Curating Climate: Insights from a Curator of Human Ecology

Many thoughts went through my mind late last year, when I saw that the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) was aiming to hire a Curator of Climate Change. Like my colleague Douglas Worts, who published a thoughtful reflection about the position through this group, I wanted to congratulate the ROM for taking this step. Climate change is a complex and urgent issue, with emerging impacts that are undeniable, pervasive, and potentially overwhelming in social, economic, and environmental terms. I’ve long believed that museums can help raise awareness about these concerns, so having a curator devoted to climate change is clearly a positive development. I could also imagine the challenges the new ROM person might face, since I’ve had climate change in my curatorial quiver for a long time. In this brief note, I offer some thoughts about how I’ve been addressing it.

Over 20 years ago, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (RSM) hired me to curate a series of displays in our Life Sciences Gallery called The Human Factor, which would take a close look at worrisome trends associated with human activity, and potential solutions. Climate change would be a major focus, along with declines in biodiversity, wide and growing disparities (social, economic, and cultural), systemic effects due to pollution and unsustainable rates of resource consumption, and the ever-present threat of nuclear conflict. Curating the displays, which are now being replaced with an updated exhibit called Home: Life in the Anthropocene, involved exploring the latest insights from climate research, systems thinking, ecological economics, ecopsychology, and other interdisciplinary fields. This revived my interest in topics that I had studied in the 1990s as a program coordinator with the Royal Society of Canada, before doing my doctorate in biology. As the exhibit took shape and received positive reviews, it became clear that museums could be important sites for sustainability education, if they could find provocative ways to engage their visitors and address the cultural realities beyond their walls.

Home poster – The Human Factor is currently being replaced with a new exhibit called Home: Life in the Anthropocene, due to open next spring.

With renewed enthusiasm for interdisciplinary studies and encouragement from the RSM, I shifted my research program from ornithology with a focus on the collections, to human ecology with a focus on nature connection and community engagement. This was a very positive and rewarding move that has allowed me to address a range of sustainability issues and develop close working relationships with a wide range of partner organizations, but it has also brought challenges. I had to seek out and gain traction with a new slate of potential funding organizations. Much like culture and sustainability, the notion of studying the ecology of our species seems to encompass everything, so it took time to develop a clear focus. There are recurring questions about how a broad topic like human ecology meshes with the RSM mandate, which is about preserving, studying, and raising awareness about natural history and Indigenous cultures. Short of broadening the mandate, the most compelling answer is that our human ecology projects are helping to raise the RSM’s profile as a relevant public institution. Lastly, none of my research projects involve collecting objects or specimens, so some of my curatorial work is difficult to assess using traditional museum metrics. Instead, research publications, support from partner organizations, and signs of tangible community engagement (e.g., music created through our Songs for Nature project) have become important measures of success.

Hiking – People who take part in Songs for Nature are encouraged to reflect on cultural and natural heritage during guided hikes.
On dock – Songs for Nature is a carefully designed program that allows people to explore their creative ideas, and it’s also a lot of fun!

Will the new ROM curator enjoy this sort of latitude and be able to pursue relevant, cross-cutting outcomes that reach beyond their galleries? Only time will tell of course, but I’m hopeful that the ROM will be supportive as they start to realize the benefits that can come from their new curatorial focus. It would also be wonderful if other major museums followed suit. I don’t mean to suggest that the course I have charted for my work should be emulated in other locations, but it would be exciting (and less lonely) to know that there were other Curators of Human Ecology out there, pursuing a range of innovative research programs. The challenges around climate change and other aspects of sustainably are certainly broad enough, offering a rich supply of situated issues that could be addressed through museum-driven projects.

Schoolhouse – As part of my curatorial program, I encourage communities to safeguard their local heritage by applying the ecomuseum model. Cumberland House is considering the model as a way to protect and draw attention to its rich natural and cultural heritage, including this old schoolhouse built in 1890.

Glenn C. Sutter, Ph.D. is the Research Scientist – Curator of Human Ecology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina.  He is also an Adjunct Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Regina.

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