Museums and Environment

I spent most of last week at the Alberta Museums Association / Western Museums Association joint international conference UNITE. Over the four days of the conference there were many interesting conversations with other museum professionals and presentations that highlighted how similar Canadian and American museums are (also how different but that is for another post).

A topic that came up in a number of presentations and conversations was the environment and climate change, specifically what museums can do to educate and engage people on these topics. Many ideas bounced around and it was invigorating to hear museum professionals openly confronting the questions and problems that were the topic of many academic workshops in my years as an environmental historian. It was a full circle moment, but not without some frustrations.

One of the questions that repeatedly comes up when museums are asked to think about how they can engage with environmental issues, climate change in particular, is “my museum is about [insert really specific subject], how do we engage with environment / climate change when it doesn’t apply to us?”. This question is infuriating because no matter how specific the topic of your museum is, environmental issues and climate change are relevant.

Not convinced? Consider the following broad examples.

Historic House Museum

  • On the surface, these museums are about the personal history of the family or individuals who lived in the home and a smattering of design and architecture. These do not scream “GREAT PLACE TO TALK CRITICAL ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES!” do they. However, historic homes are an opportunity to explore past construction techniques, modes of heating, and how lessons from the past can inform adapting modern homes to be more energy efficient. Historic homes are also a chance to examine micro-history of the area around the home, this sort of location specific longue durée examination of place can provide a rich source of information about how human relationships with their environments change over time. Again this can help confront current questions about how do we change our relationship with the environment to adapt to climate change, environmental degradation, and sustainability.

Topic Specific Museums

  • There are a good number of topic specific museums in Alberta; rodeos, lamps, sports halls of fame, specific ethnic/immigrant groups, dinosaurs, carriages, to name a few. Like historic houses, it is not always obvious how topic specific museums can engage proactively with environmental issues but the potential is still there.  Dinosaur museums are rooted in science and can relate the dramatic environmental and climate change that underlie the evolution and extinction of dinosaurs to talk about similar changes happening in the modern world. Sports hall of fame can connect the sports their inductees participate in with the environmental necessities that make their sports possible; for instance shorter and warmer winters will make the snow and ice based sports harder to pursue outdoors. Ethnic and immigrant group specific institutions already do an excellent job of interpreting the pioneer experience and distinct cultural practices, it is not a huge jump from to re-frame those activities as lessons in reducing energy consumption and understanding how to live within what the land around you can support. Even a museum about something as specific as rodeos can engage with contemporary environmental issues by asking different questions. There might be connections no one noticed because no one was asking questions about the connections between rodeo and environment.

I could go on but the point of this brief post is that museums have an important role to play in engaging the public with pressing environmental issues, like climate change, and are important site of learning and education around these issues. Not matter how topic specific a museum is there is a connection to the environment and thus to our changing climate. This connection might not be obvious but it is there because all life on this planet – human, plant, animal, virus, etc. – depends on the environment and a hospitable climate to survive.

Museums matter and the environment matters. Museums must do more because the future of our planet and our ability to adapt to the changes a warming planet brings depends on it. Museums are a trusted source of information and they have a unique place in society as keepers of knowledge that can more that knowledge relevant to contemporary issues. All museums have to do is take a chance, engage deeply with their communities to find solutions to problems that face us all, and break away from the stereotypes of dusty storehouses of old stuff. Environment and climate issues are a prime opportunity to do this, museums just have to take the chance and become leaders for the future.

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About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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