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In Conversation with Nick Merriman

Filmed at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in September 2020

Jim Richardson: So welcome back to MuseumNext Disrupt. Today, I’m at the Horniman Museum Gardens in London, and I’m here with the executive director, Nick Merriman. So Nick, thanks for having us here.

Nick Merriman: Pleasure. Thank you for coming.

Jim Richardson: Our delegates for Disrupt come from all over the world. So perhaps you could tell them something about this fantastic place.

Nick Merriman: Sure. The Horniman Museum and Gardens is a sort of interesting hybrid. It’s a museum and as the title says, it’s got 16 acres of rolling gardens and a nature trail overlooking central London. It has a butterfly house and an aquarium, as well as a museum collection of human cultures from around the world. So anthropology and natural history from around the world. And one of the world’s best collections of musical instruments. We were founded over a hundred years ago by a Quaker, tea merchant, Frederick Horniman, and we’re located in Forest Hill in Southeast London. So outside the centre with a very strong local community participation.

Jim Richardson: It’s a really fantastic collection. I think it’s incredibly unique the way that things are displayed, especially here in the wildlife gallery reminds me of the Wes Wilson films. The graphics are just amazing.

Nick Merriman: Yeah, well, we’re the only museum in London where you can see nature and culture side-by-side. So that’s been one of the advantages we’ve been really looking to play to in recent times.

Jim Richardson:  And you’ve been here since 2018, but could you take us back to how you got started in museums?

Nick Merriman: Yes. Well, my parents left school at 16, so education was not a big factor in the home life, but I was lucky enough to go to a good school and so on, did well academically, but my dad was always interested in old stuff and going around junk shops in Birmingham and I used to trail around with him. And then I progressed onto metal detecting in my local park and loved digging stuff out the ground. And then through my school found there was local archaeological dig. So I started going digging on a Roman site on Saturdays instead of studying law in university, as my dad wanted and getting a good steady job, studied archaeology, which was fantastic.

Nick Merriman: And then thought, well, do I want to spend my career knee deep in mud in a building site in London or whatever, or perhaps in museums? And I’d always been interested in the big picture, the stories that archaeology can tell. So studied museum studies at Leicester, managed to get a job at the Museum of London in a curator of prehistory. And then as often is if you’re good at something you get promoted, so you go into management and you don’t do it anymore. So I moved into management, did a leadership course, eventually got my first director job at Manchester Museum in 2006.

Jim Richardson: And that Manchester Museum, you started to investigate sustainability, which leads us to the work that you’re doing here today. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Nick Merriman: Absolutely. I got interested in sustainability just before moving to Manchester when I was completing the Clore Leadership Programme and I did a research project on sustainability in relation to museum collecting, it seemed unsustainable that museum collections just grow and grow. So I got very interested in that concept of what a sustainable museum would look like. And then moving to Manchester, it’s a museum like the Horniman actually, where you’ve got nature and culture side-by-side.

And I was looking to mobilise the collections to address contemporary issues, to make them relevant. And it seemed pretty obvious that for natural history collections, the big urgency was addressing issues around extinction and climate change and living sustainably rather than beyond our means. So we re-engineered the mission of the museum to look at two related issues, understanding between cultures, intercultural understanding and working towards a sustainable world. We redisplayed the entire natural history gallery to address those themes.

My colleague Henry McGee has sort of built on that through his own work. And that was a time I think, where a number of museums with natural history collections, which had often seemed slightly irrelevant, were suddenly realising that they were possibly some of the most relevant collections that museums can have to address what was then a gradually growing urgency around addressing climate change and ecological depredation.

Jim Richardson: And so you move here in 2018 and in 2019 declare a climate emergency. What was the process then when you came here, was that part of your pitch to be chief executive that you will take this kind of approach? Or was it something that happened gradually?

Nick Merriman: Yes, I came to the Horniman and one of the things that attracted me was that it had a similar range of collections to Manchester Museum, although somewhat different emphasis. And it had the living collections as well, the outside spaces and the aquarium and the butterfly house. And so I was bringing those ideas, but one of the things I observed about the Horniman was that it had been fantastically successful in terms of growing audience numbers and being financially sustainable but it wasn’t very clear on its mission. So when I asked colleagues, what’s the Horniman for? I just got a list. I said, “What’s these collections.” As I said, it’s an aquarium, a butterfly house, outside space. It’s kind of list of things. They couldn’t see what that list of things was actually for. And the mission had dated back to the 1980s when the trust was formed.

And it was about promoting an appreciation of global cultures and environments and given the urgency of issues around what both racism and intercultural understanding and also the environment, appreciation felt a bit too weak. So we did an all staff exercise, consulted the public about perhaps a more active mission. And we realised that the Horniman has this unique position in London in being the only museum where you can see culture and nature side-by-side. So we could address the interrelationship between people and environment and the human impact on the globe as a really key issue. We also knew incidentally that our main audience is families, particularly families with young children.

And we know that the parents, grandparents, and carers bringing those children were really worried about the future they’d be growing up in as they became adults themselves. So we knew we had an urgent issue that was of interest to our public. So we reshaped the mission to be about engaging people to shape a positive future for the world we all share. So it’s very much about positivity rather than being overwhelmed in the face of the enormity of the challenges and also working together and it being future orientated, using our past collections, but not focusing on the past, but on the present and future. And that kind of really galvanised our colleagues and then led shortly after to the declaration of the emergency.

Jim Richardson: And so the start of this year, you published a manifesto to bring this life to work. Can you tell us the different areas that the manifesto covers?

Nick Merriman: Yes. So, declaring an emergency is quite easy and I think we’ve probably all, except now, words, museum people like words and like declarations and things like that. It’s actually doing something that’s the challenge. So we really felt we ought to not just declare an emergency, but say what we’re going to do. So the manifesto, it is a declaration, but it gives us actual targets to try and achieve over a particular time period. So two broad areas of the manifesto. One is about getting our own house in order as a museum because it’s important that we lead in terms of walking the walk. So we’ve declared ourselves, we’ve committed ourselves to being greenhouse gas neutral by 2040, because we felt that that was realistic given the infrastructural changes we’ll need to make.

Jim Richardson: And what does that involve because you’re going to make the change to renewable gas and electric, I think within two years, so what’s the rest of it?

Nick Merriman: Well, the renewable energy, the electricity source can be, well, is renewable now. All of our heating at the moment is gas. So to change to renewable sources of heating, and those could be electric and most likely to be electric, I’m told, requires a complete change in all of our infrastructure in terms of pipes and radiators. So it’s the equivalent to the move, probably mostly in the early 20th century, away from coal fires to hot water heating power through gas, which obviously required every home and every business and every public building to have an entirely new infrastructure. And we need to find a way of doing that. And at the moment, the technology for large scale electrically powered boilers simply isn’t there. So we’ve got to wait a little bit. So we think 2050 is too far, 2030 is probably unrealistic in terms of pace.

So we feel 2040 is a realistic target. And others are about reducing waste, reduce, reuse, recycle, moving completely from a plastic usage. We’ve done a very good job in our cafe. We’re looking now at the supply chains for the shop, composting gardens material, 97%. We can’t compost everything apparently, investing in a rocket composter, which gets the temperature up enough to actually be able to compost the compostable plant fibre plastic substitute, it’s actually extremely complicated. We have a dedicated member of staff that we’ve appointed to help see this through and an ecology and environmental action group with a detailed plan. So we really are, I think, putting our actions where our mouth is, so that’s about getting our house in order. The other bit, which is just as, if not more important, is using our public reach to engage the public because it’s quite clear that the Horniman just getting its own house in order is a drop in the ocean, really.

We need to mobilise the public to make changes. So we’re using exhibitions, artist interventions, public programming, digital resources to try and do that. And we’re also preparing to launch an Environmental Champions Club to spearhead that. So the idea of the club is that we’ll recruit 500 families, mostly probably drawn from our membership and we’ll allow individuals as well if they want, they will commit to making certain changes to live more sustainably in their own lives. We hope, led by the children and there’ll be rewards and badges and that sort things incentives, we’ll support them through online resources, through inspiring talks by well-known people, et cetera, they’ll have a mutual support group, we’ll be able to track their progress. So we hope they will be able to… If it works, the pilot, we think we hope will be replicable across any other heritage organisation or other organisation that has a membership to begin to scale up, to make a real difference.

