Today’s Guest Post is by Henry McGhie. McGhie has a background as an ecologist, museum curator and senior manager.
This month we are highlighting articles from a special issue on ‘Museums and Climate Action’ published as Volume 35, Issue #6 of the journal Museum Management and Curatorship. Many thanks to both the Journal and the authors for allowing free access to this work. A link to McGhie’s article in this issue, entitled “Evolving climate change policy and museums,” follows his timely introduction.
This year, Glasgow (Scotland) will be the venue for the COP, the United Nations climate change conference. But what is this, what has it got to museums, and what can museums do?
The COP is not a typical conference, it is primarily a political event. COP stands for the Conference of the Parties, where Parties are the countries that are signed up to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, one of the three Rio Conventions developed from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Signatories of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC for short, committed to meet each year to monitor progress and work to ensure the ambitions of the Convention are being achieved.
The first meeting, or COP1, was held in Berlin in 1995. Since then, the meeting has been held around the world. Notable developments were the Kyoto Protocol, from COP3 in 1997, and the Paris Agreement from COP21 in 2015. What has this got to do with museums?
The original Framework Convention included a section, Article 6, on the importance of public education, training of staff, public awareness, public participation, public access to information and international cooperation on climate change matters. Governments agreed to the importance of this and to develop programmes to support it.
However, for the most part those commitments haven’t been honoured particularly well. But, let us not despair. As with other Conventions, participation is voluntary. That means, surely, that other sectors that have something to contribute pick up the bat and do what they can.Henry McGhie
What kind of organizations could support public education, awareness, participation and access to information on climate change? Schools, libraries and museums are obvious candidates.
Many museums have been working to do their bit, and museum perspectives have featured at a number of UN conferences, to highlight their potential to support the aims of the Framework Convention and Paris Agreement. As a result, Parties to the Paris Agreement formally recognized the key role that a range of sectors – including museums – play in supporting this aspect of the Paris Agreement.
At the same time, the museum sector has increasingly come to recognize the importance of incorporating sustainability perspectives into its activities, notably with the adoption of a resolution on sustainability that was adopted by the International Council of Museums in 2019.
The following article outlines the history of the UNFCCC and Paris Agreement from a museum perspective, sets out how museum perspectives have been incorporated into UN climate change discussions, and how museums can use the SDGs as a blueprint to work to support the Framework Convention and Paris Agreement.
All eyes are on Glasgow to see what countries come up with in terms of actions to address climate change. At the same time, let us not forget that action is really needed at local levels. Rather than put our futures solely in the hands of politicians, museums can help people to
- explore the futures they want,
- understand why climate change is important in terms of how it affects those futures,
- foster a culture for peace, tolerance and non-violence, and
- empower people to take part in public affairs and to hold their politicians accountable for their decisions.
This article hopefully highlights why it is important that museums use the 50 weeks of the year that aren’t the time of COP to advance support and activity to address climate change at the same time as addressing other sustainability challenges. What can they do? Easy, do what they do best and relate it to climate change, incorporating climate change into interpretation of collections, education programmes, as well as walking the walk by addressing their own climate footprint, making sure all museum decisions are taken with climate change and sustainability considerations in mind, and work with local and global partners. Multilateralism isn’t only for governments, but for museums too.
If you’re interested in how museums – in traditional and ‘new’ shapes – can support the Framework Convention and Paris Agreement, have a look at Reimagining Museums for Climate Action. This is a design competition led by Prof Rodney Harrison (University College London and AHRC Priority Area Leadership Fellow for Heritage), Dr Colin Sterling, working with me and Glasgow Science Centre. In 2020, we challenged creatives and the public everywhere to ask what kinds of museums do they want and need that could help address climate change. This will lead to an exhibition at Glasgow Science Centre from June until the time of COP. You can find out more at www.museumsforclimateaction.org, or follow us on twitter @ClimateMuseums.
Evolving climate change policy and museums
This brief covers international climate change policies and actions spanning the last 30 years, and traces how they relate to museums’ activities. It also presents opportunities for museums to incorporate climate change into their work in order to accelerate their contributions to climate action. Estimates of the number of museums range from 55,000 to 80,000. Collectively, they have the potential to make a greater contribution to climate action than a small country, both through educational and research programmes, and through their use of resources. As institutions concerned with heritage, museums have key roles to play in addressing the defining challenge of our time, as well as an obligation to society to deliver on those roles.
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Henry McGhie has a background as an ecologist, museum curator and senior manager. He set up Curating Tomorrow in 2019 to help museums and their partners to enhance their contributions to sustainable development and the SDGs, climate action, and biodiversity conservation. He is a member of the ICOM Sustainability Working Group, IUCN Commission on Education and Communication, and UNFCCC Education, Communication and Outreach Stakeholders. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org