How Can Museums Contribute to Solving the Climate Change Crisis? – Reflecting on the Royal Ontario Museum’s Initiative

Today’s Guest Post is by Douglas Worts, Culture and Sustainability Specialist with WorldViews Consulting in Toronto, Canada.

One small example of how scientists have known for well over a century that burning coal would change the chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere and increase global temperatures. From, “The Rodney & Otamatea Times”, New Zealand, 1912.

Culture, Climate Change and Museums:

Scientists have understood for many decades that humanity has evolved in ways that increasingly threaten the very survival of our, and other, species. In 1912, an unnamed author in New Zealand made the connection between burning coal and changing the planet’s climate. For over a century, human cultures have largely ignored the insights of science, in favour of pursing other preoccupations. And perhaps that is not entirely unexpected – given the fact that the threat did not seem imminent.

Fast-forward some 108 years, and the reality has changed quite dramatically. Global population has grown from under two billion to almost eight billion! Humanity’s addiction to energy has sky-rocketed – and the bulk of that demand is met by the burning of fossil fuels. Plus, we have witnessed the mowing down of large tracts of forest, which has hampered the planet’s system for absorbing atmospheric carbon.

Climate change is much more complicated than this, but the pattern is clear – increased carbon emissions + loss of the ability to sequester carbon emissions = climate change. Such trends are sneaky especially because carbon emissions are invisible, requiring scientific instruments to measure them. It has been pretty easy for humanity to ignore the calls of climate scientists, especially as our culture continued to innovate all sorts of interesting products and services to consume. The new name for our current and evolving era is the Anthropocene, which is the geologic period in which humanity has become the most influential force affecting planetary systems. It will be rather short, unless human culture adapts to operate within the constraints of planetary systems.

In recent years, an increasing number of museums have grappled with how to acknowledge the reality that humanity has been destroying the very planetary systems that it relies on for its existence.

One particularly noteworthy Canadian museum that has been on this path for over two decades is the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. Dr Glenn Sutter is the Curator of Human Ecology at the RSM. Since the late 1990s, Glenn has embraced the holistic, systems-thinking approach necessary to deal with climate change and other related ‘sustainability’ issues. He not only develops exhibit and programs, but is currently supporting a network of community-developed ‘ecomuseums’ across the province. See . Photo By Muhsatteb – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Some museums have chosen to ‘green’ their operations, as one way to address climate change. This involves such strategies as:

  • increasing energy efficiency;
  • reducing waste and Green House Gas emissions (GHG);
  • rethinking what products they use in their operations so as to reduce all forms of environmental damage.

Others feel the need to make sure that the public at large understands the problems of current climate trends, and how activities of human beings are at the root.

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto – photo: Douglas Worts

More recently, some museums are establishing high-profile positions to lead initiatives that will address the climate crisis. One such museum, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), in Toronto, Canada, has advertised for a new Curator of Climate Change. It is laudable step that will be watched closely by many in the museum profession.

This article aims to examine how such novel professional positions within museums might lead to new and better understanding of how to catalyze visions, both institutional and across the living culture, that might lead to meaningful impacts.

Perhaps more important than examining the potential of the ROM’s new curatorial position, is to foster new museological discussions that consider how museums can become effective catalysts of cultural adaptation and change across the living culture.

Douglas Worts

By examining the ROM’s job posting in some detail, it is possible to project where at least some opportunities for innovation lie. But before examining the specifics of the ROM’s Curator of Climate Change position, it is worth examining the context within which this position will be situated, both societally and institutionally.

Climate Change is a Wicked Cultural Problem:

In late 2020, people around the globe are under siege by an array of menacing forces – one of which is our changing climate. Beyond the climate crisis, many see that democracy itself, as a co-creative, participatory form of collective visioning and governance, seems to have ground to a virtual halt. Depending on where you live in the world, few people have escaped the anxiety caused by battles that have raged along partisan political lines for months and years. 

Wicked Problems are much more complex and ‘entangled’ than simple problems. Climate Change is a Wicked Problem – mostly because of the cultural/social/political/economic factors that have caused it

Meanwhile, in the past 10 months, a species-jumping virus has sent citizens everywhere scrambling to avoid contracting Covid-19. In response, governments have had to disable significant parts of local/global economies to help save lives.

