Climate of change

31 January 2021

Photo credit: Joshua Corbett

Read it also at Taylor&Frances online.

Museum Management and Curatorship Volume 35, 2020 - Issue 6: Special issue: Museums and climate action. Guest Editor: Joy Davis

Written by Julie Decker, PhD, Director/CEO of the Anchorage Museum in Alaska.

Photo by Brian Adams

Climate change has become a key narrative of our time and prompts us to look forward, to imagine tomorrow. Museums, with their strong community connections and their focus on stories of place and people, are influential settings for that narrative to play out. They gather a rich community of thinkers, creative practitioners and changemakers and bring Indigenous and other non-Western forms of knowledge to the center of a climate conversation. For museums and their collections to be visible and viable, they are best when they are connected to and relevant to audiences and participants. They have the capacity to addressing relevant civic issues and imagine possible futures. This means adapting our practice, our professional development and our human resource management. This paper highlights the range of changes, from decolonizing approaches to strengthening relevance that will position museums to better respond to the change that confronts the communities we serve.

It was roughly thirty years ago that headlines suggested that heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels and rainforests were potentially disruptive to the planet. Earlier, it was thought that warming might be a boon. In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed that a warming globe might simply offer an agricultural bonus and a milder climate in Northern regions (Revkin 2018). All would be pleasant. But by 1956, The New York Times dared to suggest harm, proposing that accumulating greenhouse gas emissions from energy production would lead to long-lasting and potentially destructive environmental changes (Kaempffert 1956, 191).

In 2006, the cover of TIME Magazine read, ‘Global Warming: Be Worried. Be Very Worried.’ But the warnings didn’t stick. More catastrophic headlines followed, but behavioral change by the public and effective political leadership on the issue did not stick, either.

Years later, the July 20/July 27, 2020 issue of TIME Magazine continued to beep the horn, this headline reading, ‘One Last Chance: The Defining Year for the Planet.’ It could just as easily have read, ‘This time, we really, really mean it.’ The cover promised perspectives from the Dalai Lama, Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate, Oliver Jeffers, Stacey Abrams, and Angelina Jolie. If scientists can’t convince us, maybe activists and celebrities can.

Part of what has been missing from leadership on the evolving climate emergency is our museums, beyond their contributions through scientific research. Continually ranked as more trusted institutions than government, museums have been slow to grasp and champion change. Museums began to be less neutral on climate only in the last decade. Museums are at the cusp of missing their call to be changemakers and leaders in a world that needs exactly those things. This may be the last chance for museums to earn the trust of their audiences on the key issues of our day: climate, racial justice, systemic change.

We are no longer anticipating the epoch once declared the future apocalypse: we are living in it. Ancient methane deposits are being released from melting permafrost; anthrax spores are being released from thawing reindeer corpses. The long arc of geological time – deep time – is contrasted with the unprecedented pace of the climate change crisis. In Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert MacFarlane writes, ‘Things [geography] endures, outlive us. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and eons, instead of minutes and years … We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink’ (2019, 121). MacFarlane proposes deep time as a radical perspective to provoke us to action beyond apathy.

Our future looks far different than our yesterday. Climate change and COVID-19 reinforce that we must prepare and respond. Museums have important roles to play in our communities, to offer trusted information, to present lessons from the past, to navigate the present, but also to play the equally critical role of posing questions about the future and encouraging the vision and imagination needed for tomorrow. Museums help people find meaning – it is the core of service and their essential value. Museums are diverse mirrors for the community to reflect the moment and can be provocateurs for shifts in thinking and action, able to prompt and provide narratives that define the now and the next.

To do this, museums must find new ways of telling the story of our locals, our places and people. As the world faces the unprecedented in the climate crisis, a pandemic and racial reckonings, human lifeways and ecosystems will be changed. The impacts will vary over time and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to mitigate or adapt. Rather than distinct challenges, close connections exist between climate change, justice and the pandemic. Climate change is a slow-motion public health emergency, exacerbated by health crises associated with sudden events, such as extreme weather and wildfire. The environment is one of the factors that affect our health and wellbeing.

As these unprecedented events are key narratives of our time, museums need to be key narrators, offering stories and perspectives of place and people. Museums must work to engage the public around ideas affecting our changing landscapes (natural, political and cultural), and create and highlight radical new forms of research, practice, and placemaking. Museums can gather a rich community of thinkers, creative practitioners, and changemakers to focus on vision, problem solving, and positive change, moving beyond symbolic and into transformative. This means adapting our practice, including developing the capacity for thoughtful response, decolonization, and social justice, understanding that response needs to be imbedded throughout our organization, from exhibitions and programs to human resources.

Moving from reaction to response

Today, climate change poses an apocalyptic scenario for audiences – a worldwide experiment with survival. The decisions we make and actions we take now will shape the future of the planet. In a time of urgent and widespread activism, across everything from professional sports to social media, museums need to be current and relevant to their audiences. They need to support calls for justice and equity. At the same time, the temptation on the part of museums to be reactive does not always serve audiences nor the institution well. What is crucial is response, rather than reaction.

