Curatorial Work in Our Climate Emergency: Guiding Principles

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Curatorial Work in Our Climate Emergency: Guiding Principles

Editor’s Note: In our second installment of the Our Climate Emergency series, Elena Gonzales recommends initiatives to engage visitors in museum spaces about the broader climate emergency. 

There are more museums in the world than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined, and museums are the most trusted source of information in the U.S. This means that museums help people form opinions and decide when and how to act. Museums have a crucial role to play in fostering the sustainability of our human project on planet Earth. As museums in the U.S. seek to serve the whole population rather than only the diminishing white half of the population, they must find ways to work for social justice, the equitable distribution of risks and rewards in society.

Museological tools exist to harness exhibitions more fully in service of environmental justice. But primarily white institutions (PWIs) and BIPOC institutions (representing Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color) seem to be working on separate paths regarding the climate emergency. While PWIs tend to focus on the science of climate change, BIPOC institutions tend to focus on environmental justice and human stories. Far too few PWIs undertake this latter type of work. These parallel types of exhibitions must intertwine and engage visitors in working for change.

Here is one example that articulates specific actions that a museum can take concerning the climate emergency. Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences,

Museums can educate visitors about the risks that communities of color and poor people face on the front lines of the climate emergency. Jerome Foster III, an environmental activist, locates the roots of the climate crisis in many extractive systems, including slavery. All movements for social justice, he said, intersect with the fight against racial injustice because “race has been at the heart of our hierarchies all over the world.” The more museums intentionally connect the dots for visitors, the more museums can prompt public engagement and work against the systems that promote racial injustice and damage the planet at the same time.

After closing for COVID-19, cultural institutions have a unique opportunity to reopen with equity and justice as their frameworks. Anti-racist work is intimately related to the climate emergency. White supremacy and colonialist extraction laid the foundation for our environmental crisis, along with the attitude that natural and human “resources” exist for exploitation. Identifying our extractive attitude as the root problem makes the connection between slavery, low-wage extractive labor, and extraction of natural resources such as coal, clean water, and timber.

Several challenges to curatorial work for social justice have special meaning in the context of the climate crisis and environmental justice: sowing breadcrumbs for visitors, not burying the lead, practicing tough love, and focusing on systemic change.

Sow breadcrumbs for visitors. Be wary of initiatives, whether exhibits, online games, or programs, that enable visitors to feel virtuous without really doing anything. Instead, ask where an activity leads. In many areas of civic activity, participation begets further participation. Museums can capitalize on this by, for example, engaging visitors in taking action within an exhibition that leads to further action after they leave. Though it is not focused on the climate crisis, Eastern State Penitentiary’s exhibition Prisons Today offers an innovative example of how to do this. By answering a series of questions, visitors prepare to receive digital postcards from the site at intervals after their visit to remind them of their interests and commitments relating to the American national crisis of mass incarceration. The questions allow the postcards to be tailored to the visitor and surprise her. Inspiring action through digital contact with visitors can also work in reverse, as it were. Digital visitors can act online in ways that excite them about visiting in person. The next action becomes that visit in person which, in turn, can snowball into more actions during and after the visit, if the museum lays the groundwork.

Don’t bury the lead. Burying your plan for visitors to take action at the end of the exhibition or bottom of the website sends a message about its importance. Climates of Inequality, a project of the Humanities Action Lab, offers a good example of an action-centered page within their digital exhibition.

Practice Tough Love. Prepare visitors for the idea that Americans need to grapple with our inherently unsustainable lifestyle where convenience reigns and we assume that a healthy economy means perpetual growth. The US needs a public culture that values collectivity and collaboration over individualism and market competition in a way that frankly might feel un-American. So, we need to reinvent ourselves. Museums can be part of the institutional structure needed to change our national and global culture to meet the environmental crisis. Efforts such as those of the North Carolina Museum of the Sciences (NCMS), an institutional member of We Are Still In, should be the baseline for contemporary museum work, not the avant-garde.

Focus on Systemic Change. The pandemic has proven that swift, broad cultural change is possible. As you educate visitors about climate change, help them understand that, while individuals can and must make changes in their own lives, the biggest offenders are not individuals. We need large-scale, systemic change. One example of this type of work, though not oriented toward the climate crisis, is the Accountability Project that MASS Action (Museums as Site for Social Action) launched in 2020 as a way of keeping museums honest about the anti-racist statements that they were publishing.

Anti-racist work is intimately related to the climate emergency. Coal and oil are significant problems, but the larger problem is the attitude that resources exist for human exploitation. White supremacy, capitalism, and colonialist extraction got our planet into this crisis in the first place. Perhaps anti-racist efforts designed to protect and value all people in an equitable way can get us out.

~Elena Gonzales, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and curator focusing on curatorial work for social justice. She is the author of Exhibitions for Social Justice from Routledge’s Museum Meanings Series (2019) and Curator of Chicago Latino at the Chicago History Museum (forthcoming).

1 comment
  1. David Glassberg says:

    Readers can pursue this topic further in a new free book just published by Museums for Climate Action

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