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Museums are good at placing an individual object, or set of objects, in a historical, geographical or societal context. They are maps to the future. / Photo: Pexels

Learning & teaching

Museums are maps to the future

Authors: Kevin Campbell-Wright Published:

Museums are good at placing an individual object, or set of objects, in a historical, geographical or societal context. They are maps to the future. / Photo: Pexels

Essex Havard, Ian Fraser and Bridget McKenzie explain why museums in Britain have taken on the task of adult education about environment and climate.

Change is on the agenda in Britain, following the EU referendum and the general election.  Climate change, however, is not.

Described as “conspicuous by its absence” from the election campaign, it will be of no surprise to find that it also doesn’t feature much in Britain’s formal adult education.  What may surprise some, however, is that the sector picking it up is the museum and cultural learning sector.

Key to learning about the environment

Essex Havard, a Welsh consultant in adult learning in museums, isn’t surprised.  He sees the sector as being intrinsically linked with ecological learning.

“The environment is the world in which we contextually live. Museums, and the wider cultural sector are, or have been, seen as warehouses of the past, but they are not. They are maps to the future.  Museums are good at placing an individual object, or set of objects, in a historical, geographical or societal context, and this is key when learning about the environment.”

Essex Havard is a Welsh consultant in adult learning in museums.

Ian Fraser, a conservator at Leeds City Museum, in Yorkshire, UK, agrees:

“Museums are primarily a means of delivering education, and a repository for collective memory, which, when brought to life through the narratives that can emerge, can help to reinforce and create identity. In order to help people reach their potential they need to learn, discover what their gifts are and what they can do with them.”

Ian Fraser is a conservator at Leeds City Museum.

Adult education won’t take risks

It’s a world away from the colleges, where environmental studies are normally linked to vocational courses.  Essex Havard sees this as part of the problem:

“Most of the UK’s informal education is, I think, aimed at those furthest away from their personal learning journeys, those disengaged from learning.  For many, their re-engagement with learning is as a result of wanting to find a job. It seems that informal adult education providers are obsessed with art and IT as a way of stimulating interest in learning and are missing an opportunity if they are not seeing environmental issues as a way of engaging the disengaged.”

Bridget McKenzie, an activist and blogger who is working across the museum sector to teach others about the importance of climate change, agrees but thinks the motivation may be more about the politics of the learners themselves:

“Adult education colleges perhaps continue to target an older age group, who can afford leisure courses, and may not be radical in their politics as a demographic compared to under 40s. In a time of austerity, they can’t afford to take risks.”

Bridget McKenzie is an activist and blogger.

Where the real power lies

However, Essex Havard points that younger people not voting may be what’s forcing climate change from the wider agenda:

“The main political parties in the UK are seeking the support of voters, normally older adults. Traditionally these voters are more concerned with taxation, pensions and security, while younger adults tend to be more concerned with the future, but don’t vote in large numbers.”

Ian Fraser thinks that is precisely because of this that learning about what he calls ‘climate crisis’ can help:

“Speaking truth to power is a waste of time and effort. They know the truth already,” he says,

“Therefore speaking truth to those with little power is the way to bring about change, because collective action is where real power lies. The abolition of the slave trade is a clear example of this. It was not politicians or vested interests that drove that movement.”

Bridget McKenzie agrees, but thinks that the focus has been too strongly on children, ignoring the role adult education can play:

“There has been an assumption that the impacts of breached planetary boundaries will be so slow that it’s only relevant to educate children to be resilient for a changed future. But adults of all ages need to learn so much about how we can live well in symbiosis with other species, how we can avoid pollution, and how we can mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

Digital tools

The projects these three have worked on vary greatly (see examples at the end of the article).

Bridget McKenzie sees digital tools as central as well as the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) agenda.  The science of climate change is a key ingredient, and she sees the sector as being a major player in the response to environmental issues:

“Museums and the arts offer rich potential environments and experiences for exploring complex issues, for designing new solutions, for safely expressing emotion, for learning from past and other cultures on how we might live better with other species, and for holding space for dialogue in ways that are non-ideological.

Of course all others, for example charities, businesses and schools, should be thinking and acting towards eco-social justice and innovation. All of them could be looking towards the arts and heritage for tools and approaches to help them be more effective in this.”

Holistic mindset

“Whenever I do outreach or teaching about museum conservation I always link it back to bigger environmental issues. I have to. A holistic, risk managed, view of conservation, all hazards, requires this mindset,” says Ian Fraser.