Reaction and response may seem synonymous, but there is a difference. A reaction is based in the moment and doesn’t often take into consideration long-term effects or actions. A reaction is survival-oriented and, on some level, a defense mechanism. Reckless reactions rather than thoughtful response can be dangerous for institutions – but inaction and impartiality are also not an option. A response comes more slowly, but it is based on information and takes into consideration the wellbeing of not only of the moment and the institution, but a wider view and a wider perspective. It weighs the long-term effects and stays in line with core values. Reactions and responses may look exactly alike, but they feel different. Reactions to racial tensions in recent months, for example, teach us about the importance of thoughtful response, not just with reference to Black Live Matter, but to the myriad challenges of climate change.

In June 2020, as major US cities became sites of protest following the killing of George Floyd by policemen in Minneapolis, thousands of protesters took to the streets. As social media flooded with images of civil unrest and police brutality, many museums stayed silent, drawing criticism from high-profile activists, artists, curators, and many social media participants. In this context, many museums reacted under pressure from the critics and the mounting tension. Some museums began issuing statements and a few became the subject of controversy. The Getty in Los Angeles was among the first to be blasted for its social media posts, which did not mention Floyd or Black Lives Matter. ‘We heard you,’ Getty president Jim Cuno wrote in an apology posted to Instagram, adding, ‘We learned that we can do much better expressing our Getty values than we did yesterday, and we apologize’ (Greenberger and Solomon 2020).

Since then, museums nationwide have continued taking to social media to declare support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Some institutions posted artworks from their collections addressing police brutality and systemic racism. As institutions scramble to respond to recent events and a new age of activism around many issues including climate change – they have also had to scramble to rethink statements. Some museums respond through programing. The National Museum of African American History and Culture launched a new, free digital program, ‘Talking About Race,’ comprised of interviews and videos with activists and role-playing exercises on race, racial identity, bias, community building, and systems of oppression. Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center took more direct action by announcing that it would no longer contract the Minneapolis Police Department for events until it ‘implements meaningful change by demilitarizing training programs, holding officers accountable for excessive use of force, and treating communities of color with respect.’ ‘This is a start,’ one person commented on the center’s Instagram, ‘Keep going.’

Finding something to say about critical, contemporary issues can be hard work, but museums need to do the hard work. Audiences will no longer let museums off the hook, whether on racial justice, climate justice or many other social, political and cultural issues. In the midst of the protests of June 2020 some museum industry groups even joined activists in speaking out against some museums’ practices. ‘As a community, I do not think art museums have done enough,’ wrote Chris Anagnos, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors, in an open letter. ‘I think our field has an obligation to do a better job engaging with these issues’ she concluded. Anagnos suggested that museums have ‘dabbled around the edges of the work, but in our place of privilege we will never live up to the statement that ‘museums are for everyone’ unless we begin to confront, examine and dismantle the various structures that brought us to this point’ (2020). The letter called upon museums to act differently going forward. But the bold work is not in the reaction; it’s in a long-term, deeply embedded and informed response. Climate change can prompt museums to think differently about core concepts of care, conservation and stewardship, and to push forward alternative forms of collecting, preservation and interpretation. Museums can also help push forward policymaking and shape future ecological legacies.

Museums can also move beyond an acknowledgment of climate change and narratives of green buildings and sustainability to close the gap between climate change and climate justice. This means building museums’ capacity to promote awareness, mitigation and resilience in the face of climate change. Museums can spur transformative action by working across disciplines and across agendas and helping to break down the silos between knowledge bearers, in rethinking the structures that maintain the status quo and in seeing connections between environmental change and melting ice and gender, racism, xenophobia, and consumerism.

The London Natural History Museum declared a planetary emergency. Others have created calls to action and design challenges. Many have worked to support youth involvement in climate action. Co-creation with artists, youth and communities and climate action organizations brings museums out of isolation and out of theory into a more impactful level of response.

Decolonizing climate change

Climate change is not just present at the top of the world; not just evidenced in the ice sheets of a stereotypical and romantic, idealized notion of place. Climate change unquestionably changes how people live – everywhere. It is in our North and South, in our coastlines and in our plains, in our urban and in our rural. There is no longer a museum audience in the world that isn’t affected by climate change. Museums can not only help people understand the forces shaping the world today, they can help people envision what the world will be like if those forces operate unchecked or if they are altered and evolve in different ways based on our current actions and response. This begins from a place of decolonization, where power structures and narratives are disrupted. Museums are uniquely positioned to highlight local conditions and the impact of climate change on local populations, particularly people of color.

Residents of Shishmaref, Alaska, an Iñupiat community of about 600 people, recently voted to relocate their community from a barrier island that has been steadily disappearing due to erosion and flooding attributed to climate change, at enormous financial and social cost. The village faces moving to the Alaska mainland, about five miles away. Since the late 1960s, their island, north of the Bering Strait, about one-quarter mile wide and two and a half miles long, has been grappling with the loss of buildings and infrastructure caused by storm surges, continually shrinking as the shoreline is eaten away. And in October 2019, a group of residents from the Yup'ik of Newtok in Alaska near the Bering Sea began settling into a new village, after spending more than two decades preparing to move. Thawing permafrost and erosion caused flooding risk as the land around homes was crumbling and sinking. In the process of moving, these Arctic residents have become some of North America's earliest climate change transplants.

For Indigenous communities, human relationship with the land is not episodic; it is continuous, expanding across millennia, and reciprocal – one of the few examples of a successful relationship with humankind and the natural world. This creates fundamental and irreplaceable knowledge. Indigenous communities were once more mobile and nomadic, based on the seasons and food sources. Permanent infrastructure was not an asset. For Indigenous people, some of the best architecture has existed in the clothing, like the Unangan waterproof ‘raincoats’ women sewed using the gut (intestine) of large sea mammals. This kind of thinking and architecture was sustainable, and its ability to sustain humans might be applied to future ‘constructions.’ Indigenous technology poses relevant questions for today’s visionaries and futurists. Western ideas and have long been imported to places where better local knowledge exists. Our belief in the new has discarded critical knowledge. The future is most likely about continuum rather than discarding of what came before. How we live in our environment will be less about giving things up and more about figuring out how to what we might otherwise discard – the byproducts of our existence – a value and practice rooted in Indigenous cultures.

The periphery of the North and other ‘peripheries’ have become centers for the climate crisis and thus is born a method of decolonization, empowering the voices of Indigenous communities, acknowledging language and the land, and affecting traditional definitions of creativity, research, scholarship and knowledge. These peripheries embody histories, highlight spiritual and environmental wisdom, serve as boundary markers between home and outsiders, convey information and senses of local topography and memory, embrace natural and social connections, link present to past, and outline a much more nuanced and dynamic understanding of place.

But the specter of climate change has also led to a new colonization of the perceived peripheries at the same time – as places to study, romanticize and depict – with tourism of many kinds, from scholarship to science, to art, and to the practice of museums. The Arctic, for instance, has become a trendy place. Oprah Winfrey traveled to Alaska, posting Instagram photos with microbrews, and people virtually followed. Museums are not excluded from the trend, many participating in a race to have an exhibition about climate change and the Arctic, from the British Museum to the Museum of Craft and Design in Los Angeles to the Brooklyn Museum in a span of just one year in 2019-2020.

Countryside, The Future, as an example, is an exhibition, currently halted by COVID-19 at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, that is touted as addressing urgent environmental, political, and socioeconomic issues through the lens of architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas and of Samir Bantal who leads the think tank, AMO, of their Dutch firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture. The exhibition, which is partially presented online, is intended to ‘explore radical changes in the rural, remote, and wild territories collectively identified here as ‘countryside,’ or the 98% of the Earth’s surface not occupied by cities, with a full rotunda installation premised on original research’ (Guggenheim 2020). The project presents investigations by AMO and Koolhaas, with students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing; Wageningen University, Netherlands; and the University of Nairobi. These examine the modern conception of leisure, large-scale planning by political forces, climate change, migration, human and nonhuman ecosystems, market-driven preservation, artificial and organic coexistence, and other forms of ‘radical experimentation’ that are altering landscapes across the world. While intriguing and not necessarily invalid, it is, from a broad view, the continuation of a colonial trend. Outsiders from urban centers look out to the periphery and draw conclusions for export: outsiders as voyeurs, experts of places not visited or lived, and knowledge extracted. The outsider view as the authoritative voice over the insider view is centuries old in Indigenous places, such as the Arctic. The Arctic vernacular is not perceived as holding the knowledge; instead, the knowledge is somehow applied from the outside.

Museums need to move away from further colonizing places that are perceived as peripheral, as de-centered from knowledge and as not the keepers of their own past, present and future. As museums at traditional urban and economic centers talk about climate change, they need to recognize the centers of lived experience as important knowledge centers of climate change.

Expanding definitions of knowledge

In her 2019 Nobel Lecture, writer Olga Tokarczyk said:

Today our problem lies — it seems — in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world. We lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables. Yet we do see frequent attempts to harness rusty, anachronistic narratives that cannot fit the future to imaginaries of the future, no doubt on the assumption that an old something is better than a new nothing or trying in this way to deal with the limitations of our own horizons. In a word, we lack new ways of telling the story of the world.

To fulfill their special strength for storytelling, museums need to redefine and expand their definitions of knowledge and credentials for scholarship. Local and Indigenous knowledge encompasses the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. For rural and indigenous peoples, local knowledge informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life. This knowledge is integral to a cultural complexity that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality.

