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Super Natural: Museums and the Future of the Planet

Sharon Ament – Director of the Museum of London and past Director of Public Engagement at the Natural History Museum, London – on museums and the part they can and should play in the future of the planet. Alongside the essential need for museums to examine how they interact with the world and change their behaviours to become more sustainable, museums also need to consider, within the specificity of each of their missions, how they can craft exhibitions, permanent displays and public programmes to create exciting new interventions about the environment. 

In 2001 River Restoration, a report published jointly by English Nature, the Mayor of London and the Environment Agency, outlined the opportunities and benefits that restoring the tributary rivers of London would make towards it becoming an exemplary sustainable world city. It argued strongly for those areas of river catchment that were deficient for nature conservation. Within the report I came unexpectedly across a reproduction of Sir John Everett Millais’s glorious 1852 painting Ophelia. The image is famous and is a part of the collection housed in Tate Britain. Ophelia lies drowning in the shallows in the clear waters of an English river. The image is captivating and made all the more tragic because of the abundance of life that surrounds the death of such beauty. The Tate’s website confirms that the “painting was regarded in its day as one of the most accurate and elaborate studies of nature”.

Image: Sir John Everett Millais Ophelia 1851-52 Oil on canvas support © Tate

Being familiar with the painting I was surprised to find that the very same landscape in which Millais located the dying Ophelia – Hogsmill river in Ewell – was being cited within the report as being in need of critical restoration. It left me wondering what the picture would look like today, if Ophelia were to be represented in the same waters. Would it be so beautiful and would the wildlife surrounding the body be so abundant and varied? Given the report, I think not. This ability to reference a piece of art as an indicator of changes in nature shows how simply and effectively museums and galleries could engage with the big environmental issues which are currently the stuff, quite literally, of life.

A Personal Issue
For me two important things have occurred during the past few years which mark a very real shift: the first being that awareness of environmental issues in the UK has become almost universal, the second is that people are directly experiencing environmental changes for themselves.

Throughout my career I have observed the “environment” go from being an issue confined to a passionate few to being a ubiquitous theme that is part of our daily discourse. What’s more, during the past few years the environment has become personal and is engaged with on an individual basis. There is a heightened consciousness of global warming with people often attributing every unseasonable weather manifestation to it, fuel prices are noted, diminishing fish stocks change the colour and character of fishmongers’ slabs and local government’s approach to recycling has resulted in the array of bins and complex rubbish sorting that now takes place in our very homes.

There are few issues that have such universal currency in the UK at the moment and the public’s understanding of the concepts can be quite sophisticated. These include: the growth in consciousness of human beings as animals inhabiting a planet with other species, the increasing awareness that fragile ecosystems can be fundamentally altered by our actions and the finite nature of readily available cheap resources such as fossil fuels or water. As part of this wider discourse, concepts such as biodiversity, ecosystems, sustainability and climate change are at least recognised if not fully understood.

The issues are played out across all fora: from the media to the daily life of the class-room, at a local level through government policies on recycling or debates about the proliferation of wind-turbines in the countryside. People are conscious of food miles, that we all have a carbon footprint, advertisers use green credentials, government policies encourage energy saving and it seems that every household at least knows what compost is even if they don’t have a pile of rotting vegetables at the end of the garden.

So with the pervasion of matters “environmental” throughout society it is time for attention to be paid by our whole sector beyond the usual suspects of natural history or science museums.

Getting Our Own Galleries
Alongside the very essential need for our own organisations to examine how we interact with the world and change our behaviours to become more sustainable, we also need to consider within the specificity of each of our missions how we can craft our exhibitions, permanent displays and public programmes to create exciting new interventions about the environment.

We can use the unique collection of skills and talents of the sector to bring new insight to the wide range of topics that nest under the single theme of “the environment”. Our challenge is to deploy our expertise and collections in such a way that new ways of engaging are developed to have a greater resonance with our communities, enabling us to consider the environment through fresh eyes. I believe that every museum or gallery could engage with the environment no matter what the shape, size or character of their collection. The example of Ophelia is proof.

