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As a former Director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian Institution and co-founder of the Museum of the United Nations – UN Live, Michael Peter Edson’s career has often been intertwined with the big issues over the last 30 years.
He explains to MuseumNext why the landscape has changed for museums and how passivity is no longer an option in the face of urgent issues like climate change. Instead, he advocates for new and dynamic forms of activism in order to have a “consequential impact on the course of the Anthropocene”.
The discussion surrounding the role of museums has taken on a new dimension in recent years. In particular, the events of 2020 and 2021 have caused many museum professionals to reconsider the nature of the work performed by cultural institutions and their relevance beyond simply showcasing art and artefacts of cultural significance.
But has that thought process advanced enough? Are museums moving in a new direction with sufficient haste? And what should the remit of museums be as we progress through the next critical decade?
In answering these questions, Michael Peter Edson pulls no punches. Having dedicated much of his recent career to projects revolving around museum activism, including the Museum of Solutions in Mumbai and Climate Things, he makes a case for a less passive cultural sector. Indeed he suggests that the stark realities facing the museum community in 2023 – including the climate emergency, armed conflict, and rapid technological and social change – “reveal deep flaws in the traditional boundaries of our work”.
Michael continues, “The culture of museums, our concept of them, was mostly forged in the middle of the 20th century. But I think the world has changed fundamentally and foundationally since that time in three dimensions: scope, scale and speed.”
Michael suggests that the advancements in digital technologies have drastically expanded the scope of the projects that museums can work on and, similarly, how impactful that work can be. Technology has also enabled institutions to be more flexible and responsive, enabling much greater speed.
Yet Michael contends that most institutions have not reframed the nature of their work or convincingly challenged their traditional roles accordingly – particularly in the environment of a global climate emergency.
“This reality is a very different kind of problem to what museums (and humanity) have faced before. Yet that’s the challenge now.
“Our job in museums has always been to make members of our community aware of certain ideas and perspectives in order to initiate change or perpetuate a status quo. But we’ve seen over the last 20 years or so that the traditional ‘information deficit model’ is not correct or complete.
“In many cases, the more information you give a person, the more confidently they believe the opposite to be true. In other circumstances, we’ve seen that individuals substitute knowing about an issue for actually acting on that issue in their daily civic life. Both of these phenomena have been on full display in the ‘war on facts’ here in the United States, and have been well documented in the last 20 years of social science research and in books like Minding the Climate by Ann-Christine Duhaime, MD.
Michael suggests that these incomplete, slow or even ineffective models for driving change are simply not fit for purpose in a world where tough targets have been set to avert a climate catastrophe. He points to the 2030 figures set out within the Paris Agreement (stating that emissions need to be reduced by 45%) as proof that the slow-burn educational approach is ill-equipped to deliver.
“The patient, long-term model of change puts us at a handicap when it comes to a problem like climate that is fast, urgent, complex and dynamic. As economist Bill McKibben has written: When it comes to climate, winning slowly is the same as losing.”
Asked if the pandemic has seen a greater willingness to become more proactive and move to a more agile model, Michael says, “I’ve observed that institutions were, when possible, willing to try short term experiments during the pandemic as long as they didn’t have to adjust their strategies. But as soon as the crisis began to abate, they went back to mainstream practice. Most institutions aren’t psychologically prepared to take on core strategic issues about a changing relationship with their public.
“A lot of the interventions I’m seeing around climate are very tentative, symbolic experiments that don’t yet grapple with the deeper, harder underlying question of how we do consequential work with our community in a time of great need.
“I really want to normalise the idea that being a museum professional is becoming consequentially involved in local communities. Because it’s going to take that kind of involvement across every sector of society to actually get near our environmental goals for 2030, 2040 and 2050.”
Of course, there is no magic wand that can be waved over the climate emergency and no silver bullet for museums to revolutionise their approach or catalyse instant change within their communities. Michael is quick to point out that the challenges are not only complex but also varied from place to place and institutions to institution.
However, he says, “When we were working on the visioning for the United Nations museum – the purpose of which was to catalyse global effort towards sustainable development goals – we realised that the ‘bottom up’ approach to cultural participation was a missing link in the chain of ideas that will help society come through this climate crisis.
“We also noticed in workshopping the problem that there are some things holding museum workers back from becoming meaningfully involved in climate action.”
Part of this, Michael explains, comes down to a fundamental insecurity about the climate science itself. Many people feel that they don’t have the platform to advocate for change if they are not recognised experts in the field.