He has found that his work has confirmed his personal ethics and influenced his thinking.  He’s directly seen the effects of climate change in the work his sector does:

“I have noticed within my career that previously effective rain water drainage systems are less effective because of changing and more extreme weather. The built environment is the first and principal means of defence in protecting a collection, and historic interiors. Even with a fast transition off of fossil fuels, and biosphere healing, there is enough climate change that is going to happen in any event that forward planning for the change is going to be essential.”

Learning from the real

To address this, Ian has co-setup a Zero Carbon group in his hometown, Harrogate, which provides links and resources that empower people to start making changes, with an aim to make the town carbon neutral before 2035.  This informal learning based on small changes in the everyday lives is a way forward to what Bridget McKenzie calls “a shift to a more regenerative approach to the planet”, in which she sees food education as a key area:

“Growing food and using less food is going to be an increasingly vital issue,” she says.

Havard notes that many museums feature examples of how food has been, is or will be consumed: “Contextualised learning is the best kind.  Learning from the real. It’s what museums are good at.”

Bleak perspectives for the future

But, to take the museum angle forward requires change in the sector itself.  Ian Fraser thinks this will need to see museums creating greater links with their communities: “It would help if there is continuing and increased investment in outreach, more community curator type roles to grow the links between communities and museums and galleries.”

However, they all agree that investment opportunities are looking bleak, especially with the impending exit from the European Union.

Bridget McKenzie is certain this will impact on Ian Fraser’s ideas around community outreach, as well as the willingness of leaders to comply with the sustainability agenda:

“The economic implications of Brexit will be appalling for the public cultural, science and educational sectors, so they will have fewer resources to do community outreach or to experiment and learn from international practice. Also, leaving the EU may reduce responsibilities of the public sector to comply with environmental and human rights laws.”

Essex Havard is a bit more positive on the subject:

“Practically, it will have a dreadful effect,” he says, “but emotionally and spiritually, UK museums are part of a rich museological biodiversity across the EU and they will continue to communicate and find ways to collaborate.”

International coalition

Bridget McKenzie isn’t taking any chances.  She’s recently linked up with a Canadian initiative called Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice.

They are looking at the concept of “activist museums”, an approach that would see the cultural sector transform from an institutional top down model to a grass roots up model.  They think this will aid the existing power that “cultural institutions have to inform the public about challenging issues, how museums add to the political power of a city and how we can ensure that culture is open to all.”

Bridget McKenzie is enthusiastic about these ideas: “I want to support a coalition of cultural organisations across Europe working for climate justice, inspired by the new Canadian coalition,” she says, “so that UK museums can do more to involve the community in developing programmes, so that they are relevant to a shifting world”.

Get the priorities right

Ian Fraser’s conclusion is simpler, but arguably more ambitious.  The learning, he argues, simply has to be about setting priorities.  He uses the analogy of “Seek first the kingdom of God:

“It means, simply, get the priorities right,” he explains, “and other things that also matter will fall into place naturally behind that primary goal.

“In the context of the environment and the climate crisis, it means that all of us, everybody, communities, business and governments must have just relationships with the biosphere and with each other, and these need to be the primary goal.”

Museum projects on sustainability

Young people see the changing landscape

Essex Havard’s project brought together young people with historic artefacts such as maps and photographs and got them thinking and reflecting about how their landscape in South Wales had changed over the course of a generation.

Younger people, who hadn’t previously reflected on the timescales of change, had a home-grown context in which to reflect, and thinking about how things will change in the future is a natural follow on.

Based in a youth setting in Cardiff, Havard hopes it will lead to future intergenerational work, to bring the change to life.

Wonderful Wood

Ian Fraser created a free resource called “Wonderful Wood” that, in the context of conservation of wooden artefacts, explored the role of wood, trees and forest.
Developed with the help of art students, the resource is used by other museums and education establishments, but it’s only the show piece of Ian Fraser’s embedding of climate crisis learning in all he does.  He says that this method of embedding learning into the wider context is essential.

The Happy Museum

Bridget McKenzie’s various projects have also considered the importance of embedding.  The Happy Museum project, which she evaluated, aims to enable museums to consider their role in the context of sustainability, and this includes learning.  She’s also set up “FutureViews” with a view to consider the future of cultural learning, much of which will be around wellbeing and, with it, sustainability factors.

More about museums and environment

Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice

Happy Museum Project

Bridget McKenzie’s Blog

Follow Essex Havard: @_alacs

See some of Ian Fraser’s work: Secret lives of objects 


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Kevin Campbell-Wright is a communications, digital learning and innovations professional. Show all articles by Kevin Campbell-Wright
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