Museums and galleries have a unique role to play in the climate and biodiversity crisis: they are some of the few organisations in the world whose role is long term, beyond short-term political and funding cycles. They tend to say that they preserve their collections “for posterity”, a vague and far-off time in the future. But the climate crisis, and the attendant—but less publicised—biodiversity crisis, makes us realise that posterity might not exist as we currently conceive of it, unless we do something to address this existential threat.
The fact that many museums have items in their collections relating to the five other mass extinctions in the Earth’s history, coupled with their orientation towards the long-term future, means that they have an ethical duty to speak out about the crisis we are in. The fact that museums remain highly trusted by the public means that they also speak with authority.
Additionally, museums have huge reach. Pre-pandemic visits in the UK were around 85 million annually (plus parallel levels of digital engagement), more than the total attendances of church and soccer matches combined. As numbers build up again post-Covid and post-Cop26, museums could engage people in the urgency of the combined environmental crisis, serving as a mass medium of the longer term.
Posterity might not exist as we currently conceive of it, unless we address this existential threat
They can do this, first, as exemplars of good practice. Many museums and galleries such as the Natural History Museum and the V&A in London and the Australian Museum in Sydney have published detailed plans for achieving net-zero carbon emissions. These are divided into Scope 1 and Scope 2 (direct and indirect emissions on site from gas, electricity, air conditioning, fleet travel, and so on), and Scope 3, which covers all other indirect emissions.
The less well-known Cop15 UN Biodiversity Conference (the first online part of which took place during Frieze week in October; the second will be in 2022) has also prompted some museums to publish plans for how they can enhance biodiversity, and reduce pollution and waste.
These targets will be challenging. On site, improving building insulation and moving away from gas largely need to be funded centrally and depend on government willingness to prioritise. It remains to be seen whether the UK government’s new heat and buildings strategy will deliver this.
The largest element of emissions (up to 90%) comes from Scope 3, encompassing visitor and business travel, procurement, waste and water, which in turn brings important questions about the business model of at least the internationally focused institutions. This is prompting some, such as the Tate, to look at employing virtual couriering and using sea shipping for transport. In the commercial sector, the Gallery Climate Coalition is leading the way.
There also has to be a role for offsetting, as future museum operations will continue to involve some carbon emissions. This is an area fraught with difficulties around validation, and some, such as the Imperial War Museum, are taking matters into their own hands by planting their own woodlands.
Mitigation and adaptation are vital elements in the mix. Many museums and storage facilities are in areas of high flood or fire risk, and that risk will rise as extreme weather becomes more common. In the UK, museums in York, Ironbridge Gorge, Sheffield, Tewkesbury and Boscastle have all suffered from river flooding in recent years. In British Columbia in Canada, the Lytton Chinese History Museum was destroyed by wildfires this summer, and other museums made emergency evacuation plans. In Australia, smoke from wildfires forced the closure of the National Gallery in Canberra last year, and all museums are making wildfire contingency plans.
More widely, the major role of museums and galleries is to engage their visitors in the crisis and what to do about it. Traditionally, museums have operated in broadcast mode, telling people things that they should know. Now, they need to engage people as active agents in a mass movement to live more sustainably. Simply presenting the facts is no longer enough; many people report feeling overwhelmed in the face of the enormity of the challenges and succumb to climate exhaustion and anxiety. At the Horniman Museum and Gardens where I work, parents talk of their worries for their children if we do not meet our reduction targets. They feel disempowered but want to do something.
Research shows that the emotions have to be engaged in order to overcome climate exhaustion and spur people to make changes in their own lives. This is where artists can play a role, particularly as many have long been highlighting the urgency of these issues, at least since Cape Farewell started its work 20 years ago. Exhibitions by Olafur Eliasson, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey and many others have provided powerful ways of engaging with the urgency of these issues.
Museums and galleries also need to give people the tools to overcome their feeling of disempowerment as well as practical ways to make a difference. The Natural History Museum’s exhibition series Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways to Fix It does just this. Leeds Museums and Galleries has led the way in developing an integrated approach to environmental action across its programming, exhibitions and operations. The Horniman’s Nature and Love project uses our love for our children as a spur to action, and through its Environment Champions Club provides support for families who are committing to reduce their emissions and waste and promote biodiversity.
The aim must be to harness museums’ reach and trusted status to encourage people to believe that small actions, when undertaken by millions, have a huge impact. As active citizens they can make a great difference, both in their own lives, and in demanding change on a larger scale, whether it be corporations reducing waste and decarbonising their supply chains, or through exercising their democratic rights to lobby for accelerated action.
Are we so wedded to a model of constant growth that we must accept we are participants in a slow but inevitable car crash?
All of this brings with it a whole series of sensitive issues about the balance between engagement and activism, the choice of sponsors, and balancing investment in green solutions against a backdrop of rising costs and diminishing budgets. The biggest one is how we can replace the model of constant growth (of income, visitors, collections and buildings), which was shown to be so vulnerable in the pandemic. Can museums and galleries transition to a more sustainable model which prioritises their social and environmental role, and focuses on audience diversity rather than sheer numbers? Or are we so wedded to the business growth model that we can’t change it, and must accept that we are participants in a slow but inevitable car crash?
Cop26 is the occasion to confront these issues. If we don’t, our successors will castigate today’s museum leaders for failing to speak out and for failing to act.
• Nick Merriman is chief executive of Horniman Museum and Gardens, London, and chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council Environment and Ecology Working Group