Simultaneously, a curtain of denial that has fuelled centuries of inaction regarding persistent problems of systemic racism and economic/social inequity, has been forcefully pulled back. What has been revealed for many is the horrific nature of ‘normalized’ racial injustice that exists pretty much everywhere, often woven together with systematic social/economic inequity.

And if that was not enough, the honourable role of investigative journalism in independent media, has been thrust into a fight for its life with a wild surge in the use of ‘alternative facts’ from a host of shadowy and erstwhile honourable media sources. It’s been quite a tense and worrisome ride over the past few years – but especially throughout 2020.  

Climate change is a ‘wicked problem’. This term refers to situations that are extremely complex, have many factors contributing to the problem, such that it is almost impossible to solve. It may be useful to refer to wicked problems as predicaments, that must be navigated, rather than assuming that there is a solution. When it comes to the climate crisis, the immediate cause of the problem is the Green House Gas emissions (with carbon being the biggest contributor) that are released into the Earth’s atmosphere. These emissions are caused by many factors, but most prolifically by the burning of fossil fuels.

Humanity has become accustomed to having enormous amounts of energy in every part of our lives – for transportation, heating, cooling, the materials we manufacture and consumer, the fertilizers we use to supercharge our crops, and much more. Changing patterns of energy production and use threatens jobs, the economy, human wellbeing. But carbon emissions are less of a problem when there are safe places for carbon to be stored, naturally. Forests have been an important part of the cycle that absorbs carbon and converts it to living trees. A special bonus of this process is how trees generate oxygen as they absorb carbon. However, humanity has been consuming forests for a long time – e.g. to make way for farming, to extract wood as an input for industry, for many types of ‘development’, and more.

Forests have been an important part of the cycle that absorbs carbon and converts it to living trees. Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

To many people, it makes perfect sense that renewable energy should become the substitute technology for fossil-fuel-based systems. However, massive, global corporations have invested billions in their oil and gas operations and do not want to give up any of their assets. Corporate lobbying of governments by fossil fuel companies has reached unimaginable levels. These lobbyists constantly remind governments and public alike how much fossil fuels have done for employment, investments and how vital they are in serving the need for energy.

Governments, in turn, have been subsidizing oil companies with tax dollars for a very long time. For decades, the public has been assaulted by propaganda produced by the oil industry, casting doubt and skepticism on the seriousness of climate change trends. Politicians have been largely afraid to tackle the problem seriously. This is just part of what makes this situation a ‘wicked problem’. And it is also why it makes sense for museums to develop the skills, partnerships and innovative ways of engaging the public to become catalysts of cultural change and adaptation.

In recent years, scientists have brought to light many global, systemic threats to the Earth’s natural systems. Unprecendented species loss, ocean acidification, the melting of polar ice caps, and much more have been profiled in the news. In 2020, in the midst of this year’s unprecedented pandemic-amplified brouhaha, Canada’s largest museum – the ROM – made the move to create its new and potentially very promising role – a Curator of Climate Change. So, what, you might wonder, does the ROM want to achieve?

Curator of Climate Change – What is the Institutional Vision for Meaningful Impact?

The ROM’s Mission, in part, is to “transform lives by helping people to understand the past, make sense of the present, and come together to shape a shared future.”

This new position, within the context of their mission, suggests that the ROM is stepping up to this formidable challenge. There will be many details that need to be made clear – and presumably, the new Curator will play a very significant role in dealing with the issues related to our climate crisis. Such ambition must be based on the development of a plan for:

  • striking a dynamic, yet delicate balance between great humility and ambitious vision;
  • forging new forms of collaboration amongst vision/values-aligned partners; as well as a
  • commitment to co-creative processes with people across society.

This path also may require a reassessment of traditional museum values, goals, skills, strategies, and measures of success.

Traditionally, curators in museums are experts in their fields. They often have advanced academic degrees in one of a wide range of disciplines. Curators normally conduct research on objects/specimens, using lenses of science, social science and humanities to expand and deepen understanding. The fruits of these labours are then commonly translated into exhibits, public programs and publications, as ways of disseminating knowledge. As a general rule, museums have often steered clear of controversial topics, especially those that may be polarized within communities. For reasons of potential difficulties with funders, who generally don’t want to be associated with contentious issues, and because there are many messy challenges involved in managing controversy, museums have largely focused on topics that have not generated heated opinions within the public realm.

