Museums cultivating hope in an era of increasing climate change

Today’s Guest Post is by Sara Poirier, founder of Spark Strategic Science Communication & Public Engagement. Sara has 18 years of experience developing exhibits, educational programs and writing for publications like Yale Climate Connections.

Innovative museums across the US and Canada are creating exciting programs to change the conversation around climate change from one of doom and gloom to one of hope about the future. At the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Summit 2017, 240 speakers shared their success stories and proposals for solving important conservation and sustainability issues. Online streaming brought in thousands of virtual attendees from around the world. Youth-centered events included conservation salons and maker-style sessions on topics like how to launch a kickstarter campaign. Satellite public programs were held at 14 of the Smithsonian’s museums in Washington, New York, and Panama.

The final round of pitches from a youth invention and problem solving competition held during the 2017 Earth Optimism event. Credit: Darren Miller/Smithsonian Conservation Commons

These museums understand that hope is more than a feel-good emotion.

Sara Poirier

Hope is a powerful antidote to feelings of powerlessness around climate change. Scholars like Maria Ojala have shown that people are more likely to take action when concern about climate change is paired with hope about the future.1 Hope serves as a powerful motivational force that empowers people to act even in the face of uncertainty, and brings a greater capacity for constructive thinking. 2, 3

Hope as a set of cognitive processes 

In his widely accepted model, C. R. Snyder describes hope as a set of cognitive processes with three main components:

  • goals (things we want to happen),
  • pathway thinking (our ability to think of paths to reach our goals), and
  • agency thinking (motivation to follow paths to reach our goals).

Museums looking to apply Snyder’s cognitive model of hope might use approaches like:

  • Inspiring people to consider alternative futures (fostering goal-setting).
  • Helping people to understand climate change concepts to better navigate a way forward (supporting pathway thinking).
  • Sharing inspiring stories of actions communities are taking to address climate change (providing motivation).

The following museums are already going this route.

Science North, The Changing Climate Show

Sheepy will guide audiences through Science North’s new multimedia theatre experience, launching Fall 2019. Credit: Science North

The Changing Climate Show at Science North in Sudbury, Canada, will inspire audiences to take action on climate change, locally, nationally, and internationally. It will explore how the process of science helps us understand our changing planet; how our actions have impacts that we all feel; and how our individual roles in global action can bring about solutions. A review of key climate concepts will help audiences navigate paths forward, while video vignettes of local impacts and actions being taken by real people will help motivate audiences to take action.

Early testing found that visitors want more information on solutions. As a result, this new experience will focus on  ways that individuals and communities are taking action. This messaging is reinforced with examples of how Science North is implementing  climate-friendly infrastructure, including a solar microgrid and Electrical Vehicle (EV) charging stations.

See also Green Initiatives:

The New York Hall of Science, Connected Worlds

Connected Worlds immerses visitors in an animated world where their actions impact how well the world is kept in balance. Credit: Connected Worlds by The New York Hall of Science

Understanding the interrelationships between the many components of natural systems is an essential skill for navigating paths forward on climate change. At the New York Hall of Science in Corona, NY, Connected Worlds’ fantastical environments allow visitors to experiment with different elements in a system and see the effects of their actions.

The timeframes and impacts are scaled so that visitors can comprehend the relationships between components. The experiences in Connected Worlds are not about good or bad outcomes, but rather showing users how different elements within a system are related. This supports the exhibit’s goals of increasing knowledge about environmental systems and fostering empowerment and agency in visitors. 

OMSI, Under the Arctic: Digging into the Permafrost

In Under the Arctic: Digging Into Permafrost, visitors are transported to the Arctic using the sights and smells of the Western Hemisphere’s only permafrost research tunnel. Credit: Oregon Museum of Science and Industry

Under the Arctic: Digging into the Permafrost is a traveling exhibition from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon, that explores the frozen ground under the Arctic, and what happens when it thaws. The gravity of the subject—the massive release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost—led developers to create an emotional journey through the exhibition so that by the end, visitors would leave with a sense of resilience, hope for the future, and desire to take action.

