The Elephant in the Room – Museums Won’t Risk Doing Anything That Might Alienate Their Audience

In this guest post, Robert R. Janes, Founder and Co-Chair of the Coalition, writes more about climate change and museums and the founding of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice …

We have now passed the milestone level of 400 parts per million of climate-warming carbon in the atmosphere… for the first time in human existence – without even an outcry by the citizenry.[1] The 400ppm threshold is a dire wake-up call, and our profound, global challenge is to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, in order to forestall the worst impacts of climate disruption. Judging by the results so far, we are failing miserably.

B Janes at Climate Change session
Robert Janes

Why is the museum community reluctant to address this issue?  I suggest that it lies in the claim of “neutrality,” There is a widely-held belief that museums must protect their neutrality, lest they fall prey to bias and special interest groups.[2] The unspoken argument is that museums cannot risk doing anything that might alienate their audiences or sponsors, real or potential.

This claim of neutrality has conspired to create a magical belief that is now the stock-in-trade of most museum workers.[3] This belief is that museums may abstain from addressing societal issues and aspirations, because they have complex histories and unique missions which absolve them from greater accountability.

Three Reasons to Challenge Neutrality

Why should museum workers part company with the time-honoured protection of neutrality?

  • The first reason is that each of us is a sentient being on planet earth, and each of us has a personal responsibility to confront the reality of climate change and protect the planet upon which we depend.
  • Second, we know as museum workers that education is a core mission of museums, but what sort of education is appropriate and necessary now? What we actually need are museums that identify and challenge the myths and misperceptions that threaten us – such as the false belief that continuous economic growth and consumption can continue.
  • The third reason for rejecting neutrality is that each of us is part of a family – a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, parent or grandparent. With this in mind,

“…for how long would we like our family to continue? If the next generation matters to us, and the children born to it do as well, then what about their children’s children?” [4]

 Unique Characteristics of Museums

In addition to their larger view of time, museums are uniquely qualified to embrace climate change and other critical issues, because of several unique characteristics:

  • They are grounded in their communities and are expressions of locality;
  • They are a bridge between science and culture;
  • They bear witness by assembling evidence and knowledge, and making things known;
  • They are seed banks of sustainable living practices that have guided our species for millennia;
  • They are some of the most free and creative work environments in the world.

In short, there are no other organizations with this singular combination of historical consciousness, sense of place, public accessibility, and unprecedented public trust.

How, then, can these precious qualities translate into concrete action? Here are three simple initiatives:

  1. Tell stories and educate – Museums tell the stories of the natural and cultural world – tell your visitors how climate change and disruption came to be.
  2. Second, with unbridled consumption as the cause of climate change, it is imperative that we reduce our individual consumption. Museums can readily assist with this task through information, dialogue and advocacy.
  3. A third initiative is to develop an Advocacy Policy for your museum, to help nurture and strengthen a broader vision. This policy would delineate what issues are important and how your museum will respond when confronted with moral and civic challenges, such as climate change.[5]

This leads me to one unavoidable conclusion. Individual museum efforts to address climate change are laudable and essential, but they are not enough. Nothing less than a global museum movement is now required, and the resources of the world’s 55,000 museums must not only be mobilized – they must also be anchored in a new story.

A New Story

We all agree that museums exist to tell stories—about people, communities, and nations — but who is telling the story of the twenty-first century? Corporations and governments are, but it is the story of ceaseless economic growth. The rhetoric is agonizingly familiar and destructive – consumption means happiness; economic inequality is unavoidable, and rampant environmental damage is regrettable.[6] Although we know that this story is false, it is the predominate story in our public lives and it defines our common future. This story, however, is destroying the planet upon which we depend.

Humanity needs a new story; museums need a new story.[7]

We must move beyond the doomed economy of industrial growth to the recognition that the connection between individuals, communities, and nature is the key to our well-being.[8] It is incumbent on all museums to help envision and create this new narrative with their communities – using their unique skills and perspectives.

These issues and the thinking behind them lead to the formation of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice.


[1] Romm, J. “Into the Valley of Death Rode the 600, Into the Valley of 400 PPM Rode the 7 Billion.” Available online: – May 5, 2013

[2] Janes, R.R. (2009) Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? London and New York: Routledge, p.59.