ROM’s Biodiversity Gallery makes clear – humans are threatening the future of all species. But the impacts of these galleries on nature remain unclear. New climate change strategies could strive for impacts on the culture. Photos: D. Worts

However, there are many reasons that museums could be considered ideal organizations to wade into controversial topics. For example, the public sees museums as very trustworthy organizations that are not associated with political partisanship. Museums are quite publicly accessible and have spaces that welcome community members. For the most part, museums have both research and public education/engagement mandates. Many museums already have a history of producing public programs that are relevant for a diverse public.

However, figuring out how a museum will anticipate and manage active public controversy is not exactly ‘business as usual’ for museums.  Further, successfully tackling the systemic challenges of climate change will necessitate that change be undertaken across the living culture (e.g. through social, economic, technological and other changes, which is where the causal forces of climate change are located).  

Museums that are truly interested in helping to facilitate this cultural adaptation will find themselves in relatively unfamiliar waters.

Douglas Worts

Accordingly, it seems reasonable to wonder what the museum’s expectations are with regard to using its considerable influence and leverage to help facilitate meaningful change that is inclusive, science-based, and rooted in notions of cultural resiliency and adaptive change?

If museums see themselves as catalysts for societal engagement, specifically to address pressing cultural issues, such as climate change, then they will need to be fairly clear and articulate about what they assume “success” might look like for a wide range of stakeholders.  Given that scientific projections are clear that, unless current climate trends are altered, large parts of the planet will become uninhabitable by humans. And for those parts of the planet where humans can survive, considerable adaptation will be necessary.

Does the ROM see itself as being an institution that can help a population make informed decisions about how individuals, organizations, communities and societal systems need to change in order to alter the inertia of the status quo?

Douglas Worts

Institutionally, museums are known by the public largely for their exhibits and their public programs. Museums attract local and tourist visitors alike, primarily during leisure time. Is the expectation that a museum’s commitment to embracing climate change will manifest primarily as exhibits and onsite public programs? If so, what is the potential that such strategies will actually foster meaningful change across the living culture?  And if exhibits and programs are not seen as leading to robust public engagement that, in turn, lead to cultural change that addresses a force like climate change, then what alternatives are being considered? Can new innovative interventions be designed to be deployed in the living culture (i.e. beyond the galleries)? How might this work? These are relevant questions that likely will be discussed by museums considering how best to venture into a topic like ‘climate change’. Because this type of role is quite new to museum, it may require them to develop new ‘theories of change’[1] to help guide their own internal transformations.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History rethought its relationship to community. Their Theory of Change helped guide its process. A similar ‘theory of change’ could be developed at ROM.

It is worth noting that this new position at the ROM has been endowed.  This suggests that the position of Curator of Climate Change will continue to be funded, regardless of the changing pressures of the museum’s institutional priorities. That the ROM has secured external funding to ensure the stability of this position is a great credit to its vision and its perceived ability to become a leader in addressing climate change. It is also wonderful to think that private donors are ready to help the museum realize its capacity to become a meaningful force in making a difference.

Now, let’s consider the new position being advertised by the ROM.

How has the Role Been Defined?

What, you might ask, will a Curator of Climate Change do?[2]  It’s a good question, for which some answers are provided by the job description, while other answers remain elusive – presumably because the successful candidate is expected to work out those details and negotiate them with the ROM and partners.

It was encouraging that the job posting states that the position is an

unparalleled opportunity to envision, shape and grow an interdisciplinary Climate Initiative joining with regional, global and international partners, to engage audiences of all ages on the complex and myriad impacts of climate change on the planet and on humanity.

Certainly, the museum administration seems to appreciate that the topic of climate change is complex, global and requiring of an interdisciplinary approach. However, the use of the term audience seems to leap out.

