Museums and their Professionals: The Critical Role of Citizen Diplomats in Climate

Today’s Guest Post is by Sarah W. Sutton, Principal of Sustainable Museums, Executive Committee Member for We Are Still In, and Salzburg Global Fellow.

Electronic communication is vaporizing world borders. My feeds (Facebook, Twitter, email, Instagram and LinkedIn) all come in multiple languages now. Intentionally or not, we each represent our countries when we speak out electronically. We are citizen diplomats.

Citizen diplomat
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Is that diplomatic role something you’d realized you’d acquire? Possibly not.

Is that diplomacy something you wish to pursue in a haphazard and careless manner? Likely not.

My experience at the Salzburg Global Seminar, Citizen Diplomacy at the Crossroads: Activating Networks for Change, gave me a much keener understanding of citizen diplomacy and the role I’ve taken on in leading cultural institutions as a sector in support of the Sustainable Development Goals that fulfill the Paris Agreement.

Schloss Leopoldskron in Salzburg, Austria. Photo courtesy Sarah Sutton.

The governments of the world lack the political will to make significant changes to reduce human impacts on climate. Where would they find that will? From the citizenry. If the leaders are not asking about it or noticing it, then we must demonstrate it ourselves. We can become citizen diplomats.

Where once most of us left leadership and statesmanship to elected officials, where once we could count a bit more on those statespersons to provide stability and direction reflecting the good of more than the individual leader, now we cannot.

Where previously-formal channels and limits on communication kept international diplomacy in prescriptive paths, now there is a dense, hyperactive communication system providing much broader access. Fulbright Scholarships are no longer our only path to citizen diplomacy.

You, at your museum and on behalf of your museum, have a valuable role to play as a citizen diplomat speaking up for the responsibility of your institution to behave thoughtfully, educate honestly, and participate actively in the work that keeps your community and its members safe from a changing climate.

Sarah Sutton, Sustainable Museums

Kevin Cottrell of The German Marshall Fund writes

In the past decade, with the explosion of social media and alternative platforms, citizens can represent their country abroad without leaving home—and indeed, can assume a range of functions previously controlled by professionals.

Kevin Cottrell of The German Marshall Fund

Whether you are reading this in the US, Canada or somewhere else, you are a potential citizen diplomat. You can lead your organization to begin making changes that benefit it and its community based on the Paris Agreement and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. By doing this, you are helping your institution demonstrate to the world that it is not only the national governments who have a stake in mitigating climate change and its impacts, not only the national governments who know what it is to live with risk and harmful impacts.  

UN Sustainable Development Goals

This is opportunity for any voice to be amplified, so how do we make it clear where there are thoughtful citizen voices? in the thoughtful collaborations of deliberative and cooperative advancement at trusted community institutions – museums. Cottrell writes

Support for citizen diplomacy is best offered by providing resources to key actors, with brokering alliances across borders, and with spotlighting innovation and partnerships that advance collaboration …

Kevin Cottrell of The German Marshall Fund

This is where you do contribute to the global Paris Agreement, no matter where you are. As Cottrell writes,

Citizen diplomacy is moving beyond the traditional idea of exchange, with new forms evolving—now is the time for leaders to act to invest in efforts that undergird the transatlantic relationship.

Kevin Cottrell of The German Marshall Fund
Together, we can climb the highest mountain
Photo courtesy Sarah Sutton

If you are in the United States, I hope you will contact me about joining the We Are Still In movement in the cultural sector. If you are outside the US, or are not a part of We Are Still In, please let me know of the work you are doing on climate change.

You can support the Paris Agreement, officially or unofficially, by

  • naming and measuring your carbon footprint and learning how to work to reduce it;
  • by committing to being more thoughtful in your operations to reduce your environmental impact through exhibits and events, and
  • by talking about climate change in your board room and your classrooms and exhibits.

Whether your diplomacy is quiet or much more obvious, its electronic footprint amplifies our work and the urgency of this situation. If you travel for work or pleasure, your conversations and actions do as well.

As the non-state coalitions such as We Are Still In develop in other countries around the World, they will signal to leadership that state leaders had better find their political will.

I am incredibly proud to be a citizen diplomat. There is so much good work to do. Please, please, join me as a #citizendiplomat in modeling individual and museum roles in mitigating climate change through education, discourse, action and citizen diplomacy.

Sarah Sutton

Sarah Sutton, LEED-AP, is Principal of Sustainable Museums, a consultancy on environment and climate for zoos, gardens, museums, aquariums and historic sites. She is the cultural sector lead and an executive committee member of We Are Still In.  She attended the Salzburg Global Seminar in February 2019. You can find her at  @greenmuseum @cultureforparis and

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  1. Joy Davis

    The theme of exercising personal agency weaves through many recent Blog posts and emphasizes the significant influence of individuals as we discuss the ways in which museums can/must take climate action. Certainly the notion of being a citizen diplomat within the museum context is an exciting one.

    It seems helpful to keep in mind that every person will bring unique personal circumstances to such a role, depending upon their knowledge base, their inclination to recognize and act on opportunities, as well as their disposition, sense of self-efficacy, and level of confidence. And there are likely to be obstacles that must be negotiated, from concerns about organizational implications to a lack of professional autonomy. The challenge of stepping up as an individual to play a leadership role in climate action involves ability, capacity and motivation — and it helps to work in a supportive environment!

  2. Sarah Sutton

    Aloha, Joy!

    You are so right about the differences among all our situations and our opportunities for citizen diplomacy. I know the online tag of “Views my own” etc. is one way some individuals can communicate their interests (more) safely on any topic while limiting workplace pressures. As the values-based approach to job hunting expands in some segments, more of us may have the opportunity to align professional and personal personae.

    I am hopeful that, increasingly, all staff will be able to use their personal interests in environment and climate to lead their organizations forward, slowly or not, from wherever they are in its structure.

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