[3] McKenzie, B. Next after MuseumNext, The Learning Planet Blog. Available online:

[4] 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.

[5] Museum 2.0 “Does Your Museum Have An Advocacy Policy?” Available online; http :// – January 16, 2016

[6] Korten, D. (2014) “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” Presentation at the Praxis Peace Institute Conference, San Francisco, California, October 7, p. 2. Available online:

[7] Korten, D. (2014) “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” Presentation at the Praxis Peace Institute Conference, San Francisco, California, October 7, p.4.Available online:

[8] 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.

Robert Janes. Photo courtesy of the author.

Robert R. Janes is Founder and Co-Chair of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. He is also an independent scholar and served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship from 2003 to 2014, and 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.

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  1. Douglas Worts

    I am always inspired by the thinking and writings of Robert Janes! This short piece that Robert has penned about ‘the elephant in the room’, is just one of the many times when he has triggered a reaction in me. Hopefully, the following comments are useful in provoking ideas and discussions amongst members of this group, as we all grapple with how to generate ways for museums to engage both the challenges of our day and the people of our communities.

    As Robert has stated, we have responsibilities as individuals to help address the issues that define our era. Climate change is a big one – a threat that just may re-shape the way life inhabits the planet. However, it isn’t the only force that is shaping our present and future. In fact, within the context of the larger set of systems that operate in interdependent ways on Earth, climate change can be seen as a symptom of much deeper forces and structures – cultural ones — many of which not only lead to environmental threats, but to social and economic ones as well.

    There is no question in my mind that museums can and should be working to address climate change. However, it is worth noting that this path will invariably take museums into the realm of economics, politics, social injustice, pathological pursuit of power and so on. It is hard to imagine, for me, how humanity can address climate change without digging deep into the values-driven forces that have created the world’s current messes – with climate change presenting a global threat to human and other survival.

    I don’t necessarily agree that ‘neutrality’ is the core issue that museums must address. Certainly it is true that most museums have historically tended to steer clear of controversial issues. They don’t want to get caught in the crossfire. Part of that stems from their chosen method of public engagement – exhibits. It is simply a very difficult thing to raise a controversial issue and try to manage it through the impersonal mechanisms that are common in exhibits, particularly texts. Museums have tried to introduce multiple viewpoints in exhibits related to a topic that can be approached from a number of perspectives – and this can be helpful. But for anything that is particularly contentious, this approach lacks the ability to hold the tension long enough for transformations in perspective to take place. Whenever there is a controversial topic, with multiple points of view and deeply held positions, it more often can be managed by a sensitive, insightful and very skilled approach to relationship building. It may also take multiple sessions to be able to build the trust and respect required to build new bridges over troubled waters. I don’t know of many good examples of exhibits on controversial and/or sensitive topics that have helped build positive relationships between antagonists. Sometimes, skilled facilitators are able to achieve this type of goal. One example was in the project called “Race: Are We So Different”, developed by the American Anthropological Association and circulated to a number of museums. In some locations, the museum created community dialogues that linked historical discrimination, the science of ‘race’ and contemporary discrimination. This was a very influential project for museums that tested numerous approaches to addressing a very complex set of issues and realities. However, the forces that perpetuate social injustice are many and addressing the underlying problem is complex. This example just begins to point museums in new directions.

    Robert states, “what we actually need are museums that identify and challenge the myths and misperceptions that threaten us – such as the false belief that continuous economic growth and consumption can continue.” Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more. What is less clear to me is how best to undertake the actions of this statement – to “identify and challenge”. Where do museums find the skills and will to conduct the analysis of contemporary trends – which are propelled by system forces that are often not where the trend manifests? As Robert rightly suggests, climate change is driven by the phenomenon of the perceived need for economic growth (at individual, organizational and collective levels) and the public consumption patterns that are a requisite component of a growth-based economy. How do museums begin to address the perverse beliefs in ‘economies of scale’ and ‘planned obsolescence’? We are already a long way from the comfort zones of most museums.