The term ‘audience’ has a long history in the museum world. It conjures up the traditional notion of people coming to the museum as in-person or virtual visitors to have experiences that are authentic and meaningful, usually within a leisure-time context. Is the thinking that this person would generate initiatives (e.g. exhibits and/or programs) that are mounted at the museum to inform people about climate change? If so, does the ROM feel that exhibit and programs offer ways that will generate a meaningful impact “on the complex and myriad impacts of climate change on the planet and on humanity”? And if not, are they open to the full spectrum of potential strategies that a new curator might develop to generate such impacts?

The job posting contains quite a few references to the new curator being involved in public education. While ‘public education’ has been the principal rationale for public funding of museums, it seems likely that meaningful climate change impacts on the public will need to go well beyond traditional mechanisms for informing visitors about the science of climate.

All stakeholders, not just corporations and politicians, need to be part of imagining the future they want to inhabit.

Douglas Worts

They also need to understand that certain options that have served the public well in the past, are no longer viable options. The influence by corporations and partisan political parties on how societies evolve may be a central part of the ‘wicked problem’ manifests as ‘climate change’. Perhaps our economic and political systems need to be significantly reconsidered to help humanity find itself again on a viable path towards a sustainable future.

There are other questions that emerge from a reading of this job posting.

  • What types of impacts might these include?
  • Will they be impacts on individuals, groups, communities, or something else?

Depending on whether the ROM aspires to go beyond ‘audiences’, and venture into the realm of intervening in the larger living culture, the desired public impacts and the engagement strategies may take a wide range of forms. The Inside-Outside Model: Museums Planning for Cultural Impacts (see figure below) helps to illustrate how actions taken within the museum can be designed to have impacts across society – if the museum plans effectively for cultural impacts.

If the ROM does imagine such a positive expansion of the museum’s field of operating – perhaps embracing the potential of working co-creatively with a range of vision and values-aligned partners (including selected businesses, communities, other non-profits, governments, etc.) – then how might that actually work?

A lingering question is whether the notion of ‘audiences’ remains too narrow a notion of ‘public’ for this curator achieve truly meaningful impacts in the living culture?

Inside-Outside Model: Museums Planning for Cultural Impacts, by Douglas Worts, 2020

One of the ways in which the Inside-Outside Model can be used by museums is to help plan a wide range of experimental approaches to engage the public in co-creative activity that positively affects climate trends, at individual, organizational and collective levels. Part of the experimentation is to understand the potential for scaling these strategies. One aspect of this can be to test how best to leverage exhibits and on-site programs to garner impacts within the Outer sphere of the model. Developing a robust research framework in this area would be invaluable across the museum field. And this has the potential for far-reaching impacts right across humanity.

What Skills Does a Climate Change Curator Need?

In terms of credentials, the museum is looking for a “high-level, practicing scientist”, who has a “record of peer-reviewed publication or catalogues”. They must also have “a strong ability to engage with the public and be a good public speaker”, and hopefully has “experience within a large trans-disciplinary museum, NGO or government department or related environment”.  

These all seem like positive characteristics, but are they truly what is needed? Perhaps it depends on what this person ultimately hopes to accomplish. If they imagine developing a series of experimental projects with vision and values-aligned partners, specifically designed to test how best to alter how our living culture aspires to imagine a sustainable future, and to work towards achieving it (without continuously contributing to the climate problem), then will these requisite skills be sufficient?

When it comes to ‘Personal Characteristics’, the successful candidate should be “ambitious for the institution and its efforts to develop strong networks into the local, national and global communities, and with established international scholars and institutions.” They should also have “an interest in leveraging transdisciplinary possibilities and programs to build collaborative partnership, internally and externally.”

One of the most encouraging personal characteristics being sought for this position is a commitment “to systemic, transformative change to build a sustainable future in the face of the climate crisis”.  It is unclear just how the commitment to transformative change aligns with the idea that this is “an exciting opportunity to advocate for solutions to the most important environment issue of our time”. This reference to advocacy raises the question of how much latitude is being given to act – beyond simply advocating?  

One questionable notion in the job posting that seems to leap off the page is a statement that the person occupying this position will help “catapult” the ROM “into a position of world leadership in this issue.”  While institutional notoriety may emerge as a result of a capable person holding this position, surely the museum’s position at the top of some global climate change heap is not the goal. Presumably the main objective is for this climate change leader and the program that they envision and create will be successful at catalyzing people, organizations and systems to change in ways that redirect current climate trends towards safe harbour. Admittedly, the job posting itself does not reveal exactly how the museum is committing its considerable institutional resources to actively and collaboratively solving the climate crisis.

