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Engaging audiences and applying an Eco Lens with Climate Museum UK

Founder of Climate Museum UK, Bridget McKenzie, outlines how this new organisation is working to build skills and engage audiences with environmental issues.

Climate Museum UK is a new experimental museum founded by a collective of creatives including Bridget McKenzie, Justine Boussard, Victoria Burns, Clemence Aycard and others. Based around the concept that a climate museum can be anywhere, the team involved are distributed around the UK, with a diverse range of collections all aimed at opening imaginations to possible futures.

The team organise “activations” with local partners to help communities play, create, talk about and take action on the Earth crisis. Each collective member creates their own collection – of resources or handling objects or of art made by themselves or participants – in collaboration with community and heritage partners.

As Bridget McKenzie explains, “We exist to develop the capacities of museums and creative practitioners to engage communities with environmental issues in ways that are truly imaginative and transformative.”

Having previously worked as Education Officer for Tate and as Head of Learning at the British Library, Bridget is well placed to comment on the most impactful ways to raise awareness of the climate emergency and deliver developmental training. She says,

“In recent years my focus has increasingly been on environmental engagement and cultural learning in sustainability through my company Flow Associates. More recently we developed Climate Museum UK as a vehicle to develop capacities in the cultural sector and amongst creative people on how to engage the public in climate and biodiversity issues.

“We want to engage in more direct, public-facing participatory engagement in places and to create opportunities for cultural organisations and individual practitioners to learn on the job.”

As the public’s understanding of climate change has changed and environmental responsibility has come into sharper focus, museums have responded in kind. Bridget says,

“In years gone by, some museums were creating ‘green teams’ and writing sustainability policies, looking at how they could make incremental changes. But I think museums – and society more broadly – has begun to look at the big interconnected systemic emergency. We’re starting to see more conversations about the bigger picture and the impacts of our disrupted relationship with nature.”

At the core of Climate Museum UK’s mission is a commitment to encouraging the cultural sector to protect heritage whilst also using it to educate, engage and prepare communities for the challenges that lie ahead as a result of climate uncertainty.

Bridget refers to this as “a shift from therapeutic actions to bigger systemic actions that face the truth of what is happening”.

That involves encouraging museum professionals to do more work in localities and find better ways of communicating about the climate emergency.

Developing knowledge for a brighter future

From climate science to plastic waste, there are a range of environmental issues that can be almost overwhelming for museum professionals. While carbon emissions and global warming have gained much of the media coverage in recent years, there are a host of challenges caused by human overconsumption and resource abuse that need to be addressed.

For Bridget and the team at Climate Museum UK this is where education and information play a crucial role in helping to disseminate what is a complex and nuanced issue into something that museums can proactively engage with:

“We are beginning to understand that we need more holistic approaches and considering problems such as climate refugees and climate justice. Another area that is only recently becoming more widely discussed is trauma sensitivity and understanding how people are responding emotionally to environmental concerns.”

She continues, “We are working more in partnership in in areas that might feature different landscapes, like rivers or dense cities and which face different environmental issues. For museums that means that the interpretation of collections will be different and can be related to those specific environments.”

Another area that Climate Museum UK are focusing on is in helping to develop sustainability policies that take account of unfolding impacts – responding to immediate issues that are having consequences in the here and now rather than the future. Where environmental plans have, for so long, anticipated impacts in the future and plan for action in the years to come, Bridget suggests that there is a responsibility to acknowledge the more pressing need to perform risk analyses based on resilience and responses in the present. She says,

“Sustainability policies need to have a radical shift really, from being about minimising the harm within business as usual to becoming more about the risks for staff, for organisations, collections, buildings and for communities. That’s a whole area of skill that we are developing. “

Reframing through an eco-lens

A recent case study of Climate Museum UK’s work can be found in Norwich, where Bridget has been running a local programme called Possitopia. This imaginative project has included running role play walks, bringing to life radical characters from Norwich history and inviting participants take on the roles of these historic characters in order to consider some positive actions that need to be taken in relation to the environment.

Through this lens, participants can better understand how we need to act on inequalities and environmental issues. In the spring there are plans to move Possitopia to a dedicated space in collaboration with a number of local social and environmental organisations so that visitors may come to learn about the Earth crisis and potential solutions.

As Bridget explains, initiatives like Possitopia are best delivered in partnership with like-minded organisations, helping to look at sustainability and the Earth crisis through the lens of a particular challenge or issue: “There’s a group called Edible East who work on sustainable food in very creative ways, working hard to engage with the public on this issue. There’s We Wear The Trousers who do projects on sustainable fashion and believe strongly in rethinking fashion education.  By working in partnership with these organisations at Climate Museum UK and bringing some of our expertise and principles to bear we can give those partners a chance to use more heritage-informed approaches.

“We have also worked with the three museums in Norwich and run Eco Lens tours of those museums so that people in the city have a deeper understanding of its history – with a view to informing its future.”

These Eco Lens tours also exhibit what Bridget refers to as “face-to-place” activations – building on the benefits of face-to-face connection while also noticing and appreciating nature and heritage. This, she says, is an important paradigm shift if we are to help people not only engage with the Earth crisis but also feel energised to take action:

“It’s about being aware of life around us and the way that we are dependent on biological life thriving around us. It’s a more ecological way of interacting.”

Other Climate Museum UK projects have included delivering a range of training sessions for museum staff and students. Going forward, however, Bridget is keen to see their museum engage on longer term projects that serve to integrate environmental challenges into exhibitions and cultural programmes around the country. She comments,

“Being possitopian is not about being relentlessly positive, but it’s about facing the truth and continuing to act as effectively and imaginatively as you can. Museums – and the arts and heritage sector in general – have a huge role to play in helping people imagine into the future.

“By looking deeper into the past, learning about the many possibilities of living that are more planet-kind, and then looking into the future, we can initiate real change.”

The MuseumNext Green Museums Summit will be held from 26th – 27th February 2024, and will feature inspiring ideas and case studies from those championing sustainability in museums and galleries.

Click here to book your tickets now, to make sure you don’t miss out.



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