Experts say our galleries and museums need to get greener


Climate – and the responsibility and advocacy role museums and galleries play in evolving and shaping viewpoints – was a topic of discussion among industry peers at last week’s AMaGA conference. in Canberra.

Led by Kim McKay, CEO of the Australian Museum (AM), she posed the provocative question to the audience: “What should state institutions do to take a stand and get the government to align with this?” “

Her number one tip was to get good support from your boards and trusts. McKay continued, “If you have one great piece of advice to support, you can be brave and courageous and start making a difference.”


McKay said Tim Flannery’s opening speech at the last AMaGA conference in Alice Springs put her on a trajectory of immediate and meaningful change at the museum. Two years later, AM opened the exhibition Spark (on the eve of the conference) which showcases 10 Australian innovations that “give us hope for the future that some of the problems associated with climate change can be solved”.

It is positioned at the entrance of another exhibition Unstable, which takes a First Nations lens from the collection to illuminate the power to speak the truth to effect change.

“Climate change and the cultural sector – there is no doubt that the two are closely linked and that our First Nations people have an understanding from which we can learn,” McKay added.


Dr Jilda Andrews, a Yuwaalaraay woman, cultural practitioner and researcher based in Canberra, said: “The First Nations [lens]makes the present dialogue with thousands of years of connection; The country is the system by which everything is held – it is more than the mere concept of land; it is a network of all living beings.

“It’s not just the earth that is at risk, we are,” she said.

Andrews believes there is an urgent need to unleash the museum’s ability to extend these conversations. Just as new museum thinking should include an action plan for reconciliation, it should also include an action plan for sustainability. The message from this panel of industry experts was that our museums around the world must be more responsible in their actions, but also guide their audiences through education.

“It’s not just the land that’s at risk, we are. ”

-Dr Jilda Andrews

Jenny Newell is Climate Change Projects Manager (Engagement, Exhibitions and Cultural Connection) at AM – a dedicated position that works on the cultural dimension of climate change. She is also a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Sustainability Working Group. She recalls that the signatories of the Paris Climate Agreement are committed to increasing awareness of climate change.

“I have noticed a real groundswell over the past couple of years, from climate specific museums to the national history museum embracing climate research, to the creative advocates of the planet, and under Kim at AM, it made sustainability a political priority, ”said Newell.

She believes that by adopting such policies, museums around the world are “supporting the empowerment of the public by showing them solutions”, which is essential for moving forward.

Newell added that recent data shows four in five Australians are concerned about climate change. “We want them to know that they don’t need to know all the science, but need to know the actions. We take an apolitical stance and back it with expertise – museums are uniquely placed to build bridges of empathy and knowledge. ‘

Extinction Rebellion protest, Shell Out of the Science Museum interactive protest in London, May 2021. Image: Shutterstock.


Newell said there are many networks today that bring museums together in the climate conversation, and in Sydney there is the Museums and Climate Change Network.

Guy Abrahams, the founder of CLIMARTE, has also created a strong network of information and change over the past decade, drawing attention to the role art can play in the climate conversation across the festival. tailored.

“Rational facts alone – charts and numbers – are not enough to engage people. It has to be both contemplative and visceral to have an impact on change, ”Abrahams said.

He says museums can help in three ways:

  1. Develop exhibitions that question the climate crisis. Many museums and galleries have already taken this route, but much remains to be done;
  2. Implement sustainable development policies that govern their own operations and audiences;
  3. To create an action plan.

Abrahams also added that museums and galleries have the power to implement their message by stopping accepting funding from the fossil fuel industry, which is only “resorting to their green credentials in galleries and museums. “.

He highlighted the work of artist Gabrielle De Vietri who created Gratitude Card, Cones of Silence, Pieces of Coal (2019), which shows the relationship between Australian cultural organizations and the fossil fuel industry.

“If Australian museums are serious, they need to be open and transparent about it. Who sits on our boards of directors? Who gives us money? Where is our money invested? Who benefits from association with our brand? ‘ He adds that “just as artistic institutions today would not contemplate accepting money from big tobacco, so must we reject money from fossil fuel industries.”

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The question was posed to the panel: “How do museum staff save the planet if their bosses won’t allow it?”

Andrews said that with our boards and boards, “there is a responsibility to put pressure on museum management, so that they can exercise leadership. it may be difficult for me [as a staff member]to influence upwards, but they can influence downwards.

She continued, “It’s not about being brave; it’s about recognizing where the responsibilities are,” adding that while most recognize their boards do a great job, it doesn’t. It’s hard to have the dialogue with them to share your expectations for leadership in this space.

Libby Robin, ANU science and environmental historian, agrees. “A museum is a place where we can talk about what we can do as a nation.

“I’m interested in how creators and artists work with communities and audiences – it’s about transmitting energy, and if people feel engaged, you can empower them. That trust is important – the trust that a museum has. ‘

Kim McKay, CEO of the Australian Museum, is leading the charge by implementing the policy holistically. Screenshot Presentation of the AMaGA conference.


Andrews asked: how hard is it to ‘go rogue’ with these conversations?

McKay admits that she has “a bit of a politician” to her, adding that the bold changes she has made to AM, especially their recent Unstable exhibition, would be “a red rag to a bull … we had more perspective on climate change by appointing Tim Flannery as our Fellow on Climate Change.” It was a bit like the moment of the lightning rod ”.

Artist working on climate change, Alexander Boynes added: “I think we have to have uncomfortable and difficult conversations, and museums and galleries should be safe spaces to have these difficult conversations.”

McKay believes that there has been a change in public opinion and that people are ready for the change.

“I don’t think we’ve gone rogue. I think we reflect public opinion. The community is there with us, even if the political commitment is lacking. Bushfires have changed a lot in Australia, and we’ve seen that in our levels of engagement at the museum. Australians are really involved in these issues.

Newman continued, “Museums have a huge role to play. Museums are on the galvanization; they can affect many people, and it’s one of the places where people come to learn in different ways, depending on age and background. ‘

“Museums can’t fix climate change, but we are a major tool – an important tool – playing a role,” Newman concluded.

Andrews agreed, “I think recognizing the power of the institution in its ability to educate children – any public program position facing the public within a museum is incredibly important. You are at this interface where you not only deliver an institutional message, but are at the personal space where you can enter into dialogue.

“We need adequate resources for these roles in museums; to be the personal face of a great type of leadership, ”she concluded.

“Climate Change and the Cultural Sector” was presented on June 8 in Canberra. AMaGA is the leading body for museums and galleries in Australia.

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