The Non-Science Aspects of the Climate Crisis

While the current climate crisis may well constitute an existential threat for humanity, the mechanisms for redirecting current climate trends are to be found in the transformation of values, laws, norms and behaviours within humanity’s various social, economic and political systems. These are not going to be easy to change – especially given the turbulent, embattled and chaotic social/economic/cultural forces at play these days.

While climate science is clearly a necessary area of expertise and insight required, it may not be sufficient to help alter the forces that are shaping and perpetuating the climate crisis. Climate change is driven primarily by Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, which in turn are tied to production and consumption. How societies produce and consume is linked to the established pursuit of economic growth and how our economy generates and distributes wealth.  It is hard to imagine a climate change program at a museum having meaningful impacts, unless the above activities are all part of the mix for a position that is aiming at fostering adaptation to diminish the threats from this crisis.

Understanding and Addressing Our Changing Climate – a Place for Museums?

Current climate trends have been caused by existing cultural systems – including the values, assumptions, beliefs, goals, strategies, systems and more that guide human activity. The climate crisis is part of a large wicked-problem that has resulted from human demands placed on the biosphere – demands which have exceeded the ability of Earth’s restorative systems to regenerate itself.

It is useful to remember that the climate crisis is but one of the symptoms of the global cultural dysfunction at the heart of this reality. UK economist, Kate Raworth, published her best-selling book Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, in 2017.[3] Using a systems-thinking approach that links human and planetary wellbeing as the ultimate goals of humanity, she then provided an in-depth exploration of the need for transforming how our economic systems must be re-conceived.

Raworth draws on many holistic models for examining both planetary and human systems, with a view to striking a healthy dynamic relationship between humanity and everything else. In a short article entitled Madonna in Distress: the New Planetary Portrait” , Raworth paints a portrait of how: 1) Nature gave birth to humanity – with was endowed with many gifts and abilities but also many blind spots; 2) humanity developed insatiable appetites for consuming the Earth at exponential rates, while producing waste at ever escalating rates; and 3) humanity eventually casts a shadow over the Earth that is sufficiently large and dark that it threatens the mother that gave it life.[4]  

A model of the function of museums as catalysts of cultural adaptation – working to affect human culture in its many relationships. By Douglas Worts

Understanding the complexity of climate change, and realizing that it is only a part of the larger cultural system that has caused serious breaches of numerous of the Planetary Boundaries [5], seems important for any organization that aims to have a positive impact on this existential threat to life on Earth.

Having acknowledged the complexity of the climate change and the challenges associated with tackling the problem, it is important to note that humanity already has a great deal of knowledge and technology that is capable of transforming cultures towards a dynamically sustainable future. It may be that the biggest barrier to achieving this goal involves the inertia of deep cultural forces within the status quo. These forces include:

  • human preoccupation with consumption of energy-intensive materials and services;
  • industrial models of economy-of-scale production (with its delusional notions of efficiencies);
  • principles of planned obsolescence;
  • a commitment to competition (as opposed to co-operation) as a driver and motivator of human enterprise; and,
  • prioritizing individualism over collective wellbeing
  • and more.

These hallmarks of our globalized human system, currently are incompatible with a sustainable future on this planet. For millennia, the biophysical limits of the planet were largely irrelevant, because no species had developed the ability to overwhelm Earth’s vast capacity for regeneration. Since the late 1960s or early 1970s, humanity has been in a position of ‘overshoot’.[6]

Each year, our species has been drawing down the natural capital of the planet in order to satisfy our addictive lifestyles that are unaware, or willfully ignorant of, the Earth’s biophysical limits. Shining a light on cultural inertia, while fostering meaningful change towards a ‘culture of sustainability’, is new territory for museums to animate – but it is a capacity that needs to be cultivated as an area of expertise and as a catalyst for cultural change.

