The Talanoa of Museums – Report from the first International Symposium on Climate Change and Museums, Manchester, UK

Guest Post by Sarah W. Sutton, LEED-AP, Principal, Sustainable Museums / Sector Lead, Cultural Institutions, We Are Still In. Writing about The first International Symposium on Climate Change and Museums: critical approaches to engagement and management, April 11-13, 2018. Organized by Henry McGhie and Walter Leal; hosted by Manchester University (UK) and its Museum.

There is a paradox in travel in the days of Internet. As we arrived from far away to spend so much time with people we knew lightly or only virtually, we felt uncomfortable about the expenditure, and uncertain of the return on invested carbon and cash. We took care to minimize the debt and capitalize exponentially on the investment, growing quickly from strangers to friends in our shared effort. We came together in anxiety for our world, and built excitement for new pathways and hope for our new partnerships.

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

We came knowing that we must change our practice as individuals and professionals, and that we must leverage the special value of museums to help others do so as well.  To move ahead in a useful manner requires self-understanding and strategy, so our organizer, Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at the Manchester Museum (UK), guided us in using the framework of Talanoa and the Talanoa Dialogue across our three days.

The framework encourages participants to plan their work by using three questions:

  • Where are we?
  • Where do we want to go?
  • How shall we get there?

It is how the supporters of the Paris Agreement are developing their work plans in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In the presentations, and during our conversations in the lecture halls, in coffee and tea breaks, and in the evenings, we took stock of our responses to these three questions. Here are some highlights of the responses (some with related links). They are grouped under each category to progress from public engagement, to institutional practice, to field-wide practice and finally to global engagement. They are not a full map of the terrain; they are the beginnings of an understanding of the terrain. So, in our individual work and in the museum profession, around environmental sustainability and the response to climate change,

Where Are We?

  • We know that
    • Facts do not, do not, change minds
    • The science of climate communication is robust and expanding
    • Every museum has a role in climate discussions
    • We must all become skillful at climate communication in any and every setting
  • We are exploring new and changed practice in response to the challenge
    • Manchester Museum has become a carbon-literate museum. What is that and how can others follow?
    • UK arts organizations are significantly improving their practice through the help of consultants providing cross-sector practice
    • Life-cycle assessment (LCA) can help curators, conservators, and other museum professionals make choices among materials and practices in conservation, collections management, and exhibit work to reduce negative impacts on human health, the environment, and climate
    • Archaeology planning and implementation is changing as we use citizen engagement and new technologies in climate-responsive assessment and planning, and in the rescue/recovery/recording of heritage sites
    • We can improve the appeal and effectiveness of exhibit and museum planning by focusing on outward-looking issues of health and well-being for people, nature, and the planet, rather than perpetuating the inward-looking practices that serve only collections, an exhibit, or a single institution
  • We wish
    • That we knew more people who are like us, doing this work
    • That more of the public, our peers, and policy-makers felt as we do

Where Do We Want Go?

  • To where all museums understand their role in this work and are pursuing that role intentionally and creatively
  • So that we can help build a just, verdant, and peaceful world for everyone

How Shall We Get There?

  • By beginning all our work (whether with peers or the public) with conversations, using stories and shared experiences to create the connections that lead to change
  • By valuing heritage as we collect, encourage, and share the telling of stories, so that we can
    • Effectively engage individuals in recognizing and understanding climate change
    • Valorize what is or will be lost to them, or they may be forced to or choose to give up
  • When using science, by keeping it understandable
  • Art, creativity, and activism have very important roles in this work we have nearly overlooked so far in our efforts
  • By changing professional practice to
    • Continue to develop new tools and skills so that we can set and achieve new performance standards
    • Use evidence-based approaches to abandon long-held assumptions so that we can explore and embrace opportunities to work smarter and better. These include understanding the science behind unnecessarily-restrictive US guidelines for temperature and humidity control, using social science to improve conservation communication, and pursuing LCA to be sure we understand the true impacts of long-used products and processes in conservation, preservation, and exhibition
    • Demonstrate our collective climate mitigation and adaptation work to encourage others
    • Maintaining networks to educate and encourage ourselves and our peers, and applaud the promised remedy to the incredible historic oversight of having no ICOM Working Group on this subject
  • Emphasizing transdisciplinary approaches
  • Helping other sectors to understand what we do and how our work can help their cause (and their work can help ours)

We came from science and natural history museums and universities, small consulting groups, activist organizations and international ones, universities (as students and professors), and government. We brought with us opinions, ideas, and experience, and so many questions; our fair share of frustrations; and a tiny bit of hope.

We agreed that museums have the physical and intellectual resources, abilities, creativity, freedom, and authority to lead the changes the world needs most, and so, we left with renewed energy, and sufficient momentum to sustain our own work and expand our collective action.

We will meet again, and we will mobilize all museums on behalf of nature and culture in a changing climate.

Sarah Sutton

Sarah Sutton is principal of Sustainable Museums, a worldwide consultancy for museums, zoos, gardens, and historic sites addressing environmental sustainability and climate response. She is the author of Environmental Sustainability at Historic Sites and Museums, and co-author with Elizabeth Wylie of both editions of The Green Museum, a Primer on Environmental Practice. You can find her using @greenmuseum on twitter, and “sustainablemuseums” online and on fb.

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