Rethinking museums for the climate emergency

Museums, galleries and collections are often seen as static and backwardslooking, more concerned with the past than with the present and the future. While this impression is slowly changing, they are perhaps not the most obvious subject to focus on when thinking about climate action. However, climate change is much more than simply an environmental or scientific concern. It impacts on all aspects of social, cultural, political and economic life, including museums. Questions of sponsorship, carbon emissions, waste, transport and the need for more sustainable buildings are currently being debated across the sector. At the same time, museums have an important role to play in communicating the climate emergency to the public. For many people, they remain a trusted source of information, with the capacity to inspire real change in individuals and society. Far from being relics of the past, museums are increasingly called upon to help shape a more just and sustainable future.

Museums are also deeply entrenched in broader histories of colonialism, globalisation and capitalism. As such, they are closely bound up with many of the forces that have led the planet to the brink of ecological collapse, including the separation of human and non-human life; the marginalisation and oppression of Black, Indigenous and minority ethnic peoples; and the celebration of progress narratives dependent on unlimited economic growth. Recent years have witnessed a profound shift in the way museums engage with such legacies, but their underlying logics of preservation, interpretation, curating, education and research remain largely unchallenged.

This chapter describes and reflects on an international collaborative research project, ideas competition, exhibition and series of activities – Reimagining Museums for Climate Action (RMCA) – which aimed for a significant intervention in contemporary thinking about museums, to inspire radical changes to address the climate emergency in the leadup to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
(UNFCCC) Conference – COP261 – held in Glasgow in November 2021 (Harrison and Sterling 2021; McGhie 2021; RMCA 2022). The chapter concludes with a discussion which draws on what we learned from the project and from our participation in various activities linked to COP26, and the implications for museums worldwide.

Rodney Harrison and Colin Sterling (2023). Rethinking Museums for the Climate Emergency. In R. Harrison, N. Dias, & K. Kristiansen (Eds.), Critical Heritage Studies and the Futures of Europe (pp. 15-32). UCL Press.

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Header image: "3d rendering of landscape in cube" Image by freepik, generated with Midjourney 5.2

Icon image: "3d rendering of landscape in cube" Image by freepik, generated with Midjourney 5.2