Our zeitgeist requires that all values, behaviours and systems that currently define ‘normal’ must be completely re-assessed, re-designed and aligned with the needs of our planet. Unless humanity finds a way to align its aspirations, priorities and behaviours with the limitations of the biosphere, humanity will continue on its current trajectory. 

Despite being referred to as ‘cultural organizations’, it needs to be acknowledged that museums do not have a history of being facilitators of cultural change and adaptation in our constantly changing world.

Douglas Worts

The way that museums have been positioned as suppliers of edutainment experiences, within the leisure-time economy, significantly limits their ability to foster adaptive processes within the living culture.  If museums decide that they want to have meaningful impacts on current climate trends, it will require different decisions being made within the mainstream of the living culture. It is not enough to help generate scientific information and distribute it through traditional museum channels. Perhaps there are new ways that museums can interact more directly with communities, businesses, governments, non-profits, NGOs, media, formal education and more.  

If and when museums embrace the potential roles that lie beyond the leisure-time economy, it is important for them to remember that they do have much to offer individuals, organizations, and systems of our living culture.  Throughout their history, museums have proven themselves committed to embracing multi-disciplinary ways of thinking. They have a long tradition of fostering public curiosity, wonder, learning and sharing, as they connect insights from the past to the realities of the present and to the aspirations for the future.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

However, for museums to fully embrace their potential as catalysts of cultural change, they would need to plan their public dimension in ways that are very different than conventional practices of exhibit and program development. Because there are so many interacting parts in our living culture, museums that strive to have cultural impacts are increasingly finding value in creating a ‘theory of change’ statements. Such statements help to ground their work in the complex interdependencies that make up the living culture.

At one level, creating a ‘theory of change’ involves telling a story about how a situation will be transformed. At another level, the complexity of our world means that all the parts that make up our society interact in complicated ways – often with both anticipated and unexpected outcomes. Generally, a theory of change involves telling a story that describes how a museum and its partners:

  • understand their assumptions about the cultural needs to be addressed,
  • envision the desired impacts being sought,
  • identify the stakeholders they need to engage (i.e. those who have some level of control over the issue/trends being focused on, as well those who are affected by these trends/issues),
  • leverage innovative strategies capable of resulting in stakeholders engaging in new levels of deep reflection, dialogue, collaborative relationships, and ultimately the co-creative actions capable of addressing the core issues of the culture
  • ensure appropriate feedback loops and measures of success that can guide this work effectively in all phases of the work and involving all stakeholders.

For a complex topic like climate change, a museum that aims to go beyond informative institutional outputs (exhibits, programs, publications, etc.), and actually catalyzing change in thinking, behaviours and systems is challenging.

Meaningful impact involves the stopping of certain behaviours in the living culture, and the starting of others.

Douglas Worts

While museums have neither the mandate, nor are capable of deciding new directions for a culture, they can bring people together in ways that stimulate the processes of reflection, dialogue and co-creative action that are capable of envisioning a viable future, and then moving towards realizing that future. Creating shifts at the cultural level require that many parts of the culture must align understanding, vision, values, strategies and measures of success.

So the role of the museum is to help mobilize and motivate individuals, groups, and systems to understand how they currently are contributing to problematic trends, and to co-creatively come up with new ways of steering the culture away from danger and towards flourishing for all. It is no mean feat, but what better choice is there?

What is required?

Expertise of many types is clearly required in the above process. Beyond experts, people with wisdom and insight related to the holistic process of cultural adaptation is vital.  Wisdom can be a rare resource, especially when pitted against the perceived authority of disciple-based expertise. Museums have the ability to cultivate and foster the role of wisdom in cultural adaptation processes. Part of this process is recognizing that wisdom may be found in unlikely places across the entire spectrum of stakeholders. It requires a perceptiveness that is rooted in relationships, plus a humility about how co-creative adaptation is not a top-down, authoritative undertaking.

While marshalling wisdom in processes of cultural adaptation is anything but prescriptive, there are some steps that may help to move the process along.

Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

During the building of stakeholder cohesion around a cultural issue, myriad strategies can help people to engage in meaningful ways in which they become reflective and engage in dialogue with other stakeholders. No museum can do this alone. Accordingly, it will be vital to build a robust set of vision/values-aligned partnerships that enable massive cooperation in undertaking this work. Within this context, museums might want to:

  1. use systems-thinking frameworks to become well informed about the forces and trends that are shaping the culture at any given point in time, including cause/effect relationships;
  2. become connected to all parts of the community – individuals, groups, communities, organizations, etc. – so that all stakeholders related to a cultural issue can be engaged in meaningful ways;
  3. develop capacities to identify leverage points within the massive cultural web of interdependent systems, which become points where innovative interventions can be introduced to foster the necessary reflection, dialogue and co-creative action that can exert influence on prevailing trends;
  4. understand and monitor the feedback loops that send signals about how the culture is evolving, as well as how risks are emerging that need to be addressed
  5. engage a wide range of vision and values-aligned partners as collaborators – acknowledging that no organization/institution can do all of this on its own
  6. ensure that there are meaningful measures of success tied to the impact of cultural resilience and wellbeing, which can help to ensure a grounded approach to both planning and assessment.

When considering the ROM’s Curator of Climate Change position, will this person be tasked with helping the museum to develop new internal skill-sets that can help create museum-wide priorities that can generate meaningful cultural impacts? Aspects of this are referred to in the job posting – however, many questions still remain about where this role is actually headed.

The Museum as a Colonial Institution with Deep Roots in the Causes of Climate Change

Around the world in recent years, museums have been wrestling with a number of cultural problems that reside very close to home. One example is the linkage between climate change and their own structures and operations.  The fact that museums are extremely energy intensive facilities, demanding stable temperatures and humidity for collections, has meant that museums are significant emitters of GHG emissions.[7] Some progressive museums have already begun to assess their contributions to climate change by measuring their emissions. But this is not a simple undertaking.

Illustration of GreenHouse Gas Emissions – Scopes 1,2,3. See

Within the field of energy audits, it is increasingly common for organizations to measure their GHG emissions in three potential categories[8]:

  • Scope 1: direct GHG emissions from company-owned and controlled resources (for heating, vehicle use), emissions from air conditioning units and emissions from manufacturing (e.g. cement production releases CO2)
  • Scope 2: indirect GHG emissions produced by energy suppliers who create and deliver electricity, steam, heat and cooling
  • Scope 3: indirect creation of all GHG emissions related to an organization’s operation that is not within their direct control. This involves emissions generated both upstream (by suppliers and so on), and downstream (by users, clients and customers). Scope 3 emissions often constitute the major category of emissions, and these are rarely calculated or considered in environmental strategies.

It remains common for organizations and governments to focus on Scopes 1 and 2. Scope 3 calculations are often, if not normally, NOT included. For museums, which operate to a very large extent in the leisure-time and tourism economies, Scope 3 emissions constitute the largest category of emissions – especially getting all those visitors to and from sites, as well as emissions related to the goods purchased and/or consumed in shops and restaurants. Calculating and mitigating GHG emissions remains a major challenge for museums as they strive to become part of the solution to climate change.

Museums are slowly coming to terms with how their traditions of collecting, exhibiting, story-telling and even staffing have bolstered and perpetuated colonial attitudes. Much of colonial activity is based on dominance, hierarchies, power (wealth, privilege, authority, rights and so on). Museums have reflected colonial values in a range of ways, and for a long time. As organizations with public trust and authority, museums are now trying to embrace the challenges of climate change and other societal issues – most of which have roots in colonial values and structures. It is encouraging to see that the museum field is increasingly struggling to address these realities and to transform themselves in ways that promote equity, justice and sustainability. As part of this process, more museum professionals are recognizing the links and systemic interdependences involved between societal issues such as racism, inequity and climate change. It is becoming pretty clear that you can’t address one, without addressing the others. That only makes a challenging situation, more difficult.

In Conclusion…

Museums have a tremendous potential to become catalysts of cultural adaptation – IF they can

  • clarify their cultural goals,
  • develop new strategies for interacting creatively and empathically with all parts of society,
  • develop novel methods of activating ‘the muses’ and
  • create new measures of success and feedback loops to guide their processes.

They even have the ability to shine a light on the interconnections between the climate crisis, species loss, systemic inequity, racism, economic and politics dysfunction, as well as other forms of human power dynamics that have run amok. Historically, museums have used the silos of expertise defined by academic disciplines (history, art history, sciences, anthropology, etc.) to examine the past. All this is useful and necessary, but not sufficient.