And the final element as well, even if we all make changes in our own lives, actually the real change is at the political and corporation level. If supermarkets don’t get rid of plastic packaging, it’s going to be quite difficult for consumers to reduce their plastic. So we also want to empower people as active citizens to lobby and demand for change at the political and corporation level. So that’s, we feel very strong. It’s not about the museum being political, the science is indisputable about this, it’s us empowering citizens through information and networking to begin to make changes that need to happen because we are all imperilled by the situation we’re finding ourselves in and it does need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Jim Richardson: And that’s something that is sometimes a criticism of this kind of activist approach that it’s museums becoming political. But as you say, it’s just not the case with this at all, it is science.

Nick Merriman: Yes, people have different opinions on this, but I feel very strongly that museums are some of the few institutions of the long term. Many of our collections go back to the formation of the earth. At the Horniman here, our natural history collections, the fossil collections can illustrate the five previous mass extinctions on earth. The Anthropocene is the sixth, we are there to take a view that’s beyond the short-term political and funding cycle. So in my view, there’s an ethical and moral imperative for museums to point out what’s going on long-term and the need to take action in the short-term, in the immediate future.

Jim Richardson: What kind of success have you seen so far?

Nick Merriman: Well, in terms of the Horniman, I think we’re just at the beginning, we’ve got a good constituency that is very keen to hear this message. It’s not really until the Environmental Champions Club that we’ll begin to see the impact on or that individuals are making. In terms of our own footprint, we’re making good progress in reducing, as I said, we’ve already moved to entirely renewable electricity energy, although, the gas isn’t there yet. We’ve massively reduced plastic. We’ve done some really good public engagement through artist interventions, like our current Falling Birds, artist intervention about extinctions.

We’ve done a lot of work around plastic pollution and so on, but the entire museum sector needs to galvanise itself behind this, particularly I think in the opportunity afforded to by the run-up to the UK hosting the COP 26 Conference in a years time, there’s an opportunity for the museum and heritage sector to stake this claim as guardians of the long-term view and through mass organisations. I mean, there’s 80 million visits made to museums each year. We are organisations with massive reach. We need to begin to mobilise that I think, to begin to promote some more active and urgent engagement.

Jim Richardson: I saw a fantastic story about a five-year-old who’d visited the museum and had gone back to a school, created a 20 page book about plastic pollution, sent it to his MP. So the impact is there to be seen.

Nick Merriman: Yes, I mean, anecdotes like that are the things that sort of make me feel my job is worth living. Yeah, we did last year for World Oceans Day, but actually then on for two months, an intervention in our aquarium called Beach Plastic Pollution, where we, alongside the fish and other specimens, we put into the tanks, plastic debris, plastic bottles, bits of net. They didn’t harm the fish in any way, but it was really shocking. And it made me realise that people expect museums to look nice, to be pristine. They don’t expect to see a load of rubbish in a museum case or an aquarium tank.

Perhaps the most arresting was that we have a lovely tank of jellyfish, which gently circulate round in a rather beautiful blue background. We took all the jellyfish out, put them in tanks behind the scenes and replaced them with white plastic bags, which were rather beautifully circulating round. But people did a double-take and saying, “What’s this? What is rubbish?” And it was deeply shocking. And some people were quite upset, but in a good way, we were producing an emotional reaction. And as you say, one five-year-old was so sort of galvanised, went home, wrote a book, wrote to the local MP, Ellie Reeves, who met them and is in a position to try and do something about this in parliament, in opposition.

Jim Richardson: So you produced the manifesto, published it at the start of this year and 2020 hasn’t really worked out the way that anyone wanted it to. How has the pandemic kind of impacted the work that you’re doing?

Nick Merriman: Yes, well, clearly we closed the museum and therefore all our great aspirations around public engagement, not only in the galleries, but through our very intensive public programme, all had to go on hold. The Environmental Champions Club went on hold, although we’re progressing it now. But the other thing is that everyone will be aware, COVID has also caused to rethink a number of things.

First of all, it became really apparent after a while that COVID itself almost certainly emanating from the bat population in China, it’s ultimately to do with our over-exploitation and lack of care for the environment, which is hand-in-hand with climate change and deforestation and extinction and so on. So it’s a reminder of the gravity of what can happen when we don’t care for the environment. We also had a bit of an insight into when things quieten down, people stop flying, pollution reduces, et cetera. We could have a vision of a world where things are quieter and our carbon footprint is reduced.

Jim Richardson: Perhaps we’re more connected with nature as well from spending time in [crosstalk 00:18:35].