Nothing So Relevant
Now is a perfect moment for museums to consider new ways of interpreting the environment after the Rio Summit in 2012. Building on the experiences from COP15 Climate Conference in Copenhagen here again was global attention focussed on the issues of sustainability. Within this heightened awareness we have the opportunity to become part of the zeitgeist. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development – Earth Summit Rio+20 – was the the fourth summit of its kind and represents another milestone in international efforts to accelerate progress towards achieving sustainable development globally with world leaders looking at issues such as food security, accelerating ecosystem degradation, climate change and the impacts of population growth. Thus we are provided with a breadth of rich, powerful topics for our sector to explore further, through our collections.

As well as this opportunity that such a global conference brings, another helpful mechanism for museum curators is that provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment framework. This is the output of an international body of over 2,000 experts who came together to look at the value of ecosystems. By defining four overarching values for nature museums have a mechanism through which they can articulate their collections whether they are the Norwegian Canning Museum in Stavanger, the Imperial War Museum in London or the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

The framework ascribes values to ecosystems that ensure the health of the planet and thus human well-being. There are both utilitarian and intrinsic values with cultural value being of significance. Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations made this value explicit when he said: Nature’s assets underpin the very lives and livelihoods of more than 6 billion people. They make our very existence possible in the vacuum of space.

So far you may think that this is all getting a bit environmentally hard-core. However, it is far from my objective to insist that we all begin to plaster our walls with data or frighten our visitors into paralysis.

What I am advocating is the application of our collective creativity, intelligence and savvy to create amazing, insightful experiences around the theme of the natural world and not worthy, dull regurgitations of the facts of climate change, or the very prosaic list of actions that visitors can take. Let’s use our creative talents to bring new sorts of approaches, to light fires, to inspire, to create wonder.

Stretching Our Thinking
All museums and galleries no matter the subject of their collection or scholarly focus can engage in some way. From the local history museum to the industrial heritage centre from the art gallery to the natural history museum, all can and should develop new programmes and exhibits on the environment. To use a seasonal example we could creatively look at the history, economics and biodiversity of the Christmas cake with all its interesting ingredients or with an example drawn from newspaper headlines, the issue of scarce resources as a cause of conflict and warfare.

At the Natural History Museum, as you might expect with our 350 research scientists and 70 million specimens, it is easy for us to use our assets to tell great stories about the environment. Our new Darwin Centre where we bring researchers, collections and the public together is a great example. Here scientists work in labs, innovative interactivity plays out on an hourly basis in the Attenborough Studio and people journey through the Cocoon exhibition which traverses two floors of collections storage.

Albeit it is a new kind of museum space and an exciting new way to engage, the Darwin Centre is exactly what you might expect from one of the world’s renowned natural history institutions. But what you might not expect is our approach to using our collections in new sorts of collaborations, partnerships and disciplines to create new dialogues and discourse.
An example was the Amazonia arts-science exhibition in 2010 on which we worked with Lucy and Jorge Orta in a show based on biodiversity and in 2006 when we worked with Cape Farewell to stage an exhibition of works from leading artists called The Ship: the art of climate change.

Cape Farewell is a collaborative of artists pioneered by artist David Buckland that exists to engage artists in issues around climate change. The project takes artists, educationalists and scientists in inter-disciplinary expeditions on a sailing vessel – the Schooner ‘Norderlicht’ – to the Spitzbergen archipelago to explore the impact of climate on the oceans and Arctic. The collaboration has involved Southampton Oceanography Centre and the Geographical Association and the vessel has been involved in gathering quantifiable scientific data and creating the space for the artists and scientists to share experience and practice.

Such a major collaboration enabled our scientists to share skills with artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey helping them create a new work called Stranded. This work comprised a whale skeleton which had been encrusted with crystals. It formed a stunning centrepiece for the show. Flensing a whale carcass isn’t something that many people know how to do, however, for museum experts it’s a skill applied for very practical reasons to be used in the course of research work on cetacean strandings.

For the Natural History Museum the medium of art has enabled us to create highly impactful experiences. For a science-based museum this has been our great stretch. The challenge to us all is to continue to widen our approach to nature and finally to quote Ban Ki-Moon once more when he was talking about setting new targets and a vision for biodiversity: Business as usual is not an option.

Sharon Ament
Director, Museum of London

(past Director of Public Engagement, The Natural History Museum, London)

Notes | References | Bibliography

Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being; Synthesis. Island Press, World Resources Centre

River Restoration, A stepping stone to urban regeneration highlighting the opportunities in South London, The Environment Agency, 2001

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