Humanity needs to be able to extract insights from the past, scan the critical trends of the present, mobilize creativity in the present to plan for a future that is viable. It will require a great deal of humility for museums (and all organizations) to change their approaches, especially as the zeitgeist continues to transform. And it will need a model of operation that is no longer stranded in the leisure-time economy – where many people in today’s world do not have the time, money or motivation to participate in substantive, cultural ways.   

To this end, it is likely that museums themselves must find a way to get beyond their own corporate straight-jackets and the constraints of operating as non-profit charities within their own legislative and legal shackles.

Douglas Worts

One way that museums can transform themselves into agents of cultural adaptation is to use the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  The SDGs, as they are commonly referred to, offer a way to see the complexity of humanity’s current unsustainable future, and help generate plans for transformation at individual, collective and systems levels.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are guiding global efforts to re-tool and re-build societies around the world with a vision of a sustainable future.

I think that however effective and meaningful the ROM’s Curator of Climate Change position becomes will be dependent on the goals, the strategies and the partnerships that emerge as the museum tries to fully engage the living culture in processes of self-reflection, dialogue, cohesion-building and responsible action.

Along the way, the drivers of the culture that have created the juggernaut we call the climate crisis — namely an insistence on continuous economic growth; the preference for competition over co-operation; and the lure of personal power through the acquisition of monetary wealth and person influence. Given that climate trends are structurally linked to consumption – of energy and materials – in a system that is designed to create winners and losers, addressing the climate crisis can only happen by transforming the living culture (not simply the institutionalized culture that lives in the hybrid world of edutainment and the leisure economy).

While the climate crisis is clearly an existential threat, on a more fundamental level, it is a very dangerous symptom of deep cultural dysfunction that stretches across human societies, values and systems. While climate science is absolutely necessary in developing a robust plan for meaningful change within a museum context, climate science is also entirely insufficient. The heavy-lifting involved in changing climate trends can only be done by transforming human approaches to our economic, social, political and other systems — essentially adapting our living cultures to become sustainable within the constraints of the biosphere! Climate science has a reasonable level of systems-thinking woven into its fibre – but not nearly enough to drive the kind of wide-reaching societal change required.

The Royal Ontario Museum, and the benefactor who has endowed the newly created position of Curator of Climate Change, deserve a lot of credit for striking out in this new direction. The ROM’s posting does stress the need for interdisciplinary approaches and networks, and that is essential. What seems lacking in the ROM’s vision is clarity about what this position is supposed to accomplish. The potential remains massive – and I hope the ROM is setting up this new curator, and the museum itself, for meaningful success. I’m sure many will follow the story of this bold step with great interest!

Check out the job posting here.

[1] The Happy Museum Project, in the UK, developed a simple approach to writing a ‘theory of change’, called a ‘story of change’.

[2] The link to the job posting at the ROM is here

[3] Kate Raworth’s novel approach to economics, as embodied in her book, Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, sheds light on how the economy is the major system driver of the complex, multi-dimensional problems humanity must address. Raworth sees the economy as needing to be reoriented to its original Greek sense, meaning ‘care of the household’ – one that strives to create net-positive value across social, environmental and economic domains.

[4]Madonna in Distress: the New Planetary Portrait” offers a quick introduction to these ideas

[5] For a discussion of the Planetary Boundaries and how they have been identified and understood, see this 2015 article in Science Magazine

[6] For more insights on the Ecological Footprint and the problem of Ecological Overshoot, see the Global Footprint Network and Earth Overshoot Day.

[7] See, for example, “The True Costs of Collecting – Museums, Climate, and Carbon”, by Erin Richardson and Douglas Worts.

[8] For a more detailed accounting of the system for measuring GHG emissions, broken down into Scopes 1,2,3, see here

Douglas Worts is a Culture and Sustainability Specialist, living in Toronto Canada. With a museum career of over 40 years, he has worked as an educator, interpretive planner and audience researcher. He also has taught graduate level courses in museum studies and spent the last 23 years focusing his research, writing, teaching and consulting on the cultural dimensions of humanity’s (un)sustainability. Website: