Manchester, 2016 (G Gardner/Manchester Museum, University of Manchester).
Visitors’ contributions to exhibitions needn’t be confined to exit surveys. Giving people opportunities to form, express and share their opinions and ideas about the subject-matter of exhibitions can play a profound role in exploring alternative futures.

4. Museums have a wealth of resources that can contribute positively, often uniquely, towards climate action. They should mobilise these resources to address this, and other societal challenges.

Collections span millions of years in some museums. Cultural heritage enriches our thinking and provides a wellspring of possibilities, inspiration, and ideas for alternatives. Making collections available, and more available, to researchers can help advance understanding of the impacts of climate change on plants and animals, and contribute to conservation management plans. Museums bring people together from different backgrounds, and they can create shared experiences where people explore and begin to build positive futures, step-by-step and one day at a time.

5. Many people are concerned about climate change, but do not see the connection between their own lives and the wider world. Museums should help them make that connection.

In the face of all-too-familiar doom-and-gloom messages, museums can help people make the connections between their own lives and the wider world. This needn’t be confined to intellectual information, but about equipping people with the information and emotional tools to help them act on what matters to them. Encouragement, information, sign-posting, networking, sharing ideas and encouraging people to value and express their own suggestions and ideas, all have a crucial role to play. People need solutions that work for them.

6. The museum should help people explore the past, the present and possible futures.

Museums should help people understand the options they have beyond the museum in relation to museum topics, and help them understand the implications of their different choices. Museums should promote climate action rather than climate damage, whether or not climate change is foregrounded or even presented. The inevitability of the future is worth critiquing. Pose questions on how the future happens: do we just wait for it to come along, whose responsibility is it, what responsibilities do each of us have to ourselves and one another? What would we want it to be like? How can we each play our part to construct the future we desire?

Hopefully this post has included some useful ideas: the rest of the ‘shoulds’ will appear in a future post. I’d be interested to hear if any of these are useful, or not. What would be on your list of ‘shoulds’?


Janes, R. R. and R. Sandell (2019). Museum Activism. Routledge (Museum Meanings Series), London.

Lorenzoni, I., S. Nicholson-Cole and L. Whitmarsh (2007). Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change 17: 445–59.

McGhie, HA (2018). Climate change: a different narrative. Pp. 13–29 in Leal Filho, W., B. Lackner and H. McGhie (Eds.) (2018). Addressing the Challenges in Communicating Climate Change Across Various Audiences. Springer, Gland.

Whitmarsh, L., I. Lorenzoni and S. O’Neill (2011). Engaging the public with climate change: behavior change and communication. Earthscan, London.

Henry in front of a glacier on Spitzbergen in 2017. Photo courtesy of the author

Henry McGhie @Henry_McGhie has a lifelong passion for nature. He is in the process of setting up Curating Tomorrow, a new consultancy to help museums, museum workers and others realise their potential in support of climate action, the Sustainable Development Goals, and nature conservation. He was formerly Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, University of Manchester.

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  1. Cláudia

    This is an extremely well thought out article. I think you really said it all with the “Museums should not allow themselves to be irrelevant from society” point. On the contrary, they should be in fact in the forefront of the (at least) intellectual fight against climate change and be thought provoking. It reminded me of an exhibition called eco-visionaries.

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