For museums to decolonize, including these ways of knowing is important. Western science is increasingly recognizing the value of Indigenous knowledge. All of the characteristics of Indigenous knowledge are the qualities museums need to be relevant to a changing world: cumulative, dynamic, adaptive, holistic, observant, responsible, relative, interconnected, non-linear, humble, intergenerational, distinct, irreplaceable, moral, valid, and invaluable.

Bringing History to the present

Museums were built on an idea of preserving the past, but these cabinets of curiosity have been forced to change, largely due to economic and cultural demands. The millions of artifacts in collections around the world represent an entrenched way of thinking and doing. Objects capture moments in time, but their lessons and narratives are rarely drawn out for contemporary relevance. Museums have been stuck in old models, often out of concern for losing the financial and moral support of the Boomers. Traditional modes of marketing and audience development center on membership, financial transactions, visitorship, but in service of a top-down model that distances museums from their communities. Museums can only reconnect through relevance. The histories we present need to be in context with what we know and experience today. They need to relate to the lived experience of people now.

Museums must understand what motivates people to connect to the past (meaningful connections to the now). Today’s participants look for radical ideas and invention as well as trusted answers and direction. A critical role for museums goes even beyond the then and now: the most pivotal role for museums may be in helping people to imagine their possible futures and in connecting people to each other.

Storytelling in context

Museums must resist mimicking and borrowing. Now is the time to innovate, develop and create. We must be bold enough to create exhibitions relevant to both our local and our globe and co-create with communities.

While big museums are seen as the model of success, smaller museums may be at an advantage in a climate crisis. A manageable budget and a nimble mission, with small collections and the potential to reach big audiences is a ship that makes tighter turns.

Smaller museums have also managed to redefine expectations in many communities. Museums of the Arctic, from Alaska to Canada to Finland and Norway, for instance, have long been resisting the colonization of urban centers further south. Since the mid-1990s, the Arctic has been warming faster than any other region of the planet; roughly two and one half times as fast. This has created a greater sense of urgency for communities, and, as their mirror, for museums of Northern places. Relevance has meant not talking about abstract painting or Impressionism, but documenting the impressions of the people who are bearing witness to an utterly changed Earth and utterly changed lifeways.

Today’s North is the canary, an image for what may come to other, more southern, places. This place-in-peril narrative has ignited a new, large-scale interest in the Arctic. As Northern territories are measured by science, the outside reference is of a vulnerable, uninhabited natural landscape – with extracted resources and melting sea ice offering strategic opportunity for more extraction and exploitation. This view focuses on land over people. From the inside, however, the view is not of a place not discovered, not of settlers, not unpopulated, not of destruction, but a home to Indigenous people who have thrived, and home to people who anticipate a future, however more complex it may be (Williams 2009). These are compelling narratives. Museums that recognize the power of the stories, told by the people experiencing them, find new relevance. What museums can best give voice to are the witnesses of our times, the voices of the people impacted by change and injustice.

Museums can also connect and reconnect people to the natural world in order to better understand concepts of deep time and the climate crisis. This is more difficult, arguably, in urban centers. Many around the world face an unrecognizable form of the environment with the shifting climate paired with rapid globalization, urbanization, land-use issues, speculative trade routes, new migration, and threatened livelihoods. ‘Solastaglia’ is a term mentioned increasingly frequently, to describe the loss of the known relationship with the landscape. Threatened and adaptive landscapes are at the center of an academic, scientific and political ecology.

Moving from nostalgia and Romanticism to memory and activism

Artists have been creating works of catastrophic warning for decades, but few institutions are co-creating with artists in ways that offer a way forward. In partnership with contemporary artists, museums can connect in new ways to landscapes and the natural world, and complexify and contextualize ideas of land and human impact. Creative response helps people understand climate change and envision the future relative to our actions. Artists and designers can imagine and propose solutions for how we might shape the future. The new museum landscape is one in which the natural world is present, not past, and in which the future depends on our ability to reconnect to the forces that shape nature, and the nature that shapes us.

A romantic view of nature and landscape – untouched, barely inhabitable – a rugged place for rugged people and pioneers, has dominated ideas of traditional landscape painting and photography. With climate change, nostalgia for wild, remote places has prompted a new kind of frontier and pioneer, a colonial place that romantically beckons last-chance tourists. Cruise ship passengers, artists, scientists, filmmakers and others now flock to document the plight of place and its icons – from polar bears to eroding coastlines and those aboriginal to the land. Today a voyage to places like Iceland is trendy. Locals become the subject of interviews and stereotypes of perceived catastrophe (Kress et al. 2017). Sociologist John Urry defined the ‘tourist gaze’ as a dangerous tendency for visitors to seek out predetermined sights deemed authentic, and to view them as elements disassociated from their local historical and physical contexts (2001).

