Linking Cultural Museums & Climate Justice at the AAM Conference

Guest Post by Julieanne Fontana, Public Humanities Master’s Program at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, USA*

The floodwaters from the second (almost) 100-year flood event in the past 16 months were just receding in St. Louis as a group of about 75 museum professionals gathered on May 8, 2017 at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri to talk about “Linking Cultural Museums and Environmental Justice.”

I had the honor of being one of the presenters as a part of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience’s Environmental Justice Network, a group of about 15 culture sites from around the world that are all interested in advancing climate and environmental justice conversations through cultural heritage. Braden Paynter, facilitator of the Environmental Justice Network, introduced the concept that cultural institutions can be activists, and each of my co-panelists and I shared case studies from our work to stimulate discussions and ideas.

Dr. Rosa Cabrera, Director of the Rafael Cintron Ortiz Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained how to synthesize environmental sustainability, cultural diversity, and social justice through “The Heritage Garden.

Kerry Olson, Chief of Interpretation at Santa Monica National Recreation Area outside of Los Angeles, shared LA Ranger Troca” as a tool to connect nature and urban neighborhoods.

I added my own insights on how community concerns can combine social and environmental activism based on my work with UPP Arts, a grassroots nonprofit that communicates environmental stewardship through art-making. These examples set the framework for group discussions that asked each attendee to relate environmental and climate justice to their own work and their institution’s missions.

At UPP Art’s 10th Urban Pond Procession on May 13, 2017, community members used artistic assets to build stewardship of our shared environment, especially at Mashapaug Pond in Providence, RI (in background).

Climate Conversations Need to Start with Community Assets and Needs

Starting a community dialogue on climate change and environmental justice is all about beginning from a relevant vantage point. For the Environmental Justice Network, that means leading with community assets and needs and avoiding buzzwords like “sustainability” that are ambiguous and may not resonate with people’s daily lives.

We started the participatory part of our session by asking everyone to find photos on their smartphones that told a story about cultural and environmental sustainability. These photos started group discussions about the environmental causes of cultural concerns, like how increased Mississippi River flooding threatens neighborhoods and city infrastructure, and got us all thinking about ways to jointly address both.

After the introduction activity, we asked participants to practice framing environmental discussions beginning with community assets and needs. The questions below can help us all continue to consider these ideas and themes:

Dig into your community and create an interpretive theme:

  • What are the needs and assets of a community that you work with or your own community?

  • How can some of these needs and assets be connected to environmental and climate issues to create a project or public dialogue theme?

Panelist Dr. Rosa Cabrera expanded on these questions using her own work on the Environmental & Climate Justice Dialogue Guide. Community needs are often tangible, like clean water and livable cities, but assets are often intangible and linked to culture. For example, many Latino immigrants in Chicago stop hanging clothes to dry to fit in with American neighbors, but the cultural practice of using clotheslines can help reduce energy use.

Participants from natural history, art, science, and history museums shared programs in their own institutions, and many are already beginning to link their missions to environmental and climate themes.  

Main Takeaways

The session lasted just an hour and a half, but that was enough time to get us all making new connections! My main takeaways – and the ones I want to share with you are:

  1. Many of our socially-expressed problems have environmental roots. We need to link social and environmental justice movements to be effective activists.

  2. Be an asset to your community. If buzzwords like sustainability or climate change are creating barriers, be creative and use the institution’s mission to approach these concerns from non-environmental entry points.

  3. Keeping building a network of ideas and share with others. This conversation is a starting point!

* Julieanne Fontana is a student in the Public Humanities Master’s Program at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she is studying the intersection of public history and environmental justice. Julieanne currently works as a Climate Heritage Intern with US/ICOMOS and as a Communications Assistant for UPP Arts, an arts-based environmental nonprofit. She has previous experience working with the US National Park Service and with multiple historic sites in New England.

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