Saskatchewan’s Ecomuseums, Planetary Wellbeing, and Climate Justice – A Symposium Report

Guest post by Douglas Worts, a culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada.

In the late 1960s, two innovators in France’s cultural world devised a novel concept that would turn the notion of ‘museum’ on its head.  If traditional museums are based on centripetal forces that bring together cultural objects, history and people into a single site, then George Rivière and Hugues de Varine’s proposal for a centrifugal variation was revolutionary.

Specifically, they imagined a museum that consisted of a territory, a population, collective memory, elders, heritage and special sites, all held in dynamic relationship through centrifugal forces.

Essentially this approach argued for museums that were woven into the fabric of community as well as the lives of individuals, where people, museum and city/town are one. Theirs was a living, integrated approach to ‘the place of the muses’, as opposed to an institutionalized approach to culture. The name given to this new approach to museums was ‘ecomuseum’.

Over the past 50 years, experiments and variations on the ecomuseum theme have been explored around the world (see Peter Davis, Ecomuseums: A Sense of Place – 2nd Edition) – in both rural and urban settings. Some ecomuseums have reinvigorated entire regions – socially, environmentally, culturally, economically. Some of these experiments have become living-heritage sites that are largely geared to tourism.  However,

the ecomuseums most interesting to me have been developed through the work of consciously engaged communities that have roots in heritage, a commitment to the wellbeing of the present and which collectively generate a vision of the future. It is within this context that consideration of climate change, and its negative affect on planetary wellbeing becomes a powerful force.

Glenn Sutter, a curator of human ecology at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, has been given a mandate to foster ‘community-engaged museums’ (aka ecomuseums) across this prairie province of Canada. In collaboration with the Saskatchewan Museums Association and Heritage Saskatchewan, many efforts are being made to encourage communities themselves to form ecomuseums that will meet their local needs – culturally, socially, economically and environmentally.

In April of 2017, a symposium was organized in Regina to bring people together from many fledgling ecomuseums across the province.  Its purpose was to strengthen the growing network, to share stories and to acquire new tools. Veteran museum consultant and Canadian innovator of ecomuseums, René Rivard, provided a keynote address that reflected on the excitement and impacts of ecomuseums around the world. (René Rivard is also a member of the CMCJ Advisory Group.) Many local people contributed stories about their communities and the ecomuseums with which they are involved.

I was invited to provide a day-long training workshop – which I called “Planning for Cultural Relevance”.  The core of the day revolved around an introduction to two planning tools, called Compass and Pyramid, developed by sustainability consultant, educator and planner, Alan AtKisson – using the fictitious community of Greenburg.


Although this workshop was not focused on ‘climate change’ specifically, it includes processes and concepts that are relevant to those involved in the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice network.

Climate change is one of many challenging outcomes that spring from the shifting cultural realities of our day, combined with our complex globalized world, and all within the biological limits of the Earth’s biosphere. As museums strive to address climate change it is vital to exam and work with the systems environment that is our current reality.

Such an approach necessitates that museums develop and utilize a nontraditional set of processes for:

  • understanding the needs and opportunities of individuals, communities, organizations and the natural environment;
  • generating strategies for active public engagement;
  • formulating a commonly held vision of a future that is possible and sustainable;
  • measuring impacts and changes as a result of humanity’s growth and development.

There remains enormous untapped potential for museums to facilitate cultural wellbeing and cultural impacts across our world.

* Douglas Worts is a culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada. Douglas approaches culture broadly, as ‘how we live our lives’, seeing museums as potential facilitators in forging an emerging ‘culture of sustainability’.  His professional work combines a 35+-year career in museums with over two decades exploring how culture shapes and directs the prospects for global human sustainability. Within Douglas’ museum career, experimental exhibits and audience research, coupled with organizational design and change management, have been of central importance. Systems-thinking is fundamental within his work. Douglas has published, taught and lectured widely on his work.

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