Catastrophe is unarguably compelling. Our nature, our landscapes, are politicized, even as we face daunting challenges, from post-oil economies, to immigration and equity, forest fires, and food security. The depicted landscapes of today are not the Romantic views of artists like Thomas Hill, but a different kind of nostalgia and longing – for the landscape of our past. Remote places host a new kind of activism and, in many ways, it is art that first responds.

In 2018, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson placed 30 blocks of glacial ice from the waters surrounding Greenland in public spaces of London (including outside Tate Modern and the Bloomberg headquarters) and left them to melt, as part of a temporary installation he called Ice Watch. It was intended to serve as a visual reminder of the impact of climate change. Though on a grand scale, it is not atypical of the body of artwork most-often produced about climate change – the repetitive chime of the warning bell and chirp of the canary. It is likely that the transformative art of our time and place is not the art of spectacle but, instead, the art of bearing witness – an art of observation and the art of envisioning the how we best respond.

Indigenous photographer Brian Adams of Alaska visits Arctic villages, highlighting place and people in a time of change, often uploading the results to social media in real time (not unlike Brandon Stanton’s ‘Humans of New York’). He has documented the eroding edge of the Chukchi Sea as he takes care not to represent the environment as separate from human inhabitation. Images depict men taking saunas, boys playing basketball, and a woman standing over the day’s harvest of muktuk. The images are not of hardship nor voyeurism. They convey authenticity, presenting the subsistence lifeways of the Inuit as reciprocity with the environment. Indigenous artists bring the politics of peril into the politics of knowledge. Connections to popular culture provide provocative and proactive voices with platforms of relevance, such as Inupiaq artist Allison Warden, who wrote Twitter poems and who raps about past and future, a hip-hop entry into Arctic language and identity.

At the 2019 Venice Biennale, Nunavut filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk and cameraman Norman Cohn of the collective Isuma, webcast footage from Igloolik in Arctic Canada to the exhibition’s Canadian pavilion in Italy, marking the first time an Inuit artist or group has been selected for this international stage of the art world. The project, Silakut: Live from the Floe Edge, featured live interviews with Inuit and views of the Arctic, highlighting the tradition of oral histories, but also making the Arctic contemporary and bringing the periphery to the center – and the center of art. Silakut highlights the impact of mining on the Inuit and walrus breeding grounds, and also the empowered agency of Northerners. Isuma marks a moment, a shift, as the perceived center looks North.

The familiar portrayal of the natural world is made up of Western images, a simplification of forms and colors and lifeways. In art, Indigenous cultures have long been marginalized, including in the imagery of place, left out of the depictions, and substituted with an uninhabited and uninhabitable, both pure and dangerous. Art has been filtered, governed – the outsider, Western and white, view more dominant.

The natural world we inhabit and affect is in need of solutions – and art is part of the collective response. In his Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez wrote:

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of the moon and the colors of the dawn and dusk. (1986, 45)

To understand the natural world, we have to re-complexify it, move away from the simplicity, the black-and-white and the only-Western ways of knowing. Museums have the skills to re-complexify.

Daniel Chartier, Director of the International Laboratory for the Comparative Multidisciplinary Study of Representations of the North, calls the richness and variety of the North and the constant interaction of culture to human and human to land the ‘ecology of the real’ (2018). The art of today’s landscape is often activist, to counter colonial views and marginalization. In the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Nicholas Galanin’s work White Noise, American Prayer Rug (2018) confronted viewers’ preconceived notions of Indigenous art, using the medium of tapestry to represent a mechanistic television screen on static, juxtaposing the traditional medium and the TV image and idea of what’s ‘real.’ The snow that fills the woven screen distorts everything else, a metaphor for white supremacy. Today’s (and yesterday’s, though left out of the narrative and the canon) is Indigenized. Contrasting with the narratives of fragile economies, Indigenous artists across the globe radicalize and feminize and offer a more empowered notion of territory – based on places of knowledge, identity, spirituality and life.

Many artists, however, continue to approach climate change like the explorers of the last centuries – imagining that they are discoverers of places still undefined and unchartered. David Buckland’s Cape Farewell project exemplifies the tactics of the last decades – import artists to the front lines (in this case, Arctic Norway), then exhibit the imagery and responses to the exploration in places further south. This perpetuates the romantic depictions of the remote, the periphery in peril. Buckland’s own projection, Burning Ice, was created as he sailed in and around Svalbard, a far North of Norway, casting a familiar narrative of a land of ice at risk. Artists like Nicholas Galanin, however, demonstrate that art is not an import to the North, and Arctic Indigenous artists such as Sonya Kelliher-Combs (US) and Maureen Gruben (Canada) offer a compelling visual language that forms links between Indigenous life in the Arctic and global concerns – both environmental and cultural.

