Caring for Life

Photo: by Antonio Olmos, Just Stop Oil Protesters Phoebe Plummer, and Anna Holland, splattered Heinz Tomato Soup on “Sunflowers” by Vincent van Gogh and then glued themselves to the wall below it in protest against inaction on climate change as part of a series of protests throughout the UK by the environmental group.

Baroque is not something that used to enthuse me. Until last June, when I was in Copenhagen and I visited SMK’s (Staten Museum for Kunst) temporary exhibition “Baroque – Out of Darkness”. It was not only because the museum shared with me Baroque’s intentions, inventions and symbolisms, in a way that was clear, surprising, detailed and even fun. It was also for two other reasons:

Because it placed this period in a context of climate challenges for the Europeans, where “’The Little Ice Age’ brought icy winters, floods and cold summers, and people lived in constant fear of failed harvests and famine.” Suddenly, there was a different connection between us and them.

Because the museum only used objects from its own collections, some of which had undergone extensive restoration and were on display for the first time in over 100 years. There were no loans from other museums – and everything their transfer would have meant in terms of the museum’s carbon footprint. I don’t know whether this was a conscious decision or not, but it was certainly good to know.

Climaximo members throwing paint over the glass covering Picasso’s “Woman in a Chair, Museum of Modern Art, Lisbon, 2023

We tend to interpret the word “activism” as something violent, loud, vandalising, extreme. It can take this form, indeed, but it can also be a quieter, matter-of-fact and firm way of “acting”, “taking a stand”, “assuming one’s responsibility”. I feel particularly happy when I see museums sharing with society facts and emotions, certainties and doubts, when they get involved and involve others in a much-needed dialogue, when they don’t pretend not to see and not to know.

The issue of climate change and museums’ role in it is something “recent” for many museum professionals. And it is still something unknown or “incomprehensible” for many others, that actually seem not to (want to) see and not to (want to) know. I truly felt shocked a year ago when I read the statement issued by more than 90 museum directors, and published by ICOM Germany, regarding the protests of climate activists in museums. It basically said this: “The activists responsible for them severely underestimate the fragility of these irreplaceable objects, which must be preserved as part of our world cultural heritage. As museum directors are frustrated with the care of these works, we have been deeply shaken by their risky endangerment.” 

Hyperallergic’s Jasmine Liu criticised the statement: “(…) leaders at prominent art institutions have released a statement indicating that they are ‘deeply shaken’ – not by the alarming warming of the planet, necessarily, but by recent climate protests involving the ‘risky endangerment’ of art.” A couple of days later, an even more ironic Hakim Bishara was asking “Museum directors, do you need a hug?”, identifying an essential cause for these embarrassing statements: a resounding failure of leadership. He wrote: “We need museum directors to become actual cultural leaders who know how to identify and address society’s most pressing problems, and actively engage in solving them. I’m calling on you to stop thinking like caretakers and start acting like changemakers. Start representing your community, not just your board of trustees.” 

For other cultural professionals, though, climate change has been an emergency for a long time now. Chris Garrard has been for more than 10 years a campaigner with Culture Unstained, an organisation that aims to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture. In an article for Arts Professional last October, he registered a significant ethical shift, between the time major polluters, such as BP and Shell, were acceptable museum sponsors (perhaps even a “necessary evil”), whereas today many big cultural organisations have cut ties with them. “What brought about this rapid ethical shift”, Garrard wrote, “was a campaign that wove together eye-catching creative protests, in-depth research exposing the motives of fossil fuel sponsors, and powerful interventions by affected groups, from arts workers in oil-sponsored institutions to communities resisting the impacts of oil and gas extraction.”

Being conscious of a museum’s carbon footprint is not something new for a number of organisations. In 2014, the New York Times was reporting that “Many museums are going beyond traditional recycling efforts and giving second lives to exhibit materials”: materials reused, sold or donated; widened ranges for acceptable temperature and humidity levels, in order to reduce energy consumption; reusable shipping crates, with adjustable interiors to accommodate paintings or objects of varying sizes; reduced paint consumption, by focusing on main areas in an exhibit or by using lighting instead; movable wall systems and a number of other features built in modular components that can fit together and be easily updated; vinyl and fabric banners into handbags, totes and laptop and iPod cases sold in their gift shops.

Despite all the information and practical tools made available to museums today, the situation is still rather disappointing. Last year, NEMO – The Network of European Museum Organisations presented the results of its survey on museums in climate crisis:

  • 1 in 4 museums work with internal criteria or an external assessment network framework to measure sustainable efforts;
  • 1 in 10 museums are aware of local/regional or national climate policies that feature or address them;
  • Less than 1 in 10 museums have completed an analysis about challenges associated with climate change in their region;
  • 2 in 3 museums do not have sufficient knowledge about the Sustainable Development Goals and climate action in their organisation;
  • 1 in 10 museums are part of a cultural network that focuses on climate change.

As with other causes in the past, a moment comes (and I do believe we are much closer to this moment) where museums cannot afford to pretend not to know or to have nothing to do with this emergency. On 4 December, it was announced that COP28 launched a new Group of Friends of Culture-Based Climate Action, an international coalition of UN Member States aimed at building political momentum for the recognition of culture as a uniquely powerful force in climate change policy (read full statement of support). This is the result of a call to action, “Culture at the Heart of Climate Action”, which claimed that, in spite of its potential, culture has not been integrated into climate policy and planning.

Some time before, on 31 October, representatives of UK museums, organisations in the sector and funders took part in the first UK Museum Cop, agreeing to take collective action on the climate crisis. “They pledged to use their ‘collections, programmes and exhibitions to engage audiences with the climate crisis and inspire them to take positive action’; to manage collections sustainably; to develop and implement decarbonisation plans; and to increase biodiversity in museums’ green spaces.” An important step, perhaps also related to the Museum Association’s “Museums for Climate Justice” campaign, “working with museums to be bold and brave in raising awareness, championing change and embedding climate action.” This looks like a much-needed coordinated effort in the sector, which we hope to see in other countries too.

Photo Maria Vlachou

A fundamental question to ask ourselves is how we can deal with this emergency in a way that doesn’t make citizens feel small and powerless. A very interesting exchange of views took place in the Guardian last July. First, an article entitled “It’s positive, not apocalyptic” quoted the Eden Project’s senior arts curator, Misha Curson, saying that “Facts and data can leave one feeling disempowered and disengaged. Immersive experiences like ours are more powerful than talk of environmental disasters that are already in the media every day. It’s a positive approach rather than an apocalyptic one.” A few days later, Miranda Massie, the Climate Museum director in the US, argued that “in our work at the museum, which mobilises arts programming to build individual and collective climate engagement, we’ve found that art doesn’t need to be positive or cheerful to inspire momentum and resolve.(…) outward-facing actions as simple as talking more often about climate build a palpable sense of community and resolve, especially when framed as a collective project.” There is an issue here: how to contradict human nature, desperately looking for comfort and for a “deus ex machina” that will magically solve things for us?

We should perhaps start from within. As many citizens around the world are looking both for information and inspiration, for ways of getting involved, can we afford a museum leadership that claims to be “difficult to understand why works of art have to pay for this” – “this” being oil and pollution. Can we afford a museum leadership which says that “climate justice” sounds radical and scare people off? Can we afford a museum leadership focusing on the care of collections and doesn’t find analogies with our responsibility to care for life?

Some resources: