Saturday 3 December 2022

Is it really so hard to understand?

Photo: Just Stop Oil via The New York Times.

“Museums tighten vigilance worried about environmentalist ‘terrorism’ actions against art”. I don’t know whether it was the word “terrorism” in the title that I found more shocking or the actual answers given to the journalist by different Portuguese museum directors. Answers that revealed a complete disconnection from the issue of climate emergency and the role and impact museums have on it. I felt dumbstruck when a national museum director stated that he had “some difficulty understanding what museums and works of art have to do with this type of environmentalist protest” and that "It is related to the issue of oil and pollution, but the works of art are not to blame. These are actions to draw attention, but it is difficult to understand why works of art have to pay for this.” Another national museum director said that he finds these actions worrying because museums “hold, preserve and exhibit collections which are unique in the world” and "they [the activists] put at risk a heritage that belongs to everyone" and "must be protected for present and future generations" (wouldn’t these words serve perfectly to discuss our natural heritage and obligation to future generations?). 

One might think that perhaps the journalist didn’t ask questions that went beyond the activists’ acts, that’s why museum directors did not also talk about the impact museums are having in the climate change and what their museums are, actually, doing about it. I do think, though, that if this was the case – that is, if they had both the knowledge and information to share – they would have done it, even without being asked directly; they would have taken a position. 

Days after these interviews were published, causing no special reaction in the country and in the museum field, ICOM Germany published a statement, signed by more than 90 museum directors at an international level, which basically says 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 answered with an article very appropriately entitled “As the World Burns, Museum Leaders ‘Deeply Shaken’ by Climate Protests”. She wrote: “The world is nearing a climate catastrophe, with heating gases hitting record highs and experts warning of ‘irreversible’ changes to our environment. Against this backdrop, 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.” She’s right. Are museum directors around the world that alienated? 

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. “The bigger problem here”, he wrote, “is that these museum directors have a severely narrow understanding of their positions. In their own words, the museum’s primary responsibility lies in ‘collecting, researching, sharing and preserving’ cultural heritage. No, we need you to do more than that. 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.” 

In a statement published on 18 November, ICOM – International Council of Museums seemed to have balanced things a little better. It wished “to acknowledge and share both the concerns expressed by museums regarding the safety of collections and the concerns of climate activists as we face an environmental catastrophe that threatens life on Earth.” It also said that “museums are key actors in driving climate action and should be seen as allies in the climate movement.” True, but it takes more than words. Museums cannot and will not be seen as “allies” for as long as they take no action whatsoever and seem to have not the slightest notion or true concern regarding the emergency we are already experiencing. Days later, Italy's Minister of Culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano, told the media: "Considering the enormous heritage to be protected, the intervention will represent a considerable cost for the coffers of the ministry and of the entire nation. Unfortunately, I can only foresee an increase in the cost of the entrance ticket." How shameless can a politician be?

NEMO - The Network of European Museum Organisations – in my view, one of the most relevant organisations in the field – recently shared in a webinar the results of its survey on museums in climate crisis and its recommendations. Let’s have a look at this reality:
  • 8 in 10 museums stated that they reflect the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in their strategic plans (SDG13 being “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”). NEMO commented on this that the narrative has very often been that cultural heritage and cultural heritage institutions are something to be protected, but we don’t often consider how cultural institutions can contribute in creating solutions and supporting the sustainable transition;
  • 1 in 4 work museums 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 SDGs and climate action in their organisation;
  • 1 in 10 museums are part of a cultural network that focuses on climate change.
When many middle-aged people are telling young activists that there are “better ways to protest” and are recommending more information and education (scientists have actually been ringing the bell on climate change since the early 90s, when today’s middle-aged people were in their 20s…), what do they have to say about a whole cultural field expressing ignorance and almost total lack of action? Shouldn’t we be feeling ashamed and deeply responsible, instead of calling the activists “terrorists”? 

It's not as if there is no knowledge and specific initiatives in the museum field, should we actually wish to fight our ignorance and contribute in tackling the issue of climate change. In NEMO’s webinar, Henry McGhie from Curating Tomorrow (a consultancy service for museums and the heritage sector interested in creating a better future, with a number of free publications on climate emergency and, most importantly, climate empowerment) briefly presented a blueprint for climate action in and with museums, which can give a basic orientation regarding what we should be discussing and acting upon. “In” and “with” is very important here, as it is not only about what museums can do for others, but what they should do within as well; two equally important aspects of the work that needs to be undertaken. 

There is more, much more:

At this moment, there seem to be big queues in Lisbon for artist Bordallo II’s exhibition “Evilution”, questioning the “evils” of our “evolution” and their effects, especially in terms of waste production. The venue is not central and there is not good public transport, but people are looking for information, they are looking for ways to get involved and to act. they don't wish to feel powerless. How do museums answer their concerns and needs? We are not in a position to express difficulty in understanding what all this has got to do with museums or works of art or each one of us personally (as an individual and as a museum and cultural professional). It is becoming dramatic that this sector confirms, again and again, its alienation from society, its irrelevance. We need to do better. And we are late. 

Note: The post was updated on 8 December in order to include the Italian Minister of Culture's statement to the press.

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