Climate change and sustainable living: The responsibility of our museums

Sailing in Auckland Harbour with Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust. Photo credit: Claire Baker

Sailing in Auckland Harbour with Te Matau a Māui Voyaging Trust. Photo credit: Claire Baker

I was looking forward to meeting scholar and keynote speaker Robert Janes at MA16 in Auckland. But I respected him even more for not showing up (physically). Janes beamed in from Canada and explained that he would have loved to visit New Zealand, but did not want to contribute carbon emissions by flying across the world. I respected his integrity. I was equally impressed by his well communicated main point, that (from my brief notes) encompassed this:

It is the moral responsibility of museums to take action on climate change because museums are seedbanks, bridges between science and culture, and trusted by the public to share important stories for present and future generations.

However, climate change is a political topic and museums are meant to be neutral (although we can’t avoid human bias). Janes said that in museums’ supposed neutrality, they can’t be absolved from accountability to communicate massive global issues like climate change. 

Jonathan Jones of the Guardian says that science museums must stop dumbing down science  communication. He critiques the Science Museum in London for not telling a full and accurate story about climate change. Perhaps, some would suggest, the Museum is trying to stay neutral. Jones argues the science of climate change is fact enough, and that is as neutral as you can get.

I agree, and would like to add that climate change is part of an even larger topic of global sustainable living, which all social history and science museums need to innovatively communicate. With more than 7.4 billion inhabitants, how do we sustain the earth, its ecology and all living in it? This is the question that museums need to pose to the public. We can do this with clear, regularly updated permanent exhibitions in our metropolitan museums, and continuously traveling temporary exhibitions for regional museums, with (kick-ass) stimulating, fun and innovative public programming (beyond museum walls!).

I recently came across the Museums and Climate Change Network, initiated by the American Museum of Natural History “as a response to the challenge of engaging museum audiences in the issue of climate change”. The Network, which is advocated for internationally, is open to anyone interested (after a ‘Hi… love your work’ email, I was put on the list). Otago Museum’s Natural Science Curator Emma Burns is New Zealand’s contact person for this Network. This is not surprising given the Otago Museum provides a free education programme called ‘Sustainable New Zealand’, is this week hosting Climate Kit (a workshop by Zero1 American Arts Incubator) and, as Emma Burns explains, is committed to ‘responsible’, sustainable operations.

Museum staff drove the decision to make sustainability a key objective on our strategic plan in 2010. It was an awesome coup! A huge amount of auditing and measures of our operations was undertaken to understand where our sustainability skeletons lurked and finding new solutions remains a strong operational focus today. I’m one of the coordinators on the cross-divisional sustainable operations team here at Otago Museum, in which we discuss improvements to day-to-day activities, investigate alternative material, tie in with local initiatives and highlight positive change within the organisation. Pivotal to the operational side of things is engagement at multiple levels of the organisation, and if you can sway that engagement into commitment, you’re on a winning path.   

As public institutions, museums and public art galleries need to role model what it means to be a sustainable organisation – in all areas, from employment to electricity to cleaning and rubbish. This involves thinking about how we sustain the communities we are a part of. How can we connect locals with each other? Can we contract local suppliers for this project? How can we get local talent involved? This is along the lines of Boon Hui Tan’s message in his fabulous MA16 keynote presentation ‘Is your Global my Global? Creating Spaces for Local Specificity in the Age of Global Museums’.

Speaking of global, I found it satisfyingly simple to get in touch with the Museums and Climate Change Network conveners who are based in New York. Dr Jennifer Newell, Assistant Curator of Pacific Ethnography at the American Museum of Natural History, emailed me back straight away (if you subtract the time difference) with some exciting news:

The book that many network members have contributed to, Curating the Future: Museums, Communities and Climate Change, is about to come out (just finishing proofs today!). Also, there is some talk of trying to establish an ICOM interest group on climate change, which would be an important step forward… we’re just in the early stages. 

What about a Pacific-focused museums and climate change network? After Robert Janes’ presentations at MA16, there was an appetite to develop our thinking around communicating climate change. We would keep in close contact with the Museums and Climate Change Network and potentially work on collaborative ventures. I asked Emma Burns what she thought of this idea. She replied:

It depends on what you envisage the goals and purpose of the network being. I think there may be some room for something that better connects the arts and social history side of GLAMS into the conversations that seem to be more active in science centres, natural history museums and the sci com networks. They can offer a lot information around organisational operations, responsible resources, facts, values and messages.   

A 'Sea Wall: Murals for Oceans' work. Photo credit: Napier City Council

A 'Sea Wall: Murals for Oceans' work. Photo credit: Napier City Council


There is so much potential for all museums in Aotearoa - social history, natural history, science, art, design and technology museums - the be leaders in education and advocacy on sustainable living.

Napier’s street art project ‘Sea Walls: Murals for Oceans’ is a great example of how sustainability awareness can be developed through art. The Napier City Council is actually a finalist for best creative place in Local Government New Zealand’s Excellence Awards, sponsored by Creative New Zealand. Good luck!

A current exhibition at Hui Te Ananui A Tangaroa New Zealand Maritime Museum, is increasing awareness about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.1 This community project Ko au te wai, ko te wai ko au: I am the water and the water is me, was facilitated by The Roots Creative Entrepreneurs Collective and is facilitating high educational engagement with local schools.

Te Papa Tongarewa publishes blogs and Multimedia highlights. Since 2013, four of the blogs have been about climate change issues, and there are five multimedia highlights on climate change. But as the national museum of Aotearoa New Zealand, it could do a lot more – more to show us the small amount of time humans have inhabited the Earth, and the huge damage that has been caused. One theory that could be visually explained is the Anthropocene.

In 2009 Te Papa Tongarewa hosted the Climate Change Conference, produced by the New Zealand Climate Change Centre. This was a positive step and this kind of relationship building and momentum must continue. Our museum sector needs to build and maintain positive relationships with the New Zealand Climate Change Centre, the Royal Society of New Zealand, and projects like engaged Social Science Hui Rangatau Tahi (which connects social science with physical and natural science research). Could Museums Aotearoa link with these organisations to develop museum sector priorities towards education about sustainable living and responsible organisational operations?

We as a sector need courage to provide education on important issues that get missed in our busy consumption -filled lives. Museums can provide a breath of fresh air, and show alternatives to more conscious and empowered ways of living. The science of climate change and solutions around sustainable living need to be visible, and museums have a responsibility to step up and demonstrate leadership. I’m eagerly anticipating the opening of The Climate Museum in New York and I can’t wait to read Curating the Future: Museums, Communities and Climate Change.


Claire Adele Baker



1 “Scientists and explorers agree that limiting or eliminating our use of disposable plastics and increasing our use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” — National Geographic Society