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Addressing our changing climate with participatory museum experiences

MuseumNext recently met with the team behind a successful community engagement initiative in the Midlands, bringing cultural organisations together to discuss the issue of climate change.

Nellie A. V. Chaban has worked as a programme director, fundraiser, educator, and partnership builder. As Managing Director of DearTomorrow – a climate culture organisation – she brings together her belief in the revolutionary power of storytelling, art-making, and community engagement. Nellie recently sat down with MuseumNext alongside her colleagues Penelope Thomas, Maria Billington and Moya Lloyd to explain how their organisations have been working in partnership to deliver a range of participatory museum experiences.

As Programmes Manager for Wolverhampton Arts and Culture, Penelope Thomas leads on audience engagement programmes at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Bantock House, and Bilston Gallery. Maria is the Director of Gatis Community Space, which centres green spaces as a safe haven of tranquillity for people to come together,  while Moya Lloyd is Creative Producer for Boundary Way Project, a series of arts and heritage projects inspired by people, nature, and place at Boundary Way Allotments and Community Garden in Wolverhampton.

DearTomorrow first partnered with the Wolverhampton Art Gallery in 2022 to explore the ways in which participatory cultural experiences spark community-wide climate engagement.

The partnership proved to be a success, reaching nearly 20,000 individuals through co-created exhibits, intergenerational programmes, and community partnerships. Nellie says, “Dear Tomorrow invites members of the public to write a personal letter to someone they love living in the future. We create transformative shared experiences that strengthen communities and change hearts and minds, one letter at a time.

“Imagining the life of a future loved-one shows us that climate change is integral to our relationships. Everyone wants a thriving, safe, healthy environment for the young people who are inheriting our world, for their future selves, and for the communities and places in nature that they love.”

Penelope adds, “What attracted me to DearTomorrow was that it’s about an emotional connection. It’s people led. Science, facts, and figures are all important, but the human element is necessary to make sure the climate crisis doesn’t feel like a huge, abstract concept.

“We aim to be community led in everything we do. The climate crisis is big and scary and difficult to engage with.”

Positioning the Black Country in the “Climate” conversation

Wolverhampton and the surrounding area, known as the Black Country, have a rich history with deep roots in the Industrial Revolution. This is something Nellie says “requires recontextualisation for the modern day.”

Working with the Wolverhampton Art Gallery meant embracing the local area’s complex past and the way its community has been shaped. Nellie says, “Our initial partnership with Wolverhampton Art Gallery acted as a launchpad for our larger community partnership over the course of a year. The museum introduced us to Gatis Community Space and Boundary Way, which reach a very diverse constituency. We worked with them to adapt DearTomorrow’s frameworks to both a local cultural context and specific audiences.

“Together with our partners, we engaged the community through a series of programmes, including a litter picking campaign, messages in the bottle, art making, future imagining, mindfulness meditation, poetry, and more. We collaborated with David Grandorge, a renowned landscape and architectural photographer, for a visual dialogue between his work and Edwin Butler Bayliss’ historic Black Country drawings and paintings. We also worked with local artist Kom Achall and Wolverhampton Poet Laureate Kuli Kohli. “All in all, it was an extremely dynamic, immersive, and participatory process.”

Maria adds, “It felt like the right time to be taking action, and it was such an exciting opportunity.”

The industrial revolution vs. the climate revolution

Although upheld as a time of great change and progress, the industrial revolution also raises challenges in light of today’s climate conscious audiences. This was something the project didn’t shy away from. Moya says,

“We were able to connect the issue of climate change to the art gallery’s collection. Local poets looked at paintings of industrial landscapes, and used these as inspiration for poems bringing the past to the contemporary.

“It gave writers something to sink their teeth into, connecting the history of Wolverhampton with the current climate crisis.”

This relationship between the past and future of the Black Country was particularly evident in the team’s work with local children, as Maria explains:

“We took our youth group on imaginary train journeys through time, asking them to imagine what it would have been like being a child when industrial revolution was hitting Wolverhampton, and what’s the earth going to look like in 2050. What does it mean today to be a good or bad ancestor?

