What are we waiting for?? An Open Letter to Canadian Museum and Gallery Directors from Robert R. Janes, Founder of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice

Everyone knew — and we all still know … We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of our civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children, and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.

Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. The New York Times Magazine. August 1, 2018

February 22, 2021

Dear Colleagues,

I write to you as a colleague and a messenger, with a message that I am certain is also weighing heavily on your work and personal lives. I am bewildered by the lack of civil and political resolve to address the climate crisis which is clearly upon us – it is incomprehensible.

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned us that we have just 10 years left to limit the catastrophic impacts of climate change. To limit our world to 1.5 degrees warming, carbon pollution will have to be cut by 45% by 2030 and come down to zero by 2050. How can governments worldwide defer to scientists on the COVID-19 pandemic while ignoring the scientific consensus on the catastrophic consequences of global warming?

What are museums to do?

Denial or indifference are not helpful, as Canadians are awakening to the immorality of government/corporate complicity in their climate crisis denial. This growing public concern is a rare opportunity for museums to act as key civic and intellectual resources in confronting the climate crisis. The world is home to over 55,000 museums and all museums have unique qualities which enable them to address the climate crisis:

  • they are expressions of community and locality;
  • they are a bridge between science and culture;
  • they bear witness by assembling evidence based on knowledge and they make things known;
  • they are seed banks of sustainable living practices that have guided our species for millennia; and
  • they are some of the most free and creative work environments in the world.

In short, museums and galleries are uniquely qualified to help mitigate the climate crisis and adapt to it, based on their singular combination of historical consciousness, sense of place, long-term stewardship, knowledge base, public accessibility, and unprecedented public trust.

Connected Worlds immerses visitors in an animated world where their actions impact how well the world is kept in balance. Credit: Connected Worlds by The New York Hall of Science

They are also civil society spaces where substantive issues can be aired, discussed, and acted upon. No social institutions have a deeper sense of time than museums and galleries, which by their very nature are predisposed to exercise their larger view of time as stewards of the biosphere.

I call upon each of you as leaders of the Canadian museum community

… to put these unique qualities to work in combating the climate crisis and its implications for the collapse of our way of life. I urge each of you to publicly acknowledge the climate crisis in your own museum or gallery and commit to addressing it in keeping with your own circumstances. There are numerous ways to honour this commitment in your climate crisis declaration, including:

  • Supporting the climate strikes and action – especially by youth
  • Informing the public in your role as trusted mediators of culture, science, and technology
  • Transforming your museum/gallery by committing to become emissions neutral by 2050
  • Raising awareness in your networks of the need for immediate climate action

There are abundant museum resources readily available with which to confront the climate crisis, from information on best practices to global networks. The museum community can no longer delay in combating the intensification of climate change and its impact on the biosphere. This will require courage and foresight – qualities which are familiar to each of you. It is time to honour the public trust that museums have been gifted.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

What are we waiting for?


Robert R. Janes, Founder, Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, Canmore, Alberta, Canada

I welcome your responses in Comments below or at r.pjanes (at) telus.net 

Robert R. Janes is the Founder and Co-Chair of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. Dr. Janes is an independent scholar and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship from 2003 to 2014. He is also 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 heir communities. His latest book is Museum Activism with Richard Sandell (Routledge 2019)

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Marie-Claude

    Thanks for this letter, Bob. Let’s hope it spurs some commitments in 2021 from museums in Canada and around the world.

  2. Robert Janes

    Thanks very much for your comments, Marie-Claude. I, too, hope that the Canadian museum community will see fit to declare a climate crisis and begin to prioritize their work to address it. In the meantime, your efforts to promote a greater understanding of the climate crisis at the National Gallery are greatly appreciated. We know what we need to do. I’m looking forward to the day when all museum and gallery directors, and their staff, will follow your lead. We are running out of time.

  3. Kitty Raymond

    Thank you, Bob, for waking me up to the role available to museums via the position of trust they hold in their individual communities.
    Thank you for your insight and perseverance in bringing this crucial problem front and centre in our lives.
    Kitty Raymond,

  4. Robert Janes

    Thank you for your comments, Kitty. As an early childhood educator, you know better than most of us about our obligations to future generations – our children, grandchildren, and their children’s children. We have only one planet and it belongs to the future, as well as the present. Museums, as key civic and intellectual resources, are in an ideal position to promote this message.

  5. Anthony Shelton

    Dear Bob,

    It seems to me that if change can’t be made from the top, we have to invite our staff to begin discussions about the many different ways museums can take a positive stand on climate issue. I therefore, circulated yesterday’s letter to all my staff asking that we take a bottom-up approach to adopting a climate policy. I have already received information on actions that individual staff in design, building and conservation are taking on this issue and expressions of enthusiasm. Today, I brought the issue to management. We decided first to carry out a quick audit to capture an institution-wide picture of what we are doing. At the same time, departments will hold their own goal-centred discussions that will feed into an institutional policy. I hope this will not only impact work practices, but exhibition policy. I need staff to take ownership of the project themselves. We are capable of redirecting resources as urgency requires.

    Two issues that have already been discussed are, we need to drop the presupposition that e-mail, zoom, digital technologies do not have a carbon footprint. Management this morning circulated the report below from the BBC on this issue.


    And, after installing the Monkman exhibition a few months ago remotely with live cameras linking MOA preparators directly to Monkman Studios in Toronto, museums should discontinue the wasteful practice of insisting on couriers (except when there is intricate assembly work to be done). This would shrink our carbon footprint on flights and curtail waste generated by hotels, etc. It can be done remotely.

