Museum workers and our climate challenges: A call to action

Today’s Guest Post is by Robert R. Janes, the Founder and Co-Chair of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. He has worked in and around museums for over 40 years and is currently a visiting research fellow at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester (United Kingdom).

Why Be Concerned?

You might well be wondering why I am so concerned about climate change and museums. As a graduate student doing archaeological research in Canada’s remote Subarctic, I lived with a band of Dene hunters for six months. Their culture is thousands of years old and is based on intimate knowledge of one of the most unforgiving environments in the world. It is there that I learned firsthand the meaning of social ecology – that social and environmental issues are intertwined, and both must be considered simultaneously.[1]

Snowless On the Great Divide. Photo Courtesy Robert Janes

This inescapable truth – that our lives are inextricably linked with the natural world – inspires my belief that the global museum community must now take a stand on climate change. This is a moral imperative for museums, as climate change is no longer just about science or politics – it is also about social justice.

I’ll not go into the science of climate change and how it is throwing our civilization into chaos. Suffice it to say that levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere now exceed 410 parts per million – the highest in the last 20 million years.[2]

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently issued the  latest evidence of climate change destruction across the globe, with the warning that to stay below global warming of 1.5º Celsius, we will need to cut our emissions in half in the next 12 years. [3] Staying under 1.5º degrees also means keeping more than 85 % of current fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Most importantly, the Panel notes that limiting global warming to 1.5º degrees will require rapid and far-reaching changes in all aspects of society — of a sort not yet seen. Some scientists have also concluded that climate-induced, societal collapse is now inevitable in the near-term, with serious ramifications for the lives of all of us here today.[4] The evidence is rapidly accumulating in support of this chilling observation.

Yes, all of us now have permission to freak out.

Museums Are Already Empowered

The good news from the IPCC Report is that slowing climate warming is still within reach. With an enormous and united effort, the world is still capable of keeping global temperatures from increasing by more than 1.5˚degrees. Enter museums, 55, 000 of them – the largest, self-organized, franchise in the world. They are the world’s public storefronts, where people can learn about climate change in non-threatening and personally meaningful ways. There is no doubt that museums are already empowered to play a key role in addressing climate change, because they have several unique characteristics that distinguish them from any other organization.[5]In short, there are no other organizations that combine historical consciousness, public accessibility, and unprecedented public trust.

I Challenge All Museum Workers

Museum workers must now honour this public trust and translate these precious qualities into concrete action to address climate change. I challenge each of you to:

#1 Consider yourself a sentient being on earth, with the responsibility to protect the only planet we have. 

Plane Wing
Unsplash / Trust “tru” Katsande

As I have noted before, stop or reduce your long-distance jet travel – there is now a model for a carbon free conference. Reduce your meat consumption, as meat production releases as much greenhouse gas emissions as cars, trains, ships and airplanes combined.[6]

#2 Remember each of us is part of a family.

From Alix’s Blog

If the next generation matters to you, and the children born to it do as well, then what about their children’s children?[7] Write a letter to your grandchildren, children, siblings, your partner or yourself, and tell them what you were doing in the early 21st century when the earth was unravelling from the pressures of climate warming.

#3 Revisit your museum’s vision and mission and ask some big questions

Why does your museum exist, what changes are you trying to effect, what solutions will you generate, and what are your non-negotiable values?

#4 Make time and space for your grief [8]

Participants in the first International Symposium on Museums and Climate Change, Manchester University, UK, April 11 – 13, 2018. Credit: Manchester Museum

If you are feeling anxious and emotional about the perils of climate change, you are not alone. It can leave one feeling powerless and overwhelmed. This is valid and reasonable, and we will need to channel these emotions into positive and effective action. We need to support each other, and move through this together, while holding onto hope, with intention.

In the words of the American poet/farmer, Wendell Berry,

“If we are serious about these big problems, we have got to see that the solutions begin and end with ourselves.[9] 

I am hoping that museum workers, indeed all cultural workers, will become serious about the big problems, just as the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice is committed to doing.

Garlic Harvest. Photo courtesy Bob Janes.

Robert R. Janes, the Founder and Co-Chair of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, is an independent scholar and served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship from 2003 to 2014. He is also a visiting research fellow at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester (United Kingdom). He has worked in and around museums for over 40 years as an executive, consultant, editor, author, board member, archaeologist, instructor, volunteer, and philanthropist. Janes has devoted his career to championing museums as important social institutions that are capable of making a difference in the lives of individuals and their communities. His latest book is Museum Activism, edited with Richard Sandell. 20% discount code for readers of the blog – MA230 .

[1] Barnhill, D. L. (2010) “Gary Snyder’s Ecosocial Buddhism.” In R. K. Payne (editor), How Much Is Enough? Buddhism, Consumerism, and the Human Environment. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, p. 91.

[2] Wikipedia. See:

[3] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). See:

[4] “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.” See:

[5] Janes, R.R. (2009) Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? London and New York: Routledge, pp. 178-182.

[6] Greenpeace Magazine, Volume 19, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2018, p. 9.

[7] Macy, J. and Johnstone, C. (2012) Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy, Novato, CA: New World Library, p. 142.)

[8] The Council of Canadians. See:

[9] Berry. W. (2015) Our Only World, Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, p. 71.

This Post Has 0 Comments

  1. Joy Davis

    Bob -as always you make it clear that while we can act collectively, it starts with a personal commitment. You’ve given us lots to think about!

  2. Robert Janes

    Thanks very much, Joy. I do think that making a personal commitment to confronting climate change is key, as it is the foundation of personal agency – the willingness and ability to take action in the world. Your research and writing on this topic made have made that very clear to me.

Leave a Reply