New ways of understanding (and ‘exploring’) the natural world are conversations in architecture and design as well. BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) speaks of designing and building for the world that we want to inhabit, picking up where our ancestors left off and advocating for an aspirational architecture, embedded with knowledge from the past. BIG cites Mediterranean Greek villages, with building facades coated in white to reflect heat, and igloos of the Arctic, designed using the highly insulating properties of packed snow to create a minimum surface area of thermal exposure within a maximum contained volume. It proposes not that we return to old vernacular styles, but that we make use of our new tools and our continuum of knowledge as we travel from one extreme climate to its opposite, and suggests that architecture is in a symbiotic relationship with its surrounds. The harsher the climate gets, the more intense its impact on the architecture (Bjarke Ingels 2019, 39). Rather than importing the new, the solutions for the future need to buy into a hybrid of local knowledge and new technology, past and future.

The landscape is best understood through a narrative of renewed nostalgia and now-manufactured landscapes, contrasted and intertwined with a continuum of Indigenous knowledge and new visions for human lifeways in an inevitably changed world. Today’s landscape is contemporary and global; close rather than remote, no longer segregated from the politics of anticipation. Humans have been the most powerful geomorphological force on Earth for the last 1000 years. Only through radical creative response will we adapt to what lies ahead. This is the landscape for museums.

Bridging the gap between environment and environmental justice

Museums have tended to approach climate change from the perspective of the environment and environmental science or natural history. One of the early museum exhibitions on climate change was at the American Museum of Natural History in 2008/2009. Climate Change: The Threat to Life and A New Energy Future approached climate change through ecology and oil. Since that time, we have come to appreciate that the impacts of humans on climate change and climate change on humans is a complex narrative that cannot be told in the isolation of disciplines or perspective.

Central to this complex narrative is environmental injustice. The proliferation of climate changes has a disproportionate impact as communities of color, and low-income communities are often the hardest hit (NAACP n.d.) in the US and around the world. American society has typically failed to recognize the direct impacts of climate change on our own lives, families, and communities, all of which depend on the physical environment of the natural world. Toxic facilities, like coal fired power plants and incinerators, emit mercury, arsenic, lead, and other contaminants into the water, food, and lungs of communities. Many of these same facilities also emit carbon dioxide and methane, which are the top drivers of climate change. Race is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities in the US. Those who will lose their homes from the increased severity of storms are likely to be people of color, from Kivalina, Alaska to Thibodaux, Louisiana and beyond. The disproportionate impact of climate change is in even in our food; in many communities, junk food is easier to come by than fruit or vegetables and this will get worse as drought and flooding impact the availability and affordability of nutritious food.

Museums talk a lot about sustainability. We think about the ‘green’ practices in our buildings. But our buildings themselves can be distanced from affected communities and their urgencies do not place a museum visit on the scale of necessity. Museums must address diverse communities and impacts, even polices, to help shape a society that truly fosters sustainable, cooperative, regenerative practices that uphold the rights and lifts the lives of all people. It may be artists who need to lead the way on these narratives to reach the imagination of the real and the possible. Not just art museums exist in this realm; the narratives of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) artists on climate change, represented in museums of all disciplines, offers the hope of greater understanding and behavioral change.

Diversifying the canon

The COVID-19 pandemic and the protests against racism of 2020 are forcing an assessment of the strategic value of museums and prompting essential work in order to prioritize, message, plan, respond, and create. It has not been an easy task to navigate our evolving role in creating a deeply diverse public mirror for the community.

Perhaps ‘no waste’ is a new core principle going forward – do not waste energy, do not waste relationships, do not waste knowledge. We must diversify content and programs to create a new canon, to share and decenter knowledge and knowledge production, to create alternatives to hierarchies and citational power structures, to disinvest from power structures, and to magnify voices. This will allow for anti-colonial, post-colonial, and de-colonial work and allow museums to be honest about being situated within certain privileges.

Starting and forwarding the work that actual decolonizing requires is long-term. It goes beyond the curatorial and collections departments of museums and threads through education and visitor services. It also needs to be upheld throughout, from human resources to fundraising and finance. It requires becoming accomplices, not just allies or spectators.

Co-Creating with communities

Co-creation is a process in which an institution and its audiences work together to create value. For museums working on such critical and systemic issues as climate change, co-creation is essential.

Co-creation is an iterative process, not a passive process. It requires an activated, participating community and an activated, participating museum. This goes beyond the common museum practice of allowing visitors to comment with Post-It notes. It goes beyond episodic relationships and events. The investment in co-creation develops a broader understanding of value museums can have. With co-creation, artists, participating communities, other organizations across sectors and disciplines, groups of people, come together regularly, dedicated to creating together, whether around a cause, a shared interest, a shared objective or shared values.

Co-creating requires a reckoning with these histories. Through co-creation, we can break down the barriers, the separations between ‘ethnographic’ and ‘art.’ Cultures are living and continuing traditions. Community engagement, the rooted and authentic kind, can push against sentiment and show the resiliency of cultures and the knowledge they hold that remains key to all of our futures as Earth’s geographical, climatic, political and cultural landscapes are transformed.

