Creating a Positive Museum Environment for Climate Action – 6 Essential Conditions

Today’s Guest Post is by Joy Davis, PhD CAHP.  Joy is a freelance cultural heritage specialist and a member of the Advisory Group of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice.

When you go off to a workshop or conference on climate change – or when you send staff to such events – do you take time to consider what you and your museum might do with new concepts, new practices? And do you think through the kinds of adaptations that might be needed to put new practices to work? Anticipating these opportunities and challenges is a big part of the professional development process.

The literature of ‘learning transfer’ (**please see below for links) predicts that relatively little of what is learned in classrooms and workshops makes a meaningful transition into the workplace, at least in the short term. There are all sorts of obstacles, all sorts of reasons why you may find it hard to introduce new practices — even in the most supportive of museums.

Figuring out how to persuade your colleagues to undertake meaningful climate initiatives is likely to require that you recognize and negotiate a complex mix of organizational dynamics.

Generally speaking, a number of conditions that create an ‘invitational’ or positive climate for innovation have to be in place for learning transfer to take place. These include visible supports, adequate resources, thoughtful planning, and opportunities for experimentation. Staff and volunteers need encouragement to acquire and adapt systematic learning that helps the museum remain current. People need frequent feedback, along with favourable consequences for applying content. And it should be noted that learning rarely transfers without considerable adaptation to meet the needs of the workplace and ensure that it is relevant and timely.

As you think about your own work setting, consider whether any of the following dynamics contribute to a welcoming environment for the climate action initiatives that excite you:

Your Museum’s Mission Supports Climate Action

Courtesy Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

1. Your leadership sees a link between climate action and the museum’s mission and strategic priorities and has taken the time to identify the kinds of initiatives that fit well within the museum’s core purpose. An Advocacy Policy is a great place to start.

Necessary Resources, Skills and Knowledge Are In Place

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2. Efforts are underway  to systematically plan for the development of associated resources, skills and knowledge that will enable you and others to fulfill expectations. Collaboration, Cooperation, and Conversation skills are one great place to start. Developing creativity might be another.

Commitment to Experimentation

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3. Resources for the time and coordinated effort needed to introduce new concepts, new practices, are available. So is a commitment to investing in and experimenting with new climate action initiatives that involve a shift in values, programming, or types of public engagement.

Failure is regarded as a learning experience.

Internal Support

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4. Supervisors have the time, inclination and skills to support climate-related initiatives. They embrace new concepts, approaches, and partnerships.

Shared Decision-Making

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5. You and your colleagues have the skills and are positioned within the museum to influence the kinds of decision-making needed to move an initiative forward.

Everyone’s On Board

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6. Other staff have been involved the discourse around museums and climate justice, and are interested in and supportive of new initiatives. They are clear on their roles and encourage your efforts to introduce new programs. You are not alone.

Other dynamics to consider in helping your museum to take climate action might include

  • supportive governance or funding,
  • comfort with activist stance, and
  • complementary priorities.

What other dynamics do you encounter? And what can you do to navigate through your organizational dynamics to champion climate action?

As you think about these ‘invitational’ conditions, keep in mind the critical importance of your own sense of agency. As noted in an earlier post on being an ‘agentic’ professional

… museums can only respond to change when the individuals involved champion new ideas, approaches and practices.

YOU have the power to influence those around you if you approach the things you feel passionate about with intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness.  At the same time, you must be respectful and inclusive as you build support for your ideas.

Thanks for reflecting on the conditions  – and opportunities — that ensure that your museum welcomes the introduction of new concepts, new practices. As you reflect on the supports and perhaps the challenges involved in engaging in climate action, what advice might you offer others?

** Despite considerable investment in adult education and professional development across multiple sectors, only 10 – 30% of classroom learning is found to make a meaningful transition to the workplace, as noted by the following authors:​

  • Detterman, D. K., & Sternberg, R. J. (Eds.). (1996). Transfer on trial: Intelligence, cognition, and instruction. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.
  • Hutchins, H. M. (2009). In the trainer’s voice: A study of training transfer practices. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 22(1), 69-93.
  • Leberman, S., McDonald, L., & Doyle, S. (2006). The transfer of learning: Participants’ perspectives of adult education and training: Gower Publishing, Ltd.
  • Merriam, S. B., & Leahy, B. (2005). Learning transfer: A review of the research in adult education and training. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 14.
  • Naquin, S. S., & Holton III, E. F. (2002). The effects of personality, affectivity, and work commitment on motivation to improve work through learning. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 13(4), 358-376.

Joy Davis explored the dynamics of learning transfer in the museum sector in her doctoral dissertation Putting Learning to Work: knowledge transitions from continuing professional education to museum workplaces

Joy Davis

Joy Davis worked with the University of Victoria for over thirty years, directing such innovative programs as Cultural Resource Management, Aboriginal Language Revitalization and Intercultural Education. And in her final years at UVic, she took on interim dean or director positions with a range of units including Continuing Studies, University Art Collections, and Community Relations. In her new role as a freelance cultural heritage specialist and in her work with the Coalition, she has an abiding interest in how learning is adapted to meet the situated needs of museums, and in museums’ capacity to respond to changing expectations

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