Charlotte Smith moved from the museums and galleries sector to Chester Zoo. Here she reflects on Happy Museum thinking and the different models of community engagement the zoo uses in its conservation campaigns.
My Happy Museum experience at Imperial War Museum North (read about it here) played a role in awakening my inner activist. I was already interested in environmental sustainability and human wellbeing, but through my work with Happy Museum began to explore how cultural institutions can work to shape the world around them rather than reflect it. It was this that led me towards a career move, and in 2014 I joined Chester Zoo as Head of Discovery and Learning, playing a key role in delivering the zoo’s mission of Preventing Extinction.
The zoo is a great day out for visitors – and in 2017 there were 1.8 million of them – but we are also a conservation and education charity. We deliver our mission by working in the zoo, with partners and in the wild to protect and restore habitats, manage sustainable populations of endangered species, conduct scientific research and engage people with conservation, connecting them with wildlife and empowering them to take action
Through our campaigns we aim to engage the public with the conservation issues we really care about and inspire them to take action for wildlife. Each of our campaigns has a different model for community engagement, some of which may be useful for museums looking to support Happy Museum principles around active citizenship and of course valuing the environment. Below, I look at two of our campaigns – in the first, the zoo is taking on a leadership role in mobilising others; in the second, our role is one of broker and facilitator, bringing local groups together and making connections.
Leading – our Sustainable Palm oil Challenge
Our Sustainable Palm Oil Challenge launched back in 2015 and aims to make sustainable palm oil the norm. The growing oil palm industry and unsustainable production of palm oil is one of the biggest threats facing the wildlife of Borneo and Indonesia, where we’re working with our partners and have seen the devastation unsustainable production can cause.
Palm oil (or its derivatives) is present in about 50% of all items you buy in an average UK supermarket, so it’s something we can all help with. It is the way the palm oil is sometimes produced that is the problem. Palm oil can be incredibly efficient and requires far less land than other vegetable oil producing crops, so sustainable production that enables wildlife to thrive is the key. By demanding sustainable palm oil we can all help drive the oil palm industry to be more wildlife friendly and support the economies of developing countries.
We started by looking at own supply chain. We worked with our suppliers to ensure that all of the food products we use in the zoo contain only sustainable palm oil and raised awareness of the issues through our education work and social media channels. Beyond that, our bigger aim is to make Chester the first Sustainable Palm Oil City. We are gathering schools, businesses and restaurants to the cause, providing them with resources and advice on how to take action, as well as being able to show from our experience why this issue matters so much for wildlife.
We have created tools to help people identify sustainable products, including a shopping list of brands that use only sustainable palm oil, and a toolkit for restaurants to audit their supply chain and create their own sustainable palm oil policy. We want to make it easy for people to take action, this is a key principle of our campaigning work. It’s more than just telling people what to do and motivating them to the cause, we need to provide some of the tools to support them as well.
Broker and facilitator – our Wildlife Connections campaign
In our UK-focused conservation campaign Wildlife Connections, we are working as a broker and facilitator within the community. The aim of the campaign is to create safe spaces in the community for local wildlife to thrive. This can be simple things like planting wild flowers, creating shelters for bugs or ensuring wildlife such as toads and hedgehogs can access green spaces. We share our skills and provide training to community group leaders so that they can champion local wildlife with their communities, as well as offering education programmes, resources and ‘how to’ guides to enable people to take part. We are brokering relationships among local conservation groups, putting them in touch with local residents, girl guides, Brownies, Scouts and other youth groups and helping to build a community of people taking action for wildlife in their area.
We start with the conservation issue and talk to our partners and internal experts about what actions people can take to have the most impact. Then when we have identified these practical actions, we work with our target audiences to find out how we can most easily enable them to take action. We always look at our own practice too, making sure that we are leading by example and have the necessary expertise to support our community.
What zoos and museums have in common
Museums and zoos are both places where people go for a day out. Modern zoos, like Chester Zoo, have the advantage of having a well-defined mission which informs all of our work. Thinking about my time in the world of museums, I feel now that some museums and galleries (although by no means all) haven’t clearly defined a specific cause or action that they want people to be part of. They are often places to reflect or to find out things. Although many museums will talk about having social purpose and making change, they don’t always invite the public to make those changes with them. They benefit society rather than create benefits with society.
My provocation for museums would be: what is the change your organisation is trying to bring about? It comes back to having a well-defined story of change that sets out the differences you are trying to make. Are you a resource for your community, do you have expertise to offer? Do you have ways of involving people in something that is real and meaningful to them? Have you asked your community what the best way for them to get involved, or whether they are clear what your purpose is? What are museums inviting people to join with them to achieve?
Charlotte Smith is Head of Discovery and Learning at Chester Zoo.
Chester Zoo are an Affiliate of the Happy Museum Project