At the center of this work relative to climate change is highlighting Indigenous and local knowledge, Black and Indigenous artists and other artists of color, community groups, and an expanded understanding of people and landscape. At the Anchorage Museum and in many museums across Canada and Australia, land acknowledgment and Indigenous place names and language are also necessary for work on climate. The Washington Post defined decolonization as ‘a process that institutions undergo to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly white colonizers’ (Hatzipanagos 2018). The Abbe Museum in Maine defines it as, ‘at a minimum, sharing authority for the documentation and interpretation of Native culture’ (n.d.).

Sir Hans Sloane, doctor and collector, funded the collection that became the foundation of the British Museum with earnings from his wife’s slave plantations in Jamaica. The collection profited from the reach of the British Empire – collectors and travelers all over the world ‘acquired’ items for him. Many collectors saw their efforts as a way to preserve the past, believing that the Indigenous communities would not be part of our future. Most Eurocentric museums face similar histories. How items were acquired into collections offered layered controversies, such as the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum and Zodiac of Dendera in the Louvre. These objects make up not just the objects in museum storage, but in museum galleries long celebrated and visited by millions each year.

Efforts to change ‘permanent’ museum exhibitions are well underway and we will see more. Museums big and small are working to re-do and understand that the colonial histories and presentations of those histories cannot be undone without community participation. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago invited several Native American artists to present their work in their Native American galleries. A series of paintings, drawings and overlays by Indigenous artist became an overlay in the Field’s Native North American Hall to contextualize and reconsider the objects. The Field is now renovating and working with an advisory committee to reopen the Hall in 2021. The Australian Museum in Sydney has also been re-evaluating its relationship to its objects and has redefined itself less as a keeper and owner and more as a custodian. Other museums are working with local indigenous communities to determine respectful treatment of human remains and objects.

The same way that decolonization requires radical rethinking and invention, so does climate change. Messages of catastrophe have failed. We have to find new and creative approaches to telling stories, histories and causalities, and we need to co-create with communities to inspire new methodology and a new type of permanence. In approaching climate change, we have to decolonize our approaches, our systems of thought, our standards. We cannot replicate systems of colonialism and exploit people and power.

Redefining value and practice

Museums often have a narrow concept of value. Metrics have long measured money and transactional relationships with audiences (admissions, memberships, events, programmatic attendance). But today we must question the relevance of those metrics.

A museum’s brand is now deeply rooted not in its transactions but in its ability to reach communities and to be of value. With climate change, the pandemic and other social, political and environmental changes, museums have to be more like first responders – agile, nimble, responding in real time to the world around them and finding valued relevance along the way. Museums have to operate outside of closed systems and consider social, political, educational, creative and other types of value beyond the financial and easily measurable. We have to clearly define and redefine our values and practices. Black Lives Matter reminded museums that neutrality is not valued in today’s society. We have to dig deep to examine our values and approach the conversation with humility. This includes organizational culture, boards and governance, and philanthropy as well as programs.

In the summer of 2019, Warren B. Kanders, then the vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, stepped down after scrutiny from the protest group Decolonize This Place. The tenor of the 2019 protests against Kanders’ connection to the Whitney primarily centered around the fact that he was profiting from chemical agents being deployed against migrants attempting to cross the southern border into the United States. (Approximately one year later, Kanders announced that he would be divesting his military equipment company, Safariland, of divisions that sell crowd-control solutions, including chemical agents [tear gas], munitions and batons, to law enforcement and military agencies. This came after law enforcement agencies heavily deployed tear gas against Black Lives Matters protesters in several US cities.) Such events bring new attention to the values that shape museum governance. Politics will change, but values should not. Museum boards are being held accountable not for the amount they donate to museums, as was once the case, but as representatives of communities, institutions and values. Museum professionals have become accustomed to doing things a certain way. Often, substantial change does not happen until radical reboots are the only viable answer. Change comes with survival needs and demands from a diverse public. Museums have an opportunity to lead the response and to anticipate needs, however, and to be an integral of societal change, rather than in reaction to societal change. The call for change should be our own.

We have to do differently, even in the areas most embedded in standard museology. Museums can no longer design exhibitions, catalogues, programs and collections to impress the field and colleagues at other museums; such competition is ill conceived, and we need to remember that our navel is not our audience. The lens needs to be refocused to embrace everything from how we write job descriptions and define job functions to all levels of operations – if we want to do differently, everything we do has to reflect our core values. Financial transactions cannot cause us to narrowly define our aspirations and our definitions of service. We have to trust that, with vision and values as a driver, audiences (and funds) will follow. But it takes time and trust. Change has become an imperative, however; communities crave thoughtful and meaningful leadership and activists have become more and more vocal about what they demand from their institutions.

