How do museums help people hold on to inspiration – and act?

Today’s Guest Post is by Henry McGhie*, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum

Hello, I’m looking for your views please.

The Science Centre World Summit will be in Tokyo in November. At the meeting, a Tokyo Protocol will be discussed and ratified, which reaffirms the potential and commitment of global museums and museum networks to support the UN sustainable development agenda, to transform our world by 2030, for the benefit of people, and nature, everywhere.

Photo Courtesy Henry McGhie

This programme is based on 17 sustainable development goals; these are just brilliant for museums to connect with, whether locally, globally, or locally and globally. More information can be found here

If you click on the icons you get more information, and detailed targets. So, for museums with natural heritage collections, for example, some obvious links would be:

  • 4.7 – By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development
  • 11.4 – Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage
  • 12.8 – By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature
  • 13.3 – Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning

Any museum could find something to connect with among the 135-odd targets, and indeed it could be very fruitful to connect different types of museums and networks together to create new opportunities for people to explore sustainable futures.

Photo Courtesy Henry McGhie

The full Protocol can be found here

I’m interested to hear people’s initial responses to this. Is this the kind of thing you and your museums are interested in supporting/connecting with? Beyond time and money, what support would you need to do so ?

I’m doing a couple of talks at the summit and it would be great to hear that at least some people are on board with this, or that this is something that they would be interested in progressing, or what concerns would need to be addressed. No names or organisations would be mentioned in the presentations, and just a very short reply will be fine.

My personal feeling, beyond being very, very supportive of the initiative, is that

it’s important to recognise that most people don’t think scientifically (yes, it’s true) – and that while the evidence and information may be derived from science, transferring that into action will not be achieved by more and more facts, depressing information, or telling people what they should do. We need to connect the science with what people care about themselves, what motivates them and inspires them.

This isn’t about diluting the science, but deploying it effectively to help people always move forwards.

If inspiration is the feeling that moves us to action, our job is to help people feel (and hold onto) that feeling, and enable them to act on it beyond our four walls.


Some aspects of the Tokyo Protocol:

  • Investigate how to engage even more effectively with local communities and increasingly diverse audiences, and keep the focus on gender differences in engagement.
  • Continue taking actions that have a positive global impact and that will make people everywhere more aware of the opportunities that science and technology hold for the sustainable advancement of humankind.
  • Draw the attention of decision makers and the media to the essential role of public engagement with science and technology by setting up high-profile global activities.
  • Endeavour to leverage the position of science centres as “trusted” places to introduce the public to new technological solutions and sustainable technologies, and to broaden the potential use of these solutions.
  • Take the lead in developing the best methods for engaging learners and optimizing their education in both formal and informal settings using appropriate technologies in widely varying contexts.
  • Engage the public more directly with research, using this engagement to help empower people, broaden attitudes and ensure that the work of universities and research institutions is relevant to society and to wider social concerns on a global scale.
  • Work together in a creative celebration of the International Science Centre Year 2019, encouraging people throughout the world to take part in shared experiences relating to science and technology and society.

* Henry McGhie is Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum, part of the University of Manchester. He wants to find ways for museums to effectively support people to engage with the natural environment, and to create opportunities to discuss and shape the future we want for ourselves and others.

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  1. kcopas

    I think it’s interesting that there’s no mention of collections and the role that they have as an evidence base for policies and decisions that support the SDGs.

  2. mchriscastle

    I wonder if the point about research doesn’t touch on this? in science museums, aren’t we talking about research having to do with collections? “Engage the public more directly with research, using this engagement to help empower people, broaden attitudes and ensure that the work of universities and research institutions is relevant to society and to wider social concerns on a global scale.”

  3. agreenerfield

    We spend a lot of time at the Field Museum working to both educate our visitors and our staff around issues relating to sustainability (

    Our green team recently began an internal dialogue regarding how we can both align our public messaging with the SDGs, as well as use them to help us more effectively push for change within our own institution. Being located in Chicago #11 and #12 are very clearly in our bailiwick.

    In terms of what else will help besides time and money, I think efforts that raise public awareness of the importance and value of the SDGs will help. It would be great to see these become part of the common sustainability vernacular the same way we speak of solar power, public transportation, etc.

  4. henrymcghie

    Great, thanks- if you want to share experiences of staff development and messaging I’d be happy to do that. I agree that helping the SDGs become ‘common currency’ in communications would be terrific- it seems strange they are hardly ever in the mass media.

    All the best,

  5. agreenerfield

    I don’t think we have any good examples at this point, but if you can think of a way we can help the cause just hit me up at cobrien@fieldmuseum-dot-org.


  6. henrymcghie

    Hi or if you know what kind of questions you want to explore, or what success might look like, I’m happy to talk about any of this. All the best, Henry

  7. henrymcghie

    Thanks- joining the dots of collections and the SDGs and the public might fall to us- museums can help people ‘step out’ of the usual pace of time, and explore both the past and future- and situate themselves within the trajectory of history. All the best,

  8. henrymcghie

    Good point- also, collections can help people explore more abstract concepts from research beyond the museum but that have a bearing on climate change in some way. But to follow up on your point, using the solid materiality of collections to demonstrate ‘how we know what we know’- tree rings, fossils, evidence of ocean acidity, and more- and also posing the question that the things these specimens come from are real- they [still] exist. Using them to help people give voice to what they think is important, and making it easy for them to follow up on what they care about, is something surely worth doing. Thanks, Henry

  9. Sarah Sutton

    The goals are a perfect road map for our institutions – they provide guidance and inspiration for sustainable practice while valuing our mission-based priorities.

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