This transformative approach was inspired by the Inzovu curve, a model developed from the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. After learning how thawing permafrost affects the lives of Alaskans, visitors encounter stories of community resilience: engineering roads with insulation to prevent freezing and refreezing, and elevating sinking houses to increase airflow flow and keep the ground frozen.

The Smithsonian: Earth Optimism

Following the success of the 2017 Washington D.C. Summit, plans are underway for a 2020 pan-institutional event involving all of the Smithsonian’s museums, galleries, and research institutes. Initiatives like Earth Optimism can help cultivate Snyder’s cognitive model of hope by bringing people together to discuss ideas about the future (goal setting); formulating ideas for how to get there (pathway thinking); and motivating action through the celebration of success stories and creation of communities of support (agency thinking).

As the impacts of climate change become even more fully realized, anxiety and feelings of helplessness around the issue could be transformed through museum experiences that activate hope.

Sara Poirier

This article mentioned a few examples. Know of any others? We would love to hear from you.

Sara Poirier, founder of Spark Strategic Science Communication & Public Engagement, has 18 years of experience developing exhibits, educational programs and writing for publications like Yale Climate Connections. Her current projects include online games and television shows on climate change for educational networks and independent producers. She has a MSc. in Science Communication and Public Engagement and a BSc. in Astrophysics.


  1. Ojala, M., 2012. Hope and climate change: The importance of hope for environmental engagement among young people. Environmental Education Research, 18(5), pp.625-642.
  2. Drach-Zahavy, A. and Somech, A., 2002. Coping with health problems: The distinctive relationships of hope sub-scales with constructive thinking and resource allocation. Personality and Individual Differences, 33(1), pp.103-117.
  3. Courville, S., and N. Piper. 2004. Harnessing hope through NGO activism. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 592: 39–61.

This Post Has 0 Comments

  1. Joy

    It’s great to see these examples – I wonder what kinds of evaluation these museums are doing to gauge the difference they’re making, particularly around individual and collective action? So often we recognize the importance of new behaviours but lack clarity on how to exercise agency.

  2. Sara Poirier

    Thanks for the question, Joy. I spoke with Geralyn Abinader, Creative Producer at the New York Hall of Science. She said that during a prototyping phase for Connected Worlds, they tested the experience with school groups ranging from 2nd to 8th grade, refining the interactive experience with each iteration. Those consisted of pre- and post- interviews, observations and talk alouds. After opening, they continued to test different ways to facilitate the experience for 1) casual visitors and families, 2) school groups that reserved the space, 3) a variety of session durations to accommodate how many visitors were at the museum, 4) free play. These consisted of observations and pre- and post- interviews or questionnaires, as well as observations from the Explainer staff who are on the floor in the exhibition. They found that what people take away from the exhibition depends a great deal on age, group size, intention (casual visitor v. class session) and duration of the visit. Generally, visitors focus on managing water and plant growth. The relationships across environments are understood by many, but not so much for 2nd and 3rd grade, which is what is expected cognitively.

    Overall, the outcomes of Connected Worlds align with the original intentions: the visitor actively engages in the system and works collaboratively. Kids tend to test theories out a lot, like stopping all the water to the system to see what will happen. Many variables can be changed in the exhibition to create different conditions and data is collected on how visitors interact with the system. Currently, staff are doing research to (1) see if this data can inform how to create support materials for the classes and (2) inform another research project about how they can make this data useful for the visitor in deciding on strategies in the exhibition.

  3. Kirsti Kivinen-Newman

    Hi Joy, I am the Science North Staff Scientist who is the Science Lead for our new Climate Action Show (the one with the sheep!). As Sara mentions above, we carried out front-end evaluation with our visitors to establish our visitors’ baseline of climate change knowledge, determine any gaps in knowledge, and to inform what should be communicated in the new show. This research will be repeated after the show opens to measure the impact of our production on our intended overall learning goals, as compared to the initial research findings pre-show opening. The show’s goals are the following:

    After experiencing this show the audience will understand:
    – How the process of science helps us understand our changing planet
    – Every individual is currently effecting and is being affected by climate changes
    – Even as individuals, we can be a part of global action to bring about solutions

    The Climate Action object theatre will be a 15-minute immersive show experience that will engage 40 seated visitors in compelling stories showcasing advances in our understanding of the complexities of climate change. Topics of interest for the newest iteration of the show include oceans (as they cover 70% of our globe and hold 97% of the earth’s water), permafrost, carbon sequestration, agriculture, global food security, ocean acidification, Arctic ice, species diversity, emerging technologies (e.g. renewable energy, sustainable transportation, solar), water resources, and carbon profiles. Visitors will be empowered by uplifting success stories of innovative engineering and creative solutions that people around the world are implementing to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The experience will also include an opportunity for visitors to pledge personal action in their daily lives, including inspiring change in organizations and governments and speaking about climate change actions, mitigations and adaptations with friends and family.

    Our current research plan does not assess whether we are spurring action or change in behaviour – especially behaviour over time. I hope we will be able to anecdotally gauge this from conversations our Bluecoats (our exhibit floor interpreters) have with visitors. We also plan to have complementary climate change and climate action exhibits and experiences immediately adjacent to the show as well as elsewhere throughout the science centre, and these may include asking visitors (who are returning guests) to comment on actions that they have taken, inspired by their Science North climate change experience.

    Ancillary exhibits located outside the theatre will support the Climate Action show, including hands-on activities to activate conversations about climate change, interactive models that explore clean growth through alternative energy strategies in our homes, businesses and communities, compelling data visualizations that elucidate complex science terms such as gigatons and innovative demonstrations of live data related to global greenhouse gas emissions.

    We will not be able to implement specific measures until after the show opens. We are very interested in knowing if anyone else, especially in museums or science centers, has evaluated behavioural differences in visitors after engagement with an exhibit or a media experience.

    In a broader sense, Science North’s Green Initiatives are measured in two ways:
    – A question is included in our overall Visitor Satisfaction Survey: “Did you notice any of the things we are doing to be environmentally friendly?” with a comment section in which visitors can expand on what they’ve noticed.
    – Our Green Initiatives are also on our organizational performance Scorecard and are measured quarterly so that we can adjust and improve our Green strategies to ensure that Science North is environmentally responsible and that we are engaging our audiences.

    I hope that answers your question. Thank you kindly for your interest. I’d be happy to answer any other questions you have.

  4. mchriscastle

    Thanks, Kirsti! Might we develop this into a blog post? The question of the effectiveness of climate change education comes up quite a bit. It would be great to highlight your thoughtful answer.

  5. Joy Davis

    Thanks for your thoughts on approaches to gauging the impacts of your programming around climate change themes. I appreciate the challenges of moving beyond evaluating for learning and behaviour to actually gauging results. The follow-up is both expensive and difficult! I did a bit of work in this area to explore the ways in which museums workers changed their practice after taking professional development coursework. One of the resources that was helpful in thinking about evaluating impacts was Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model. While this is fairly focussed on organizational development and job performance (and has a 5th stage that relates to return on investment) it offers a interesting framework for considering the importance of evaluating results in informal learning.

    Here’s a model — and of course the extensive literature and critiques on evaluation in general, and on Kirkpatrick in particular, addresses the difficulties that you’ve already identified in gauging impact!

    All the best as you push the boundaries of programming in this important area. Building hope and motivating new behaviours are key!

  6. sarapoirier

    Kirsti, you might find this paper interesting: Flora, J.A., Saphir, M., Lappé, M., Roser-Renouf, C., Maibach, E.W. and Leiserowitz, A.A., 2014. Evaluation of a national high school entertainment education program: The Alliance for Climate Education. Climatic Change, 127(3-4), pp.419-434. They found that “exposure to climate science in an engaging edutainment format changes youths’ knowledge, beliefs, involvement, and behavior positively and moves them to audience segments that are more engaged in the issue”. The objectives they evaluated for are similar to the ones you mention for Science North’s new show. Follow-up evaluation was conducted 4 weeks after the study. Thanks for sharing and looking forward to hearing more about the Changing Climate show!

Leave a Reply