6 Considerations as Museum Studies Programs take Climate Action

Today’s Guest Post is by Joy Davis, former Director of the Cultural Resource Management Programs at the University of Victoria, and a founding member of the CMCJ Advisory Group.

Every day we hear worrying evidence of the impacts of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we must cut our emissions in half in the next decade. We can count the years before the world that our children inherit is irreversibly compromised. The urgent need for action is no longer a matter of debate. There is no time to waste.

Many of us in the museum sector recognize that we have important roles to play. Museum research can contribute to the public’s understanding of impacts. We can reduce our personal and organizational footprints. And we can use our tremendous capacity for communications to heighten awareness and encourage individuals and communities to exercise their capacity to make a difference through changed behaviours and problem solving.

But meaningful museum engagement in the climate action discourse takes commitment, knowledge, and skills. This is where museum studies programs play a role.

Whether in academic or professional settings, museum studies programs offer insightful perspectives on where museums have come from – and where they are going.

Through teaching, conferencing and research they constantly refine the attitudes, knowledge and skills that shape museum principles and practice. And they create important networks that link learners with colleagues, museums, content specialists and communities. This positions them to serve as catalysts for thoughtful and intentional climate action in the museum context.

Some museum studies programs are already highlighting climate action concepts. And many others are pondering how to integrate such themes within their curriculum and instructional activities. See our CMCJ Museum Studies Call to Action Page for an ongoing listing of programs actively involved in climate action. Each program brings unique specializations, organizational contexts, resources, students, and goals to this process. And all are balancing their primary commitment to a critical focus on their current museum curriculum with the need to address emergent concepts.

In busy, inherently interdisciplinary museum studies programs, the task of integrating concepts of climate action requires careful consideration of needs, options and outcomes – and resources. Here are some thoughts on what this might entail…

Fit with Curriculum


With so many ways of addressing climate action in museum contexts (through community engagement, public programming, exhibitions, research, collections…), where can your museum studies program focus its instructional and research energies in meaningful ways? Do you have a specialization that allows you to emphasize a particular area? How can climate action be integrated in your unique curriculum? How do you balance this new set of concepts with the many other topics addressed in your program?

Students’ needs and interests


What do the emergent and/or established museum workers who participate in your program need to know in order to encourage and support climate action initiatives? Does your program build the core skills (communication, collaboration, self-management, strategic planning) and inclination (initiative, agency, sense of efficacy) they will need to adapt their learning to the realities of the workplace? To understand and exercise personal agency? Do they perceive opportunities to apply their learning and influence change?

Building and sharing expertise


What kinds of expertise do you need in order to address climate themes in general and in museum contexts in particular? Can you partner with specialists in the community and across the academic world to bring new perspectives into your museum studies program? Are there opportunities to partner with other museum studies programs? And can your program contribute to the ways in which programs in such disciplines as education or environmental studies address climate action?

Instructional practices


How can you develop instructional activities, based on the learning outcomes you establish for your students? Some approaches are fairly straightforward. There are a growing number of publications, videos, and other media that can be utilized to explore and critique climate action in museum contexts. The video series “Museums and the Climate Challenge,” produced by the Alberta Museums Association in partnership with the CMCJ and Shadow Light Productions, is a great example. Library and Google searches reveal dozens of other resources created in the past decade. And you’ll find many valuable instructional materials listed on the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice (CMCJ) Resources Page and elsewhere on the CMCJ Website  , Facebook Group, and Twitter Page.

Assignments, case studies , and guest speakers (in person or through online channels) can focus attention on climate action concepts in established courses and workshops. Experiential learning activities, including internships, practica, independent study and community-based research, offer valuable ways to connect students with real-life climate action initiatives. And new courses, programs, symposia, conferences, research initiatives and/or collaborations all present exciting, if somewhat complicated, possibilities that will make attention to climate action a distinctive part of your program.



How can your museum studies program utilize its research capacity to advance understanding of climate action in museum contexts? Course evaluation and subsequent assessments of students’ learning, behaviours, and the longer-term impacts of their learning in museum settings can gauge the efficacy of your programming in this area. And faculty and students’ research and writing can offer valuable insights.

Minimizing footprints


And of course, taking more environmentally sustainable approaches to your own program management is timely. Just as you always gauge financial impacts of programming decisions, so you can consistently question environmental impacts. Are there ways to reduce the consumption of materials? Can you reduce student travel while maintaining the professional and social interactions that are such a critical benefit of museum studies? Instructional technologies have become so sophisticated that some argue engaging at a distance has advantages over classroom-based instruction.

It seem worth exploring opportunities to reduce the time that staff and faculty spend in cars and planes. Bob Janes, who is often asked to work with students and to speak with colleagues at conferences, makes an excellent case for minimizing travel in his blog post “Museum Conferences, Air Travel and Global Warming: A Modest Proposal.”