Nick Merriman: Absolutely, and the Horniman Gardens remained open throughout, and we got so much positive feedback about how grateful people were, particularly with those without outside spaces that they could breathe and they could get outside and benefit from nature. And I think the health benefits of engagement with nature, which we were always aware of became even more appreciated. And one of the things we did at the Horniman, we used the time to focus on what we’re calling our Reset Agenda.

And it’s really just to accelerate and double down on our work around the climate and environmental and ecological emergency. But also hand in hand, and we haven’t touched on this, to accelerate our work around social justice, particularly because of the Black Lives Matter movement, resurgence, the focusing on the inherent racism and exploitation of museums and their colonial legacy and the Horniman has that. And of course, the fact that those two, the colonial history of the UK and environmental exploitation, particularly of the colonies go hand in hand.

So you can’t, although they might be tackled in slightly different ways, you can’t disentangle them, they are inextricably interlinked. And that’s why a museum like the Horniman, which can look at culture and nature side by side and look at those interlinked issues is in such a strong position I think, to address them. So we’ve also done a lot of work on decolonizing the Horniman at the same time. And when we hope eventually to redisplay our natural history galleries, part of it will not just be about environmental and ecological issues, it will also be about the colonial exploitation of the environment that has led also to that depredation.

Jim Richardson: Yeah. I noted that you did research about the founder of the Horniman Museum and about where he got his fortune from and have displayed information about that within the museum.

Nick Merriman: We felt it was very important to be upfront, and we didn’t really know enough of the story and we really should have, we’d probably co-opted Frederick Horniman as a wise, benign Quaker, ethically informed and so on. And there was obviously something of that, he was a great philanthropist, gave the collection to the people of London. However, his money was made from tea. There was some thinking it might’ve been tea from India, which was grown through the exploitation and indentured labour.

It was mostly actually bought on the London market. He didn’t own plantations. They were essentially large scale tea merchants buying on the London market, but it was from China and Chinese tea was essentially bought through the sale of opium by the East India company, grow opium grown in India, exported to China. And we fought opium wars with the Chinese who were trying to resist it in order to keep the tea routes and other trade routes open. So it’s not a pleasant story. And Horniman, I think might… Well, may or may not have been aware of it, but we were not aware of it. And we’ve now become very upfront about it in our interpretation.

Jim Richardson: It’s something that museums in the UK are going to have to become more upfront about as we think about how we de-colonise our spaces.

Nick Merriman: Yes. And it’s a controversial topic in some areas, but this is certainly not an erosion of history, it’s a deepening and a nuancing of history. It’s telling a bigger and more complex story rather than the relatively simple story that we’ve told about the source of wealth of many collections and the source of the collections themselves. And this can only be good. And of course, by being upfront, it will be part of, we hope, appealing to a much wider audience than museums have so far. We’ve still got a long way to go to diversify audiences for most museums, I feel.

And I touched on the pandemic and the financial effect that that is going to have is going to be felt by a lot of institutions. Do you think that having a bigger purpose, a activist stance helps you to galvanise local people and get them to support the museum?

I think any museum has got to be really clear what its purpose is. And I think the pandemic and the financial constraints that, that has brought mean that you have to really focus on what your purpose is. And that sometimes means going back to your foundation, or it sometimes means just really reaffirming what you’re about and perhaps not doing some of the peripheral stuff, but focus on social benefit and in our case in wider environmental benefit. And I think if you’re really clear about mission, you can really inspire others and galvanise people to support you or to visit you, spend money and so on and to believe in you. And I mean, even in pre COVID times, that was important. It’s even more important now.

Jim Richardson: And I think that lots of people who will be watching this will want to make a difference, perhaps make a difference about the environment and by the climate crisis. What advice would you have for them about how they could perhaps take that forward?

Nick Merriman: See what your local museum is doing, see if they’re running any environmental related schemes that you can volunteer or join a local group, activist or non activist. For example, in the Horniman, locally there are all sorts of local groups looking at campaigning against car pollution. We right by a very busy road, planting trees, et cetera, et cetera, get out there and do something, however small it is. If we all do something we’ll aggregate making a really big change for the positive change for the future.

Jim Richardson: That’s fantastic. And thank you for all the great work that you’re doing here and for having us here today.

Nick Merriman: Thanks for coming.

Jim Richardson: Thanks.

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