Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Museums in a Climate of Change - Part II

Climate Change Exhibits and Programs on Environmental Sustainability

Museums used to consider climate change discussions as advocacy – or at least far too close to it for comfort. Today, fewer feel that way and, as climate change discussions, TV programs and debate become ubiquitous, and green building and practices spread so rapidly, much of the public is hungry for green ideas no matter what kind of museum you are.

Each museum has to assess and make choices on interpreting green practices and telling green stories, but the climate change discussion is showing up in many ways all around museums.

If you’re thinking about an exhibit on climate change, check out Mark Walhimer’s blog, THE resource for exhibits on climate change. This is such a widespread museum theme that Mark was nearly overwhelmed with examples when he asked for recommendations on the Museum Design Group at LinkedIn. This blog entry collects those links exhibits around the world.

But what if you're not scheduled to do a big climate change exhibit? What if you haven't built (or don’t want to build) a state-of-the-art green building with bells and whistles to demonstrate - how do you talk about climate change?

If you’re a science or natural history museum in between climate change exhibits, you can create exhibit labels, branded with a “climate change facts” symbol, to install as a another layer of interpretation throughout current exhibits. Of course, if you’re into podcasts and audio tours, you can do it electronically. Or you can follow Museum of the Earth’s lead and create a Global Change Project Web Portal

If you're an historic site you can compare past sustainable practices - using a clothesline or convenient bushes to dry clothes; dumping wash water on the garden, not down a drain; sharing a bed for winter warmth - with nightcaps of course; a Victory Garden or an earlier kitchen garden with a little compost on the side and a lesson on saving get the picture.

If you’re an army museum, you could interpret Army Green – the current science and practice of environmental sustainability in the US Army.

If you’re a general museum you could do an “I Spy” exhibit, or a matching objects exhibit showing energy-efficient collections items with object or images of today’s counterparts.

If you're an art museum you might post a mini exhibit in the entry-way or at the front desk that outlines the proceedings of the Plus/Minus Dilemma (my previous post). You might list your green choices in exhibit design. You might let the public know why you have motion-sensored gallery lights. It all shows that you care about your resources: those that are donated, those you preserve and interpret, and those of the community around you.

And don’t forget to offer the public some reading suggestions. I use some in my Green Museum class in the George Washington University Museums Studies Program:

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, North Point Press,

The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists by Michael Brower and Warren Leon at Three Rivers Press,

And this year I’m adding Paleontological Research Institution’s (Museum of the Earth at Cornell University) Climate Change, Past, Present & Future: A Very Short Guide, by Warren Allmon and his team,
Anyone have other reading suggestions?

Don’t be shy about discussing climate change in your museum. We all share the same climate: highlighting our relationship with it is okay to do in public.


  1. So, what's wrong with advocacy? Museums are sometimes so caught up with being "neutral platforms for civil discussion" that they are afraid to take a position. There is nothing wrong with transparently taking a position and supporting it with all your resources.

    And don't forget, exhibits aren't everything! Museums are often more flexible about scheduling programming, or making their facilities available for events and lectures put together by other suitable groups.

  2. Right - nothing's wrong with advocacy. Just the point. And exhibits aren't the only thing - programs, debate updates, web portals, historic-practices tours, composting...