Museums and Climate (In)justice
Darlene E. Clover
My research over the past two decades has brought me to museums sites that UNESCO (1997) proclaims to be “first of all, learning places” (p.4). Museums offer a plethora of education and learning opportunities for thousands of people who visit them yearly. Through the narrative and visual power of exhibits, artworks and exhibitions, museums “stimulate the imagination and creativity of their viewers” (UNESCO, 1997, p. 6), and shape, construct and mobilize knowledge and consciousness about history, science, discovery, art, war and the natural world.
Despite their extraordinary storytelling capacities, their powerful visual-narratives of our socio-natural world, museums were “rarely, if ever, discussed” as spaces that could make a difference to how we understand and respond to the climate crisis, which lead Canadian museum scholar Janes (2009) to argue that their “irrelevance is a matter of record” (p. 26). Museums have been seen as irrelevant because they have operated solely as hierarchies of elitism, power, and privilege and pretended to be neutral and impartial about the world when they are anything but. However, my research shows a more complicated story. Museums have been challenged over the past decade to use their powerful intellectual, pedagogical, storytelling, visualising, and civic engagement potential to address inequalities, injustices and ever more so, environmental challenges (Janes & Sandell, 2019). In this short article, I draw attention to three different types of these activities of which I was a part.
Museums are educating the public about the climate crisis is by partnering with universities to offer courses which are both for and not for credit. The course I took part in was hosted by Tate Modern in collaboration with Goldsmiths University, London. This five-week course entitled Art and Slow Violence drew directly from Nixon’s (2011) Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor and his belief that we lack the critical perception required to see the insidiousness of the ‘unseen’ aftereffects of war and its slow yet persistent violent impacts on the poor, women and the environmental. The course focused specifically on the exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography. We were welcomed to peruse a series of photographs of dry, arid or ravished landscapes vacant of human activity and life to illustrate this ‘absent presence’ and to encourage dialogue about what it is that structures our ability to ignore or forget. Employing the use of other artworks and their storytelling and visualizing power, we were engaged in conversations about, for example, the ‘commons’ verses the ‘enclosures’. We discussed the right to access land and the health and abundance of nature versus private ownership and how this alienated people from food and livelihoods and enabled vast wealth (off ‘natural resources’) to be accumulated by a few in the interests of a few. By placing the power of aesthetics, objects and the collections in the service of climate change, the museum provided us with a visually imaginative and very thought-provoking space.
The Language of Change
Ferguson et al. (1995) remind us of the power of language as a primary tool in museums “for creating meaning and mediating messages” (p.106). An excellent example of language change in the service of climate change comes from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto. Turning on its head Rainbow and Lincoln’s (2003) assertion that “to know what is being lost...it is necessary to know what is here in the first place” (p. 11), the ROM now has very different explanatory texts in its gallery on Biodiversity. Titles and panels that a year ago were extremely neutral descriptors of the context and contents of the dioramas and displays, have taken on a very difficult, more activist tone. The entry title of this gallery that meets you upon entre now includes as its heading: Life in Crisis. The texts use capital letters to make words and ideas visible and to make clear explanations of humanity’s complicity in climate change and the impact. For example: “HUMANS are causing both the extinction of individual species and the destruction of whole ecosystems.” Not long ago, purposeful statements such as this, and there are many more throughout the gallery, would have been viewed as totally inappropriately political and antithetical to fundamental professional values of impartiality. While this practice is quite didactic, it represents a critical shift for the ROM towards the politics of climate change and more importantly, that it has taken a side as an intellectual institution.
As noted, museums tend toward ‘neutrality’ however, I have come across some excellent examples where they are throwing of the shackles of impartiality by engaging in activism. An example of this comes from the Haida Gwaii Museum in British Columbia which created a powerful activist exhibition entitled Thanks but no Tanks. To create the exhibition, they called for representations by native and non-native artists to produce a radical display of opposition to the proposed oil pipeline and increased numbers of oil tankers on the Pacific coast of British Columbia (Leichner, 2013). This defiant practice of representational cultural activism that entered fully into the crisis was filled with hard-hitting and satirical works, a multi-media mixture of photography, cartoons, paintings, and poetry that juxtaposed government conceived economic opportunities with the real socio-ecological threats (everything from spills to drugs) the pipeline presents. The exhibition also included a collision of oppositional statements by Native elders on one side and pipeline proponents on the other. The museum used the exhibition as a platform to animate community discussions, which could be heated, and to develop popular theatre activities that continue to generate considerations about our use of oil (Bell et al., 2017).
Not all museums are responding to the climate crisis or other forms of injustice and oppression. Within that world, there is still much to be done. However, as someone who has been around these institutions for nearly three decades these types of activities show they are throwing off the shackles of neutrality with courage and tenacity. These giants have awoken with an imperative to be relevant and contribute to what may very well be humanity’s most major challenge.
Bell, L. & Clover, D. E. (2017). Critical culture: Environmental adult education in public museums. In A. Dentith & W. Griswold (Eds.), Ecojustice adult education: Theory and practice (pp. 17-31). Jossey-Bass.
Ferguson, L., MacLulich, C., & Ravelli, L. (1995). Meanings and messages: Language guidelines for museum exhibitions. Australian Museum.
Janes, R. (2009). Museums in a troubled world. Routledge.
Janes, R., & Sandell, R. (2019). Museum activism. Routledge.
Leichner, P. (2013). Thanks but no tanks-perceptions put into play. Unpublished paper presented at the British Columbia Museums Association conference, Parksville, British Columbia.
Nixon, R. (2011). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Harvard University Press.
Rainbow, P., & Lincoln, R. J. (2003). Specimens: The spirit of zoology. The Natural History Museum.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darlene E. Clover is Professor of Adult Education and Leadership Studies at the University of Victoria, Canada. Her research focuses on the challenges of museums but more importantly, their potential to respond critically and creativity to a troubled world.