The past few weeks have exposed the fact that the biggest things can always change, at any minute. This simple truth, both destabilising and liberating, is easy to forget. We’re not watching a movie: we’re writing one, together

Peter C Baker

In mid-March Happy Museum launched a new project Museums and the Imperative for Change, part of the forthcoming Season for Change in the run-up to COP26. Through the project museums will use their collections to explore societal change, to investigate what factors have contributed to just and sustainable change throughout history, and to consider how we could support such changes now and in the future.

Now, just two short weeks since that launch, we find ourselves in the midst of a period of seismic global change. We are experiencing shifts in individual and communal response, government intervention and cultural norms which would have been unimaginable only weeks ago. Largely locally and physically isolated, we are simultaneously experiencing an explosion in online communication at global scale.

Responding to this historic moment of change, academics, writers, activists and others are exploring what the impacts of this global upheaval could mean for our collective future. In their explorations of economic, social and cultural change, many are turning to the past in search of deeper understanding in order to inform our actions in the present.

Some are drawing practical lessons from our experience of past crises. In this piece journalist Jack Schenker considers historical precedents for the impact of pandemics on cities. From the Black Death in the Middle Ages which transformed the balance of class power in European societies to the remarkable creation of London’s sewerage system in response to devastating Cholera outbreaks, he questions how our current crisis might inform future urban planning. Meanwhile, researcher Richard Hobday takes lessons from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic to inform the Covid-19 response. ‘Fresh air, sunlight and improvised face masks seemed to work a century ago; and they might help us now.’

Programme partners the Rapid Transition Alliance look to past examples of rapid societal change to illuminate potential responses to the Climate Emergency creating an evidence base of cases covering: food, energy, homes, transport, cities and more. This recent case study explores rapid industrial innovation such as the recent repurposing of car manufacturers to produce ventilators and distilleries, hand sanitisers. Past crises have contributed to significant shifts in economic thinking as described here by Guardian Economics Editor Larry Elliot. ‘The 1929 crash triggered a sea change [in economic thinking]. Ideas such as universal basic income suggest Covid-19 could do likewise’

However history shows responses to crisis are by no means uniformly positive. Naomi Klein, bestselling author of the Shock Doctrine warns that in this moment, governments around the world are busily exploiting the coronavirus crisis to push for no-strings-attached corporate bailouts and regulatory rollbacks.

Peter C Baker builds on this theme, identifying that whilst some see the pandemic as ‘a once-in-a-generation chance to remake society and build a better future. Others fear it may only make existing injustices worse.‘ Ultimately he seeks optimism in the potential to build on moments of solidarity created by the crisis.

It is certainly true that we are witnessing a flowering of shared moments of connection, locally and globally such as the rapid spread of local Mutual Aid networks and the weekly #clapforcarers public expression of support for health and care workers. Indeed, perhaps surprisingly our new online technologies are allowing us to experience real connection despite physical isolation. Meanwhile at global scale, and reflecting the planetary nature of the crisis, a multitude of interwoven groups of activists and campaigners are meeting and online to work and plan for a better future.

Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster here explores the combination of individual and collective response, arguing that we will emerge from this experience with a profoundly different sense of ourselves, our communities, the precarity of our our current systems and indeed of our future.

Happy Museum also believe that any positive collective response will have at it’s heart a connection with our shared values. Such connection challenges what our programme partners, Common Cause, describe as the perception gap. This refers to the finding from research that a large majority of people overestimate the importance that their fellow citizens place on ‘self-interest’ values (like public image, wealth and power) and underestimate the importance that they place on ‘compassionate’ values (like honesty, community and protecting the environment). In this piece, The Genie’s Out of the Bottle they explore how the current and visible outpouring of kindness and compassion could be supported and encouraged to flourish beyond COVID-19.

We cannot yet know what will emerge from this unprecedented combination of localised isolation and global connection. In this moment of crisis and of rapid change we are all faced with immense challenges and difficult questions. As Jeremy Lent posits in a sweeping analysis of the potential impacts ‘the Covid-19 disaster represents an opportunity for the human race—one in which each one of us has a meaningful part to play.’ 

What part can museums play to support a resilient, healthy and kinder society for all of us to enjoy in the future?

  • How can museums best use their assets and their agency to strengthen the things that we wish to be part of our future?
  • What do our collections tell us about what we truly value and what we wish to preserve and celebrate in this moment?
  • What stories can we share from our past to support future change that is just and sustainable?
  • Ultimately what opportunity is there for museums to rethink their role and purpose in a post Covid-19 world?

We’d love to hear your thoughts…

“It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it.”

Rebecca Solnit

Useful further reading

The Rapid Transition Alliance has a host of examples of evidence-based hope for change whose speed and potential scale will steer us towards staying within planetary boundaries and which advance social justice.

Common Cause is a network of people working to rebalance cultural values, creating a more equitable, sustainable and democratic society.

The Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations – CAST a global hub for understanding the systemic and society-wide transformations that are required to address climate change.

Post-capitalist reading in a time of pandemic – Professor Julia Steinberger’s collection of essential readings on pandemic and social change