Lake Effects: Missing the boat on climate change

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artifacts in exhibit

Section of the “Lake Effects” exhibit defining the lake effect in the context of the Great Lakes region. Photo credit:

On August 24, 2014, the temporary exhibition Lake Effects closed its doors after a ten-month run at the Michigan Historical Museum. Attempting to absorb as much Great Lakes culture as I could before relocating to the southeastern United States, I visited the Michigan Historical Museum with my family in July. Michigan summers are idyllic, not an epithet often applied to our new home in Atlanta, Georgia. What more appropriate activity for celebrating the beautiful Michigan summer than visiting a museum exhibit all about Michigan’s special weather systems? I was disappointed, however, to find that the exhibit, poised to offer a public platform for a friendly discussion of climate change in the Great Lakes region, made absolutely no mention of this central problem of our time. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources website, “Lake Effects highlights some of the significant weather events in Michigan’s past and looks at the influence of weather on inventions, crops, work, recreation and everyday life in the Great Lakes State. You’ll also learn about the science behind Michigan weather.” This description clearly implies that weather is a significant factor in the development of Michigan’s distinctive social, economic, and recreational culture. If you put enough weather events together, they inevitably add up to one thing: climate.

According to NASA’s 2005 definition:

The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time. When we talk about climate change, we talk about changes in long-term averages of daily weather. Today, children always hear stories from their parents and grandparents about how snow was always piled up to their waists as they trudged off to school. Children today in most areas of the country haven’t experienced those kinds of dreadful snow-packed winters, except for the Northeastern U.S. in January 2005. The change in recent winter snows indicate that the climate has changed since their parents were young.

Within the Great Lakes region alone, scientific reports have shown over a decade of significant effects from climate change from 2003, to 2010, to 2014. But Lake Effects, produced in 2013, makes no mention of climate, let alone climate change.

artifacts in exhibit

Section of “Lake Effects” exhibit describing typical winter weather. Photo credit:

To a public historian, trained to look for silences within vocal narratives, this is a glaring omission. How can an exhibit about the economic effects of weather–from ice fishing, to apple picking, to leaf-peeping–avoid talking about the very factors that may put these traditional activities in danger, affecting the future of Michigan and the Great Lakes region? Lake Effects is nostalgic and celebratory. Even negative events, such as the Storm of 1913 or the Heatwave of 1936, are described with the breathless excitement characteristic of a “Can You Believe When?” local history brochure. Science is present in the exhibit but only in the context of describing observed weather patterns that result in seemingly stable seasons.

Museums are not places for wishful thinking. Although museums, especially history museums, have a heritage of boosterism and narratives of progress, the latter part of the twentieth century saw a rising museological debate about the appropriateness of these and other entrenched practices within the modern museum. In his seminal 1971 article “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum,” published in Curator:The Museum Journal, Duncan Cameron argues that museums should embrace civic engagement as part of their fundamental function.

Still tethered to nineteenth-century pedagogical practices, history museums have been slower to evolve than their scientific cousins when It comes to taking on tough contemporary issues. Specifically on the subject of climate change, history museums lag behind science centers and even those hybrid “natural history museums.” Curators and directors who claim to espouse notions of promoting civic dialogue about contemporary issues worry that too much controversy will scare away their dedicated audiences, often comprised of local and regional visitors with a fundamental attachment to these museums’ base narratives.

Yes, it is important to engage local and regional audiences. Visitors to the Michigan Historical Museum most likely have fond memories of boating in Lake Superior off the coast of the Upper Penninsula or crossing the straits of Mackinac in a stiff breeze as weather fronts meet between Lakes Huron and Michigan. But for that very reason, the Michigan Historical Museum has a responsibility to those visitors to place their fond memories in the context of changing trends. History is the study of the past, but it is irresponsible to ignore the present.

Noting the omission of the discussion of climate change, I found myself wondering about the influence of politics or particular donors on the exhibit. I didn’t notice any obvious culprits in the list of exhibit sponsors, and key members of Michigan’s state legislature have been applauded by environmental groups for their action on climate change. Without more research into the development of the exhibit, a task that would require direct communication with curators and officials at the Michigan Historical Museum,it is impossible to know exactly why discussion of climate change was missing from the exhibit.

But it remains important to call attention to this and other missing narratives. When museums neglect to discuss conflicts over civil rights or immigration in their grand historical exhibits, public historians are quick to chime in. We need to be just as quick to note the absence of climate change in scientific/cultural exhibits. Thus, we can continue to play a role in protecting the public interest within our educational institutions, even when we don’t have a direct say in the development of public content.

~ Adina Langer is a public history consultant and principal at Artiflection, LLC.

Editor’s note: For more on the growing conversation within the public history field about environmental sustainability and climate change, make sure to read the new issue of The Public Historian, just released as well as the companion digital publication, “Public History in a Changing Climate.”


1 comment
  1. Nicholas DeCicco says:

    I agree completely with your thoughts. Museums need to take risks and cover important, possibly controversial, topics. It’s a public duty.

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