“We found that children struggle to imagine a safe future. It’s either perfect, or nothing; there was no middle ground for them. They couldn’t envisage a future similar to today.”

Storytelling for future generations

The DearTomorrow and Wolverhampton Art Gallery project authentically engaged diverse community members in art-making, storytelling, and reflection for future generations, highlighting the role cultural organisations can play in our collective fight for a liveable planet.

The multi-faceted, 12-month partnership included an installation and a large-scale community-led exhibition, as well as related programmes, and the creation of an intergenerational dialogue among artists, poets, students, and families, including children.

Having worked with Gatis’s youth group, Maria says, “Children know they shouldn’t drop litter. They know that there’s a climate emergency. But they have rarely been given space to assess thoughts and feelings about it. As well as communicating the seriousness of the issue, we have to show them the positives too. We have to show them how they can initiate change, and get them excited about it.”

More than 2000 individuals from across the Wolverhampton community contributed letters, poems, illustrations, works of art, and audio recordings.

Nellie says, “Intergenerational legacy is crucial to our strategy. Writing a letter to the future – whether it’s to a child, a family member, or a future self – is a reminder of our responsibility to each other. It’s a shift from short-term thinking to a long-term mindset.”

This is a sentiment that is borne out by multiple studies, including 2023 and 2024 studies which both surveyed 60,000 people and found the most engaging way to communicate the climate crisis was to focus on “protecting what we love for the people we love”. The latter study found writing a letter to a loved one living in the future to be one of the leading strategies for support for climate-friendly policy.

Engaging and representing diverse voices

“Working with partners and intentionally targeting different audiences ensures that we are able to hear from as many people’s perspectives as possible,” says Penelope. “That’s important, I think.”

As Moya explains, this included reaching out to local communities that are often unheard in the climate conversation and underrepresented in the discussions on how to address this existential crisis. She says, “One group we worked with was the Wolverhampton Punjabi Women Writers Group. They focus on the experiences in the Punjabi community, and they were commissioned to produce poems linking to the climate crisis. This was one way in which we gave voice to a group that may not previously have felt heard.”

Nellie adds, “By collecting and connecting diverse visions of the future, we create strong, proactive, and resilient communities that are better prepared for the challenges of climate change now and in the future.”Cultural institutions have an important role to play in inspiring resilient, connected, and creative communities that are prepared to address shared challenges and realise shared visions of a thriving future..”

 

The role of museums in change

The partnership between DearTomorrow and Wolverhampton Art Gallery integrated multiple artistic disciplines and engagement strategies to help leverage cultural partnerships and address societal issues, inviting diverse voices into galleries, programs, and exhibits. As Penelope suggests,

“Museums are in a position of privilege, able to provide historical context to current conversations, and create a safe space to ask the difficult questions.”

Nellie says, “Museums and cultural institutions must address the pressing issues of our time to stay relevant. Climate change is an existential issue that affects all of us, and it’s incumbent on us to use creative strategies to engage, inspire, and create connections to this issue, so people have agency in climate solutions.”

Maria adds, “The exhibition wasn’t neutral. There was a definite drive for change. Part of the community involvement within the exhibition was a call-to-action space. We had some giant feet on cardboard where people could pledge to walk more softly on the earth.”

 

Advice for other museums? Open your mind

A year on from the completion of the participatory project in the Black Country, those involved in the programme refer to it as a “blueprint” for working together and nurturing conversations.

Penelope says, “This project helped us embed sustainable work into everything we do, including our core programmes. We’re constantly assessing new ways to bridge industrial history with climate engagement and education.”

Nellie concludes, “There was such an incredible creativity and openness throughout. It was a very moving experience. Everyone went into this project with an open mind, and that’s what made it such a success.”

MuseumNext hosts a range of in-person and online summits each year, covering topics such as digital collections, sustainability, social impact, learning and XR. Click here to find out more and book tickets.

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