Monday, 5 February 2018

Museums and Environment

One of the questions that repeatedly comes up when museums are asked to think about how they can engage with environmental issues is “our museum is about [insert subject here] - how do we engage in discussions around the environment when it does not apply to us?” When museum professionals look at their institutions through a different lens, however, it becomes obvious that there are many connections to the environment. By highlighting these connections, museums can be agents of social change by engaging their communities in timely discussions around this vitally important topic.

Still not sure how your museum might fit? Consider the following broad examples:

Historic House Museums

§  Historic houses are an opportunity to explore construction techniques, modes of heating, and how lessons from the past can help modern homes be more energy efficient. They also present opportunities to examine the micro-history of the area around the home, and can provide a rich source of information about how human relationships with their environments change over time. This can help confront current questions about our changing climate, environmental degradation, and sustainability.

Topic-Specific Museums

§  Like historic houses, it is not always obvious how topic specific museums can engage proactively with environmental issues but the potential is there. For example, dinosaur museums are rooted in science and can relate the dramatic environmental changes that occurred millions of years ago to similar changes happening in the modern world. Sports Halls of Fame can connect the sports their inductees participate in with the environmental necessities that make these sports possible; for instance, shorter and warmer winters will make snow and ice based sports harder to pursue. Ethnic and immigrant group-specific institutions that interpret the pioneer experience can re-frame their distinct cultural practices as lessons that will help future generations reduce energy consumption and live more sustainably. Even a museum about something as specific as rodeos can engage with contemporary environmental issues by asking different questions.

§  Location Specific or Geographically defined museums

Museums that are based in a geographically-specific location can ask different questions about how their area has changed over time to consider the role of people in that change. Reframing exhibits and interpretation to look at how agriculture, industry, and settlement change the environment encourages people to think about how their daily interactions affect future generations. Historical photographs are a great resource to compare what a place looks like today with how it looked in the past; this approach can also be used to look at how nature reclaims spaces after people stop using them.

No matter how topic-specific a museum, there is a connection to the environment. Museums and other cultural institutions have an important role to play in engaging the public around these issues, as they are a trusted source of information that help promote a culture of inquiry and exploration.

Lauren Wheeler
Program Lead