    Robert’s “third reason for rejecting neutrality” is based on the fact “that each of us is part of a family – a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, parent or grandparent.” Again, I fully agree with him. Despite the contemporary preoccupation with who we are as individuals – often with a driving desire for personal uniqueness, if not personal power and wealth – ‘our cultures’ are comprised of a continuum of people, knowledge, and systems that have evolved over time. But, at any given time, consciousness (as well as unconsciousness) of the issues manifests in individuals. The phrase ‘standing on the shoulders of ancestors’ offers a vivid image of how we as individuals have been largely shaped by the people who came before us. Not only have the genetics evolved over time, but so too the frameworks for socialization, knowledge acquisition, emotional development, use of collective systems, etc.. Few of us have any idea what goes into the complicated systems infrastructures of our world (buildings, electricity, water, transportation, economics, food production, governance, justice and so on) – and yet we all interact with these interconnected systems every day. Oddly, our collective reliance on what has come before has not brought with it a consciousness of how we (collectively) play a vital role in laying a path for the future. It is said that, while planning, Indigenous communities will often project consciously into the anticipated futures of the next seven generations, in order to help ensure that decisions made today will serve the larger culture for generations to come. Humanity currently does not practice this type of humility, compassion and thoughtfulness – and integrating this type of approach will have huge impacts on the systems that currently govern global humanity.

    I also agree with Robert that museums have great potential to play catalytic roles in helping to shift some of the cultural foundation blocks of our societies. I don’t necessarily believe that museums are prepared to undertake this work. Some museums may be grounded in some communities – however many are so narrowly focused on their academic disciplines, or mission-dictated focuses, that they have a very hard time thinking in terms of larger, living, cultural systems. Theoretically, museums are places that can bring together art, history, science, story-telling, inter-generational communication and more. However, too often museums want to do what they do (and have done for a long time) on their terms, on their property and through their strategies (especially through collections and exhibits). Although there are many reasons to have safe, accessible public spaces in which to bring people together in order to facilitate personal reflection, encourage dialogue, build relationships, foster social cohesion and forge a common vision for the future, museums often don’t do this very well (if at all). Audience-based research has shown that, for many, museums remain intimidating, boring or constraining places, even if they are nurturing for some. Plus, in our increasingly urban realities that suffer from systemic inequality, museums have the untapped potential to operate across the community – fostering the muses within and across the communities in which they are most needed. The economics of museums tend to channel most museum work (and certainly the bulk of funding that pulses through these organizations) into activities that are onsite, collection-related and exhibit-driven. And oddly, museums continue to rely on attendance and revenues as the major indicators of success and unpact – even if these are not cultural indicators of anything.

    Yes, museums do have interesting things in their collections, but what makes them interesting is the potential impacts that these objects can have on individuals, communities and social structures. Exhibits that exist behind ticket wickets, that are visited during leisure-time, by people who have the motivation, time and resources to do that, are not operating from a position of strength and with a vision of potential cultural impact. Part of the problem here is that museums continue to be driven by outdated mandates, missions, corporate frameworks, funding models and public attitudes that believe that museums should exist to offer a sense of stability (too often rooted in romantic notions of the past) in a fast-changing world. There are exceptions to this – such as some museum programming that is designed for public impacts and an increasing number of organizations that are trying to address the topics of our day. However, the community could do with a lot more experimentation on how to engage communities effectively and by developing mechanisms for measuring impacts of their work on individuals and communities. I am not advocating for dissolving traditional collection-based museums – they have tremendous resources – however the museum field would benefit from developing clear methods for assessing cultural impacts, and not only museum outputs. And I do believe that the museum world would be better off to open up the conversations about how to help society to create a vision for, and a strategy to achieve positive cultural change – and part of that is to move towards a non-carbon-based economy. And as museums clarify how they need to change how they operate in order to do that, then so be it. This may well be destabilizing for the museum community, but the museum sector won’t be alone. Humanity also needs to see a sea change in how businesses operate – replacing the ‘profit-first’ motivation with one that generates many forms of value, including social, environmental and thirdly economic. In short humanity needs cultural change. The big question for me is how creative, clear and courageous can museums become in order to play a vital role in these transformational processes?

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