    Thanks, Bob, for the kick.

  6. Robert Janes

    Many thanks, Anthony. I am inspired by your comments on how to embed the climate crisis imperative throughout the Museum of Anthropology. You are modelling the sort of behavior that is essential for all museum directors.

    Thanks also for the link on the costs of the Internet. All of us must give this article some serious reflection. You are exactly right about the carbon costs of travelling exhibitions, and there appears to be very little reform in this traditional practice. With this in mind, have a look at this link: https://www.articheck.com/environmental-monitoring/

    Thanks again for paying attention and sharing your work on the climate crisis.

  7. dcworts

    Like Bob, and many in the museum field who have been watching the approach of environmental (as well as social) peril and crisis, I also have been frustrated to see so little meaningful action taken within the museum sector. As a museum professional who has spent more than half of my 40+ year career on understanding the past, current and potential relationships of museums to living culture, I believe that museums have a significant blind spot. They are so closely tied to their traditional functions of collecting, exhibiting and educational programming, that they have a very hard time changing and adapting what they do – even when crisis is threatening. Museums are institutions that are designed to focus inward – on collections, academic disciplines, exhibits, programs, visitors, etc.. While many benefits derive from the skills and insights that come from a deep knowledge of collections, disciplines, stories and such, responding to a cultural/environmental crisis is not one of them.

    As Bob says in his opening paragraph, humanity needs a “gargantuan intervention” to address the climate crisis. This means that the requisite intervention needs to play itself out across the living culture, not simply as adjustments to institutional operations. While reducing carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency are important, these actions are completely insufficient for the scale of the problem at hand. The big question, for me, is whether and how museums can become effective catalysts of change across the living culture, not only the institutionalized culture.

    Reducing institutional carbon emissions is laudable and important for a museum, both for the marginal improvement in unintended negative consequences of operating and to demonstrate that it is capable of ‘walking the talk’ of carbon neutrality. However, the implicit assumption of focusing on operational efficiencies is that all of the status quo operations that are being maintained (e.g. exhibits, programs, etc.) while the environmental damage is being minimized, are actually contributing to cultural wellbeing in the most relevant and effective ways.

    Since culture has always adapted and changed over time, to think that the activities of a cultural organization remains fixed in theme, collection, or story, seems antithetical. My sense is that the stumbling block of museums not acting on the threat of a climate in trouble is not simply a failure of leadership within the museum sector – although that is a part of the problem. It is a systemic failure in recognizing the organic, living nature of cultural change, and that museums, as ‘places of the muses’, must be created to meet the ever-changing cultural needs.

    If one teases apart the most pressing issues and problem of our times, it is clear that massive shifts in the living culture (as opposed to the institutionalized culture) are needed. Historically, human culture has adapted successfully by making dramatic changes manifesting in new technologies, approaches to food, transportation, housing, education, as well as social, economic and governance systems. In the Anthropocene, museums that operate as edutainment services in the leisure-time economy, are really not designed to work co-creatively with the living culture to bring about the ‘gargantuan intervention’ needed to catalyze meaningful cultural transformation. I believe that the museum sector has the ability to play this role, but it is a latent potential – and largely exists outside the canons of traditional museology and museum traditions.

    In order to mobilize museums in the most effective ways possible, we will require new visions, new ways of working, experimentation with novel co-creative models for engaging the public, ‘outside the box’ innovation, and effective forms of impact-assessment. Museum ‘leaders’ are largely in place to manage existing operations, within traditional contexts. If the museum sector is to reinvent itself as a catalytic force in creating a ‘gargantuan intervention’ that can help the living culture to pivot, then it requires a lot more than good management of traditional institutions.

    Such an undertaking will require new forms of leadership in: government policy and funding; organizational definitions and structures; community-based cultural visioning; co-creative strategies for supporting all citizens in realizing a new cultural vision. And all of these will need to be based on principles of:
    i) equity and wellbeing for all people, as well as
    ii) ensuring that human activity is designed to operate within the carrying capacity of the biosphere.
    Perhaps the most foundational change required is for museum operations to revolve around the imperative of planning for adaptive cultural impacts, not simply institutional outputs and functions.

    Over the past 40 years, audience research has enjoyed a growing role within museums. It has primarily focused on the nature of visitor experiences within museum environments – which has generated new insights into how well museum exhibits and programs engage people. However, the sad truth is that, even today, few museums have trained audience researchers who are generating the kind of relevant feedback loops needed for museums to go beyond their current roles in society. In order to boost this capacity, it is possible that effective leadership is needed from governments, professional museum associations, potential vision/values-aligned collaborators (e.g. urban planning professionals, local governments, progressive businesses) and more.

    Bob is right, the societal change that is needed is massive. He also is right that museums have the creative, intelligent, resourceful staffs, as well as incredible connections to artists, scientists, historians, philanthropists, politicians, business leaders and more – all of which are needed for cultural change. Creating a climate for supportive experimentation that enable museums to catalyze effective cultural adaptation and change is challenging, but doable. There is a lot to talk about in our field… new skills to acquire… new collaborations to be forged, and… new ideas to be generated, tested, scaled and implemented.

    If museums agree that they should be players in creating the ‘gargantuan interventions’ needed by society, then providing supportive structures for experimentation in community-engaged, co-creative change is a good place to start. To get there, the museum sector would benefit from embracing systems-thinking approaches to map the bigger cultural picture of what needs to change.

    The stakes for humanity couldn’t be higher. Inaction really is not much of an option.

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