“After a workshop, one Director wrote me to say that it had never occurred to her, as a non-scientist, that she could be involved in climate action in any way.”
Another factor, he suggests, is a misunderstanding about the nature of activism – that there are only two options: do nothing or become a radical activist.
“Actually, there is a glorious spectrum of possibilities – a broad ‘repertoire of engagement’ – that lies between civic passivity and anarchy. Most museum practitioners have not been trained in this . . . I certainly hadn’t until recently.”
From letter writing to holding community meetings to collaborating with other organisations, Michael suggests that there is a wide variety of ways to be proactive and impactful without “throwing bricks through shop windows and setting cars on fire”. Importantly, he also emphasises that museum professionals’ ability to effect change is greater than most give credit for.
“Activism, right now, is this dirty word in our sector. But actually activism is a necessary and strategically undervalued part of the palette of possibilities for museum professionals. Right now, everybody feels that it’s somebody else’s responsibility to act; nobody feels they have latitude to do anything outside of what’s expected of them.
“What I think we need to realise, though, is that’s no excuse when facing an existential crisis.”
According to Michael, it is only by getting to grips with the factors that culminate in passivity and understanding the value in activism that museum practitioners can scale the Big Frikin’ Wall that faces them today. This metaphor, first coined by social media pioneer Kathy Sierra, identifies the divide between normal work in organisations (and its slow progress through incremental change) on one side of the wall versus the big issues and most important work that should engage us. The theory behind this metaphor is that we can’t reach the other side of the wall through business-as usual: a shift in thinking and tactics is required.
Michael explains, “The Big Frikin’ wall separates our patient, careful, day-to-day work from the work we say we want to be accomplishing. To get over it we need to quickly build confidence and know-how in these techniques of change and activism.
“I’ve seen that, as people become more comfortable with the repertoire of engagement, increase education and feel at home with activism, the wall begins to dissolve. People often find that once they have made it to the other side of the wall, there are already lots of friends and good people working over there.”
Michael cites the National Emergency Library at the Internet Archive, the Leiden 2022 European City of Science (directed by former museum director and MuseumNext speaker Meta Knol), and Rip This Runway at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery as examples of projects that have placed themselves on the other side of the wall.
In his own work, Michael has recently been working with a team in Mumbai on the Museum of Solutions – MuSo – a project in a location with particular significance given that the bustling, vibrant city of 22 million inhabitants could find itself under water in the not too distant future, as a result of climate change.
“The insight of the founders and funders of the Museum of Solutions is that a new approach to learningis needed to empower, train and help young people to grasp the challenges on the horizon. This generation will have to deal with the world created by those that have gone before them.
“To my mind, there is a very clear absence of institutions that are stepping in to service local communities and young people, helping them confront the world as we know it today. I’ve really thrown myself into the idea that we need to dramatically increase the number of cultural organisations that are working consequentially in their communities.”
He continues, “Fundamentally, what we’re trying to do in India and what I am passionate about sharing with museum professionals is that we must become friends with the world of action.
“We can be hopeful about the future, but like Greta Thunberg we believe that hope must be matched with action. We must learn to do.”
While Michael understands that taking steps towards activism may feel risky or compromising for institutions, he believes that museum professionals need to think differently about their role, their status and the trust they have accrued over many years.
“In the museum sector there is a belief that trust is something precious that you gain and collect, but never spend. I would argue that trust you never use or take a risk with is like a cheque you never cash. Really, it’s worthless.
“Trust is actually something we need to invest rather than hoard.
To that end, Michael is working on “23 Climate Things” – a peer to peer training programme for museums and their communities. Each of the 23 “things” will be habits and ideas that will help leverage cultural infrastructure to combat the climate emergency. Each of these key points also includes a case study or example of how a museum is already implementing these ideas.
However, Michael notes that this kind of initiative on its own isn’t enough to initiate real, consequential change. So, the “moonshot” project, as he puts it, has been to establish a €10million Culture for Climate Innovation Prize to reward the first cultural organisations to generate 10 million hours of community effort towards the climate emergency.
He says, “We want to prove that large-scale cultural engagement is possible, maybe even easy. The hope here is that the innovation prize will draw new actors into the ecosystem of people who think about how to use culture to make the world better. Culture belongs to everyone. There are millions of wildly creative, innovative people out there that the museum sector can get involved. ”
Find out more about how museums are addressing the health of our planet at March’s Green Museums Summit.
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