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Talking Museums And The Climate Crisis With Jake Barton Of Local Projects

A respected and recognised figure in the museum world, Jake Barton has built a reputation for creating ground-breaking museums and public spaces at his experience design firm, Local Projects. Now, Jake is turning his attention to the climate crisis and how experiences should be created to catalyse meaningful action.

MuseumNext caught up with Jake to find out what he has learnt from a six-month deep dive into research around the climate crisis and how his new social enterprise will focus on driving behavioural change.

Known for his work on the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center and Planet Word, the Museum of Language Arts, Jake Barton’s perspective on the big issues make others sit up and listen.

After 20 years leading his company, Local Projects, on a range of high profile experiences and applications (winning a host of awards along the way) Jake recently established a new social enterprise production firm to focus on the climate crisis. Or, more specifically, to look at how experiences can effect behaviour change.

He says, “In launching these new climate projects, I really wanted to leverage the tools, techniques and successes we’ve had at Local Projects and apply them specifically to the climate crisis. We’ve developed experiences at Local Projects that people have said changed their lives. And that’s an incredible feeling.

“That said, we’re looking to focus beyond that and pointing them at climate: changing not just people’s hearts but also their hands. By this I mean getting people to take action on the stories that they are engaged with.”

Taking Action on Climate Change

In order to initiate this kind of change in behaviour, Jake and his team have conducted extensive research and invested in hypotheses on techniques to reach that goal. This is particularly important given that Jake’s latest subject matter – the environment and sustainability – is a topic that has been plagued by apathy and inactivity for many years.

Having looked closely at why the climate crisis has proven so challenging, Jake says, “It boils down to three simple, overlapping and compounding issues that make it very difficult: one is simply that the climate is perceived to be about the future – and humans have a presentism bias.

“The second is that the climate is almost always framed as being about ‘them’; it can be seen as happening worse for other places. The third and final big challenge is the message that an individual’s efforts just don’t matter, given the scale and scope of the problem. The everyday person can’t influence nation states or multi-national organisations, so any personal effort appears futile.

“Those three things work together to create a level of either cultivated indifference, hopelessness or doomism.”

Jake is at pains to point out that this doesn’t apply blame to any individual holding these views. It is, in fact, a very natural response to the seemingly impossible challenge facing people. Yet, through his work Jake strives to create climate experiences that are “about the now; that are hyperlocal; and that promote actions which are real and consequential”.

On the face of it, Jake suggests that the issue of climate change shouldn’t be as contentious as many of the other challenging topics addressed in museum environments – whether it is poverty, race or equality. In contrast to this, the climate problem and solution is universal and more “black and white”. Jake explains,

“We are emitting too many polluting greenhouse gases that are heating up the atmosphere and causing our climate to be disrupted. That’s well established. So, the best solution is to encourage people to think more about what they can do to reduce these emissions.”

According to Jake, individuals and institutions too often fall into the trap of pointing the finger at other people, groups or countries, rather than simply making their best effort to reduce their own carbon footprint.

He says, “If we all did our best with the measures within our control then the targets set for 2030 would be much more achievable.”

Tackling the “Crisis of Communication”

Asked why society has so far failed to make progress in the fight against climate change, Jake alludes to there being a “crisis of communication”. He suggests that the problem may partially have occurred because the details and data shared by the scientific community are simply overwhelming. When faced with such huge figures and facts, people often struggle to create the emotional connection necessary to initiate change.

“The scientific community don’t seem to have conveyed the intensity and the liability of the world we are creating. That said, it’s not their jobs to drive change. Scientists have presented the problem but they are not meant to be the activists.”

Going further, Jake points to research showing that the more information people are given, the less action they are likely to take. This phenomenon has almost certainly hampered efforts to hit home the threat of the climate crisis to date.

“But that’s why I feel strongly that this is a problem we need to solve through storytelling and building an emotional connection. We need a narrative solution to really galvanise people.”

A second point is that accountability is still missing in the debate surrounding climate change: “The fact that it’s universal and that it is everyone’s problem is frankly a challenge . . . because it means that the responsibility doesn’t squarely lie with anyone.

“What I believe we need to do going forward is help people realise that making a difference is about Now; it’s about You; it’s about the difference you Can make. That goes for individuals and it certainly goes for museums.”

For museums looking to implement changes in behaviour, Jake’s advice is to choose actions that are tangible, sizable and achievable. By looking at the basics and identifying where the largest wins can be achieved quickly, institutions will be able to move in the right direction.

“It’s also about visitor engagement. I understand that some museums feel it’s not their role to take on this form of advocacy but I believe it is something that the museum community has to become more comfortable with.

“I really want to inspire institutions to push and to advocate on this issue because I know they can do it. We only need to look at how they responded during the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the George Floyd murder to see how capable they are of moving quickly and publicly to engage on important matters.”

Should Museums Give Hope or Horrify?

A key consideration for museums in their communications strategy is how to frame the climate crisis – whether to draw on the most terrifying worst case scenario or to opt for positivity over scaremongering. According to Jake, research into this area is mixed. But he says,

“Everyone agrees that you need to frame a real problem, with a real solution, i.e. the actions you can take could be systemic, like engaging in politics or your workplace, or individual, like purchasing green energy. But take the biggest action that you will actually take and go for it.”

“What I will say is that the content of any exhibition or narrative has to tell the truth – and the whole truth that the future is changing every day through each of our actions – so you also immediately offer viable solutions you can actually do.”

Just as importantly, Jake warns that experiences, in his view, should not conclude with a call to action, but rather have those solutions interwoven throughout.

“An experience shouldn’t end with, ‘Now it’s your turn.’ Leaving it to the end really detracts from its importance. And the action itself can often feel inconsequential – like signing a petition, for instance.

“Instead, I believe it is important to weave that commitment, advocacy and recruitment in throughout an experience.”

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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