Thursday, June 9, 2011

AAM 2011 Session: Climate Change & Collective Action

I have a tendency to attend any presentation on any topic by either Wayne LaBar or Emlyn Koster, both of Liberty Science Center, NJ, but this time they were really speaking my language - museums and their role in increasing human practices of environmental sustainability.

Wayne and Emlyn are part of a mostly-Australian dialogue on how museums can collaborate to address climate museums can help humans navigate the Anthropocene (see, unofficial term for the geologic age where climate is changed by human activity...see also Curt Stager with Tom Ashbrook and Bill McKibben March 24, 2011 interview. The project is Hot Science Global Citizens and it's an Australian Research Council Linkages Project. Wayne and Emlyn's presentation was sort of  'news from the field' as they reviewed the project's early-stage exploration of museum interventions, intersection of science and humanities, and responsibilities of citizens and the media. 

Two parts stood out - Emlyn's discussion about why tackling climate change is so difficult for the field (with me loving that we agreed on many points, but I also learned a good bit); and Wayne's discussion about how museums must work to address the realities of public response to climate change understanding.
Emlyn listed museums' structural disinclination to address climate change meaningfully. For the most part, museums still tend to:
  • focus on collections
  • rely on exhibits primarily
  • are slow to collaborate deeply and meaningfully
  • are poor at integrating past, present and future
  • their funders are cautious
  • museums tend to avoid the risk of controversy
  • museum schools, which might have tackled this topic mightily, have not been a widespread success
  • grants tend to support the status quo, not innovation
  • and museums are rarely visionary and do not take global leadership positions
Wayne pointed out that "Climate change is no longer a science event, but a cultural change and it won't be solved by science policy." And he tackled the question of "why are people slow to change in response to climate change?"  The collaborative project discussions have articulated two critical disconnects - one of time and risk, and one of science and emotion. 

First:  Education about climate change is scientific; response to climate change (perception of personal risk exposure followed by changes in behavior) is emotional.  Water and oil. 

Second:  Since the risk of loss or injury due to climate change has an uneven and unpredictable timeline for each human perceiving it (will rising sea level affect me anytime soon or in a way I can see? Did a hurricane just him my house?), the debate about when and how much change there will be becomes a distraction that leads to a stalemate.

So Liberty Science Center, instead of doing an exhibit on climate change, much they way they might do an exhibit on skyscrapers or on human health, has chosen to educate about sustainability across all exhibit platforms. It's not a science fact to be learned in a few discrete lessons, but a cultural issue that must seep into human processes from many, many sources.

As a field I believe we should work hard to address the science/emotion and time/risk factors, but let's also use our position as educators, collaborators, and authorities to emphasize positive aspects of environmental sustainability: cost savings, resource conservation, and livable communities, so that we don't lose our audience.     

I'm delighted to be introduced to the Hot Science Global Citizens Project and will follow their further adventures.

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