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Course correcting with the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation

Bob Perry, Executive Director of the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation, shares how the cultural hotspot is turning a critical eye on US industry’s past, present, and future, in order to create a more holistic view of the artefacts and stories the museum showcases.

Having come from a varied, non-museum background, Bob Perry has led the Charles River Museum since June 2015. During his time as Executive Director at the institution, Bob has looked to view the museum’s storytelling more critically, reframing conversations about industry and, as he puts it, “Shining a light on the matters that are going to be of increasing importance to the public and to the planet in years to come.”

The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation is a small but influential museum in a historic textile mill in Waltham, Massachusetts. As an institution, it aims to educate local communities about America’s industrial history and looks to inspire future innovation.

But as Bob and his team know only too well, being authentic and inspiring also means evaluating history through a modern lens. This approach has led the museum to launch its Course Corrector exhibition.

Course Correctors confronts negative aspects of the USA’s industrial legacy by raising awareness of the darker side of its history, whilst also highlighting modern companies whose people, processes, and products seek to mitigate the historically destructive effects of industry.

Course Correctors: the whole story

Historically, Bob argues, museums have focused on the positives of the artefacts and people they highlight, but Course Correctors aims to tell the whole story: “Typically, museums glorify their subject matter — whether it’s an artifact or an industry or a tool — and talk about all the good things it did and all the positives that it represents. But that’s not entirely realistic. Climate change is our greatest forward-looking challenge right now, and that is, in large part, because of industry. As a museum of industry, we must own that.

“When I started at the Charles River Museum, there was no talk about the fact that rivers and streams and groundwater are polluted, or about excess carbon in the atmosphere due to irresponsible industrial waste. Many respiratory diseases and poisoning cases are a direct result of industry.”

And it isn’t just sustainability that Bob wishes to shine a light on. US industry has a murky social and economic history in the trading of materials such as cotton, which were built on the backs of enslaved people on American plantations.

“We’re a museum of industry and innovation, and that means accepting all the positives and negatives that come with those subjects. Sometimes, you have to call a spade a spade in order to give an honest historical portrayal.”

A fresh perspective

Course Correctors came about in collaboration with fellow Massachusetts-based organisation Phoenix Tailings. As a newly opened manufacturing facility, Phoenix Tailings focus solely on a clean approach to mining waste management. They worked with Bob and team to tackle what Bob describes as “key hurdles” within the Charles River Museum:

“Our exhibits stall out in the 1970s, which makes it difficult to engage younger visitors. I knew we had to modernise without losing our historical content, which meant taking a hard look at the ongoing implications of past and present industrial decisions.

“We’ve been adding to the stories we tell about our artefacts, and weaving more truth into our narratives. For years, museums have been romanticising steam engines, but steam engines – for the most part – burned coal. We know now that coal is terrible for the environment and has killed a lot of people, whether indirectly through environmental damage or directly through miners breathing coaldust. It would be unethical for us not to highlight these negative aspects of the industry while also showcasing the positives.”

By showing all sides of the industrial story, the team at the Charles River Museum are able to create a fresh perspective that’s relevant to today’s audience.

On track for a brighter future

While it may sound counterintuitive, highlighting the darker side of industry has allowed Bob and team to promote more hope for a brighter future. Learning from the mistakes of the past, Bob argues, is helping new industry leaders think “more responsibly” about the impacts their organisations are having.

“We’re always going to need industry,” Bob says. “We’ve got eight billion people on Earth, and they’re all going to need materials and objects and machines. But, as a society, we’re learning that there are better ways to provide these necessities that don’t harm others or the world around us.”

Today’s companies and consumers are seeking ways to engage with industry without negative effects, and learning about the mistakes of the past is one way to assist them on this journey.

“It’s important to remember that the world is moving in the right direction – that’s one of the key takeaways we want to create from the Course Correctors project. It’s not fast enough, but change is happening. In some areas the damage we’re doing to the environment is slowly diminishing and through innovation we are beginning to find ways to repair and restore.”

Bob Perry, Executive Director at the Charles River Museum

Expanding horizons

Over the next few years, the museum plans to expand its physical space, allowing for more Course Corrector installations. And as the Course Correctors exhibition continues to evolve, Bob wants to showcase more modern local industries, particularly those pushing greener initiatives, such as the member companies of “climatetech incubator”, Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts. He says: “We’ve only just gotten started, but highlighting the way industry is changing for the better is something we can do as a museum of industry and innovation. Our focus is on the Industrial Revolution, and the continuing evolution of industries through innovation. It’s only natural that we look at how it continues to evolve with sustainability in mind.

“Not only does Course Correctors feel like a necessary curveball in the way museums are run, but it also fits neatly with who we are as an organisation. It’s consistent with our personal and institutional values. There’s a bright future in exhibiting this way, and in time, I have no doubt that our efforts will be seen and appreciated.”

The 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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