In addition to minimizing your own program footprint, you can ensure that your existing curriculum addresses ways that museums can minimize the environmental impacts of day-to-day operations. Whether your program focuses on conservation, exhibition design, management or any of the other myriad topics involved in museum practice, there are resource materials that offer useful guidelines in this area. David Jensen’s recent CMCJ Blog post “Questioning the Sustainability of Museum Exhibit Design” is a great example. It is likely you are already advocating for sustainable practices in your curriculum, but a systematic audit of coursework to strengthen this theme may be timely.


Clearly museum studies programs like those listed on our CMCJ Museum Studies Call to Action Page must grapple with many questions as they step up to the challenges presented by climate change. It is the Coalition’s hope that these questions stimulate discussion and inspire thinking about meaningful program development. We hope that the opportunity to talk among museum studies colleagues, students and interest members of the museum community further strengthens the networks that bring us together. Thanks for joining in the discussion!

Joy Davis Pic

Joy Davis has specialized in museum and heritage studies for over thirty years. She served as Director of the Cultural Resource Management Programs at the University of Victoria until 2013, and focused her doctoral research on the ways in which museum studies graduates adapt their learning to the situated needs of museums. See her post Agentic Professionals: How individual museum workers can champion climate justice. She holds a Master of Museology from UofT (1978) and a PhD in Education from UVic (2011).

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  1. Joy Davis

    Let’s start a conversation! With so many questions, let’s start at with Curriculum. I know that there is a huge range of principles and practices to address in museum studies program. How — and where — do you adapt or enlarge your curriculum to address climate action in museum contexts?

  2. Fiona Graham

    Hi Joy,

    As the Adjunct Professor responsible for teaching Preventive Conservation to the Queen’s University’s Master of Art Conservation students, I am able to incorporate climate action very directly in the curriculum. Specifically, we consider the energy costs (climate-wise as well as financial) of environmental requirements for collections. In addition to considering what collections really need (as opposed to what outdated guidelines say they need), we explore the variety of ways in which an appropriate environment can be provided outside of energy-sucking HVAC systems. We also look at ways in which HVAC systems can be designed and run more efficiently. Unfortunately, all of these are addressed in a fairly summary fashion given time restraints, but the topic of sustainability comes up regularly in class. Other areas where we discuss it more or less directly include lighting, storage and exhibit design, building design and maintenance, and choices of materials for storage, display and packing.

    FYI, I also incorporate climate action considerations in my consulting work :-)

    Fiona Graham

  3. Joy

    Thanks for posting Fiona – it’s interesting to hear how your curriculum evolves in response sustainability factors and the initiative you are taking to keep it current. This also raises the perennial question of how professional associations keep guidelines for practice up to date.

  4. Susan B Spero

    At JFKU Museum Studies we used a wide variety of strategies to integrate over arching societal challenges (Race, Climate, Decolonization etc.) into the curriculum. As we move into closing the accredited Master’s and MBA dual degrees, it is heartening to know that we have two students of the remaining group who are focused on green issues for their final thesis projects. Note that we will be continuing a very inexpensive Continuing Ed class — which gets at social justice issues of affordability of a museum studies education.

    Thanks for this list of ideas: I wish we could have done more, but know that this mind-set lives with our students as the progress in their careers.

  5. Joy

    Hi Susan – always great to hear from you, though I was saddened to be reminded that JFK will no longer be supporting the California museum community and well beyond. You’ve always been recognized for your programming on emergent issues and I know your graduates will carry this forward in their practice.

  6. joyannedavis

    Let’s move on to focus on student interests and needs. Are your students encouraging your program to explore climate action in the museum context? And what specialized knowledge and skills do they require? If you are a student, what can you do to put your learning to work?

  7. Joy Davis


    Thanks to those of you who have followed theMuseum Studies Call to Action, read this Blog, thought about approaches to climate action in museums — and museum studies — contexts, and taken a bit of time to comment here or on the CMCJ Facebook page. Our goal has been to generate discussion around the ways in which museums studies programs can further integrate climate action in their programming.

    While online discussion has been quiet, we are pleased that this initiative has generated conversations off-line and, we hope, among colleagues in your programs. And it is great to know that over 300 have visited the Blog page. Through this process, we have learned that a number of programs are actively engaged in climate action programming while others are planning new initiatives. We have also attracted international interest in the work of the CMCJ. And we hope that reading the Blog and the information provided by programs below may result in new networks, new programs. We will watch with interest as museum studies programs across Canada and well beyond make use of their considerable influence to build awareness of museums’ capacity for climate action.

  8. mchriscastle

    Thanks for all your hard work and effort on this, Joy. Look forward to hearing more from others as the initiative expands.

  9. Robert R. Janes

    Excellent work, Joy. I’m hoping that we can use your initiative as a model and connect with international museum studies programs. Thanks again.

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