Museums and the imperative for change – a provocation
Happy Museum is excited to be a Commissioning Partner in the forthcoming Season for Change 2020 – a nationwide festival of artistic work engaging with the climate and ecological crisis, co-curated with partners across the UK and internationally and timed to coincide with COP 26 in Glasgow. Our partner project will explore museums and the imperative for change.
The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destinations. (John Schaar, 2004)
‘It’s the final call’, say scientists, the most extensive warning yet on the risks of rising global temperatures. We need to make urgent and unprecedented changes to respond to the existential threats of climate crisis, species extinction, the end of cultures and civilisations. We face increasing inequality, declining wellbeing, stagnant life expectancy and social polarisation.
How do we overcome any sense of individual and collective powerlessness and build momentum with others in and beyond museums in the face of challenges that are both extremely long term and globally systemic?. One thing that may help galvanise response is a celebration of the adaptability and ingenuity of humans (and other species) in responding to and innovating to meet challenges through history.
Museums are at their heart places which evidence change – arguably, museums would have no reason to exist without change. At our first Happy Museum symposium in 2012, Andrew Simms spoke of museums ‘giving lie to the myth of permanence’. (Andrew explored these ideas further at a talk to the Happy Museum Community of Practice in 2017- later published as Museums of Rapid Transition in Museum ID.)
In our first decade, Happy Museum focused on creating the conditions for well-being. Now arguably our challenge is to focus on creating the conditions for urgent transition – not merely in response to crisis or a defensive action to maintain power inequalities, but in a way that is equitable and sustainable.
What might those conditions be?
We started by opening up a conversation with some of our Community of Practice – and now we invite you to join the conversation. Here are some headlines from our conversation so far:
The idea of museums as places to explore and inspire change is both a simple and compelling concept and at the same time extremely complex!
Almost all narratives of major systemic change testify to both positive and negative impacts. The huge shifts that lay at the heart of the agricultural and industrial revolutions brought prosperity to many at the expense of vast and ongoing exploitation of other humans and the natural environment. Anna Bunney of Manchester Museum shared how their herbarium collections have been used to explore rapid change through colonialism – the exploitation (at a distance) of places / people / resources – for example the Bittersweet Feast Journal project:
Rapid systemic change often happens in response to crisis as explored by Tony Butler of Derby Museums :
After WW1 there was both a shortage of labour and an agricultural depression. Farms, especially in Eastern England, were fairly small and inefficient. When the U-boat blockade ended, Britain went back to importing much cheaper wheat from Canada. As war loomed in the mid-1930s, the government feared another blockade and actively promoted consolidation of farmland to make it more productive. As farmers invested in machinery and created larger more productive fields, miles of hedgerows were grubbed up and native species declined. Our current arable landscape is as much a product of pre-war planning as it is of late 20th century agribusiness.
Maurice Davies pointed us towards civic developments in health and transport which have contributed to the public good: sewage treatment, bicycles, vaccinations, the London underground, the clean air acts, for example. Here individuals made significant positive change through sustained and focused research, evidence and action, for example Florence Nightingale in the area of health and disease prevention:
Derbyshire-born Florence Nightingale is known world-wide as ‘the lady of the lamp’ for nursing wounded soldiers during the Crimean War after which she became involved in many public health projects. Employing innovative methods of communication to make her statistical analysis clear, she put pressure on Britain’s establishment to adopt her very specific recommendations. At a time before germ theory (which she did not initially accept), she drove widespread change in the design, administration and practice of hospitals, the response to infectious diseases and ideas about healthy homes – specifically aiming to better the public health of both rich and poor.
Large scale change can be the cumulative impact of many small changes or actions: Chris Keady speaks of Sheffield Industrial Museum ‘holding the “things” that make the “things”’: the collection is full of the tools used to create machinery, materials and mechanical items that changed the world. The collection may not have the shiny end results, but it has the messy working out – the items that represent part of a larger process.’. Keady sees parallels between the small actions, efforts and contributions of many people resulting in something much bigger (for example, mighty steam powered rolling mills) and individuals responding to the climate crisis: ‘it can help with the daunting scale to know you are a part of a larger process.’’
Most of the stories in the People’s History Museum suggest that change is slow which may not be useful when talking about the climate emergency, which many argue now requires rapid systemic change. In this context Helen Thackray feels that ‘stories of collective action are the best source of hope and inspiration for tackling the climate emergency’.
The story of Greenham Common is particularly powerful when told from the perspective of Ann Pettitt (the woman who had the idea to march from Cardiff to Greenham Common). That march took place in 1981 and just over a year later 30,000 women formed a chain around the Air Base as part of the ongoing protest, an inspiring example of one person’s idea rapidly spreading and bringing together people from across the world.
Building on the importance of collaboration for change Carrie Canham and Alice Briggs at Ceredigion Museum shared the story of Aberystwyth University, ‘which was built on donations from people of all classes across Wales in one of the first examples of crowdfunding. It was the first to accept women students. It has had a huge impact on the area socially, culturally and economically.’
What can we learn from museum collections about barriers/resistance to change and how they can be overcome? Tony Butler argues that power dynamics are key: ‘Change accelerates when those in power have most to gain or accept that they have reached a tipping point in which they have more to lose if they resist.’ Examples include women’s suffrage or the abolition of slavery where the huge compensation proposed to slave owners in the British Empire encouraged them to accept its end.
How do we tell stories of change in a simple compelling way when change is so complex? John Coburn shared how Seven Stories is exploring this through a range of programmes including ‘If I Were You’, a collaboration with fanSHEN, seeks to inspire young people to create their own narratives about climate emergency.
We have started a conversation about the role of museums in rapid transition which is already developing into a rich seam of reflections about how humans (and other species) effect change in their world.
Beyond this, the question lies, what can museums do to create and contribute to the conditions for urgent transition? What might those conditions be: equity, agency, creativity, collaboration, prosperity (in its fullest expression)?
We hope that you will join us to explore how museums can inspire, create and contribute to the conditions for urgent transition.
Do please share your responses at email@example.com.
Our Season for Change programme will include an exploratory workshop with our partners the Rapid Transition Alliance and the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation, a commissioning process for emerging work and creation of an online platform and open source resources. If you would like to register interest email us of join our mailing list on the website above