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Creating Environmental Narratives At The Museum of English Rural Life

Isabel Hughes, Associate Director and Head of Curatorial and Public Engagement at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), shares how the organisation is bringing sustainability into the spotlight with its Our Green Stories campaign.

With experience working both as a curator and in learning and engagement, part of Isabel’s role at the Museum of English Rural Life is to cement the organisation’s commitment to sustainability, which she says is already represented in its artefacts and exhibits.

“Our collections speak to sustainability, from agricultural technologies to food and farming. We are a national portfolio organisation for the Arts Council, and sustainability is one of the themes they’re very keen to promote.”

These efforts have culminated in the Our Green Stories campaign: working with local partners, disciplinary specialists, and communities to highlight the action that can be taken to protect our planet.

Breaking down sustainability

By sharing their own and others’ “Green Stories” of hope and change, Isabel and the team are helping to raise awareness of environmental protection, ecological damage, and practices for positive change.

As Isabel explains, one of the challenges this poses is trying to tackle the most significant issue of our time. She says, “Sustainability is a very large topic, so you have to break it down.”

To achieve this, the MERL used the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework. These act as “a great shorthand, because a lot of organisations are adopting them”.

The team took six of these SDGS, which were:

  • Climate Action
  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Zero Hunger
  • Life Below Water
  • Life on Land
  • Affordable and Clean Energy

They then went to various events centred around sustainability, using the SDGs to spark conversations.Isabel explains,

“We asked people for the three SDGs they felt most concerned about, the three they knew least about, and/or didn’t know how to respond to. We also asked which ones they felt they could tackle.

“We found that people were most concerned about climate action, responsible consumption and production, and zero hunger. We got the same answers when we asked which they felt they could do something about except that climate action slipped down the list as less achievable. Respondents said they could change their behaviour with regards to what they buy, whether they drive, etc.

“This evidence gave us an idea of what people want to know more about. We looked at our collections and plans to see where we could tackle some of these issues.”

Our Green Stories: learning from each other

As the name suggests, the Our Green Stories project encourages institutions, businesses, and communities to share their stories and actions regarding climate protection. This has fostered a culture of hope and learning for both the MERL and the organisations they work with.

Offering an example of this, Isabel says:

“We recently worked with a local theatre company, many of whose actors are either refugees, asylum seekers, or people with mental health needs. They wanted to highlight the issue of migration due to climate change, and wrote a short play to perform in our museum galleries. It was an interesting way of highlighting that one of the key reasons for migration is actually climate change. It’s not necessarily about economic migration; it’s the fact that environments are changing.”

The campaign also features academics working on very cutting-edge solutions:

“For example, people may learn where food will come from in 50 years’ time, or how we can be better stewards of the local landscape.”

A hopeful approach to climate action

As Isabel suggests, there is a significant amount of work going into finding solutions for the complex problems facing humanity in the future. While much of the narrative in the media focuses on the dangers and damage being caused to our world, shining a light on some of the innovations that can give us hope for the future is important, too. She says,

“With sustainability being such a big issue, it can feel futile. People don’t know where to start. If you can break it down into something manageable, you’re more likely to find an area where you could improve things.

“It’s not always helpful to read newspaper articles about how disastrous everything is. There are ways to act, to take back some control. There’s quite a bit of research now on environment-based anxiety, and it’s important to show the other side of it: people are working hard on the issue and feel they’re contributing to finding solutions.”

These manageable steps are something the MERL practises, as well as preaches:

“Our university encourages us to have a champion amongst the staff. This is somebody who thinks about what we do and what needs to change. For instance, we have traditionally used nitrile gloves for object handling. They’re single use and plastic. We pick up on these problems, and work together to tackle them.”

The role of museums in sustainable development

In recent years, we’re seeing museums taking it upon themselves to drive and encourage positive changes for the future, as well as reflecting on the past. Asked to comment on this trend, Isabel states:

“Museums have always been places of reflection. We happen to have very good collections for talking about the environment and food security and so on, but If you go into any museum, you can find an image or an object that tells a story about how we treat the planet, how we feed ourselves, how we look after the land. A museum is a good place for thinking deeper about key issues.”

Not a straight line: rethinking the past to protect the future

Opening up conversations about sustainability has a ripple effect, giving institutions and individuals alike the space to examine how we think about human history, and the impact this has on how we plan for the future. Isabel says,

“Evaluating our galleries allowed us to think carefully about the way we approach sustainability. People tend to think of history as linear progress, but this isn’t always the case. Humans adapt, and sometimes they adopt new technologies, but sometimes older methods are just as good, and stick around for centuries.

“Acknowledging that fact helps to dispel the myth that there’s a quick fix for climate change, or one big solution. Instead, it encourages the idea of small steps, of adapting. Museums can start these conversations.”

Next steps for MERL

From raising awareness and organising gallery events to writing blogs, the MERL has had a fruitful year with the Our Green Stories campaign. Now, Isabel says, it’s all about setting challenges and opening up channels of communication:

“We’ve also been discussing the idea of reward schemes for sustainable action and encouraging children to get involved. Getting people to think about where their rubbish goes, and how much plastic they use can make a big difference.

Our Green Stories has been a learning experience, and in the next year we’re looking to adapt some spaces in our galleries to have sustainability ingrained. This might involve moving artifacts around and creating storylines.

“We currently have trails where we pick out individual objects, and then challenge people to think about the connection with sustainability. In future, we’d like a whole area devoted to these kinds of conversations.”

Advice for other museums? Don’t underestimate collaboration

Real change only happens when people work together, and that’s what Our Green Stories is all about. So it’s no surprise that, when asked to offer advice to other museums and cultural institutions, she highlights the importance of teamwork.

“Collaboration is key. By working together, we can increase the impact of our hard work. We’re always keen to hear from other institutions and communities doing similar things, so we can inspire each other.”

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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