Rethinking exhibitions and collections comes with this heavy lift of change. The conflict over content mirrors current conversations in the social realm around historic sites and monuments. The move towards rethinking is found in the actions of some museums. The Museum of Man, in San Diego, hired a Navajo educator as its ‘director of decolonization’ and announced that it would no longer display human remains without tribal consent. Thomas Jefferson’s home in In Monticello, Virginia, now has exhibition space devoted to Sally Hemings, the enslaved mother of some of his children. The National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso exhibits photographs of children who died in Border Patrol custody. The narratives are now necessarily complex. There are many examples, but perhaps not enough.

Museum professionals have been to many conferences and workshops and have a library of books about decolonization, controversy and future proofing. The problem lies further back – in the history and the founding of museums. The previous centuries that created museology were shaped by people who upheld colonialism, slavery and hierarchy. What once were considered museum assets are now, at times, museum burdens: temple architecture, extensive collections, influential donors, real estate. We are only at the beginning of rethinking as we reach the stage of understanding, that we must ask ourselves hard questions – not just about society, but about our being, our value.

For example, conversations about material culture are shifting our view of the significance of collections. We are moving from tangible to intangible – from protecting objects to protecting narratives and perspectives. Objects are about oral histories and rituals and stories and traditional knowledge. Museums in many locals are collaborating with source communities in attempts to decolonize and facilitate community agendas. At the Burke Museum, collections reviews seek to draw out cultural narratives that have been suppressed by colonial factors, returning voice, authority and knowledge to source community members.

For the last half decade or so, hundreds of protestors have visited New York’s American Museum of Natural History on ‘Columbus’ Day, staging an Anti-Columbus Day Tour. The demand for change has been heard, but response is slow. These protests call out the ubiquitous nineteenth century museum approach to exhibitions that exhibit objects and speak to cultures of Native Americans, Africans, Latinx, Alaska Natives and other Indigenous peoples, with human lifeways presented adjacent to natural history animal specimens, exotified; somehow, a museum of Others. Some museums have responded with apologetic signs and labels, but colonialism needs a giant calling out. It will take time and resources and the building of trusted relationships with community members.

To address climate change, we have to talk about environmental justice. To talk about environmental justice, we have to talk about race and racism. To address racism, we have to decolonize. While the work is long-term, involving communities and contemporary artists, we can, in more nimble ways, bravely and transparently, expose the system. We can commission artists to respond to dated galleries, to monuments, to language. We can organize the protests of our own systems and help expose the ways museums, and many other institutions, have ignored and forgotten and left unseen, and change what we are accustomed to celebrating. Some other actions are easy, too: museums can change the holidays they celebrate and recognize, for staff and for the public – from Juneteenth to Indigenous People’s Day to Election Day. But we must learn a bias for action and not just curate for each other. We must co-create with communities, and take the action we can now as well as work long-term for a different future.

Redefining relevance

If we banish the word ‘museum’ from our title for a moment, it’s worth imagining what kind of institution we might be. Without the centuries-old practices of collecting and preserving pasts, perhaps we could see ourselves more as learning institutions, more malleable to providing a new kind of value and more inviting of ideas across all forms of knowledge and experience.

Museums are complex cultural institutions that have been shaped by a range of forces and influences. They are powerful constructs with strong visualizations of identity. While climate change and climate justice are inspiring community activism, museums tend to be averse to an activist role. But to be part of change, or better, to be changemakers, museums have to learn some comfort with activism – from the way we define our jobs, to how we write our texts, to the way we collect, to how we work with communities. This does not mean embracing antagonism: true activism can inspire rather than simply provoke. By positioning ourselves as learning institutions and learning communities, museums can move away from the authoritative and the impulse to self-validate.

Rediscovering our value is no longer a theoretical discussion. The imperatives of recessions, pandemics, migration and climate change are reshaping what is valued and what is demanded of society’s institutions. Survival for all of us, including museums, lies in our ability to adapt, overcome, invent and dwell in the certainty of uncertainty. Museums can become more inclusive and polyphonic and represent a broader range of the identities that shape our communities. The museum of tomorrow looks at the world beyond its walls, not within them. Climate change forces us to see, to experience, to comprehend, and to act. In action, we have to have courage. Bravery is key to our collective future; passivity is now an impossible way forward.

At a time of greatest risk for museums, perhaps the one thing we can’t abandon is risk taking. We have to implement fundamental change. The world will change around us regardless; its whether we want to be part of it. Without change, the risk is too great.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Notes on contributor

Julie Decker , PhD, is the Director/CEO of the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, which is a leading center for scholarship, engagement, and investigation of Alaska and the North. Decker's career has been focused on the people and environment of Northern places and building projects and initiatives that are in service to local and global communities. Before becoming Director/CEO, Decker served as the Museum's Chief Curator. She has a doctorate in art history, a master's degree in arts administration, and bachelor degrees in visual design and journalism. She has curated and designed numerous exhibitions, taught classes, and authored and edited numerous publications on subjects ranging from contemporary art and architecture of the North, to many aspects of the Arctic environment and histories.