This area contains periodic reflections by Douglas Worts on issues related to culture, museums and sustainability.
April 29, 2019
Heritage Planning for Sustainable Cultural Impacts
NOTE: a shortened version of this article was first published on the Blog site of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) – (click here). I have been a member of the AASLH Sustainability Task force since early 2018.
AASLH President & CEO, John Dichtl, has written an inspiring post in his column for History News, and reproduced on the AASLH blog site (CLICK HERE) – one that is appropriate to this moment in time for our culture. He paints a big picture related to the phenomenon of climate change, asserting a cause/effect relationship between human culture and our transforming climate. John invokes insights coming from history, science and social science – three pillars of human knowledge creation – as being capable to helping to guide humanity through treacherous waters into the future.
In his call to action, John suggests that the heritage sector can and should embrace climate change as a focus for our public engagement efforts. Similar to how our sector has focused on the vital topics of equity, diversity and justice in our society, climate change belongs on that list of essential issues of our time. His assertion that history and related disciplines provide a solid, evidence-based foundation that is driven by a pursuit of truth, is a strong argument for enhancing the roles of heritage organizations in grappling with the forces that are shaping contemporary culture. Certainly current trends in using false statements to manipulate citizens and governments are worrying. Not only are false statements dishonest, but they are divisive and promote violence. Humanity has more than enough to deal with at this point in time, without the chaos produced by normalizing fictional facts. If humanity has a chance of achieving a sustainable future, we must build and maintain a solid foundation of values and behaviours that are guided by a common understanding of the difference between truth and falseness.
John makes many good points about the heritage field needing to embrace the challenges of dealing with climate change. Certainly extreme weather events do threaten to damage the physical fabric of museums and other cultural facilities. Protecting existing properties, collections, archives and other assets is important. Such activities however, need to be seen within the larger context of the leadership role that our sector can play as catalysts of cultural change and adaptation across society. The critical process needed to manage the complexity and scope of current challenges and opportunities is the effective use of ‘systems thinking’.
Climate destabilization, like racism, inequality and injustice, are all symptoms of bigger and deeper problems. The situation is not unlike going to a doctor because you have trouble breathing. After some tests, and a confirmation that pneumonia is present, it is relatively straight-forward to treat the illness. However, It is vital to determine whether the lung disease is a primary or secondary condition. If there is an underlying cancer that caused the pneumonia, it is essential that all efforts are taken to treat the cancer, at the same time that the pneumonia is being treated. When mapping the causes of a changing climate, it is clear that climatic changes are driven to a large extent by greenhouse gases (GhGs). Most people have learned that GhGs come from many sources, but mostly the burning of petroleum products. And it is human demand for energy and the corporate need for wealth generation that are the drivers of fossil fuel use. Our society seems determined to retain its reliance on unfathomable amounts of energy required to power transportation, housing, manufacturing, and so much more. So what can heritage organizations do? If they were able to leverage insights from how humans in the past have navigated crises in the past, then the old saying ‘we stand on the shoulders of ancestors’ could be applied in ways that help the living culture to adapt to our changing world. Such a scenario would require considerable innovation within the cultural field, and it would feel uncomfortable. It would be similar to the doctor who, while treating a lung disease, discovered an underlying cancer, would need to call in other specialists.
As humanity grapples with the prospect of widespread climate destabilization, humans have a few options:
- dramatically reduce consuming energy as we do;
- find a substitute approach providing energy, specifically renewable energy; or
- continue business as usual and make the world uninhabitable for humans.
If existing energy corporations embraced the option of transforming the global energy system (e.g. through a transition to renewables), then a huge amount of time could be secured to rethink how humanity can live successfully on this planet. Since oil companies and their investors, as well as governments and many customers do not seem prepared to exercise this leadership option, a crisis simply gets more serious. It is like ignoring an underlying cancer. Who would have thought that so many people in our world would be so resistant to recognizing a crisis, especially with all the scientific evidence being clear? Bridging this gap between reality and understanding/belief is fundamentally a cultural challenge. Not the kind cultural organizations are used to – but increasingly the ones that require being addressed.
The heritage sector has the ability to foster conscious cultural change as demonstrated by its many amazing attributes, including the heritage and cultural sector:
- extends across the country and around the world
- operates in virtually in every community
- enjoys close links to the general public
- maintains a very high level of public trust
- is solidly rooted in many disciplines that are based on rational, evidence-based knowledge and continuous improvement through research
- are the custodians of a large quantity of culturally significant tangible and intangible heritage, all of which is invaluable for catalyzing and guiding our constantly-evolving culture.
In John’s post, he has emphasized the value of the heritage sector getting ahead of climate and weather trends that threaten to cause irreparable harm to individual sites and collections. This makes good sense. And, since climate change can be seen as an advanced case of pneumonia, which is a secondary condition to the primary problem of an underlying ‘cancer’, it is important to be using a systems thinking framework to deal with the complexity of this large, ‘wicked problem’.
If heritage and cultural organizations are seen as having potential as catalysts of cultural adaptation, then it is best to have a map of how to aim for two general types of positive impacts. As John has suggested, one refers to ‘inner’ transformations and impacts, while the other refers to public strategies that lead to ‘outer’ transformations and impacts. My goal with the model below is to offer a planning approach for heritage organizations to:
- identify ways that will make existing resources as resilient as possible (INSIDE), and
- offer a framework for how individual sites, in concert with a wide spectrum of potential values-aligned partner organizations (including progressive businesses, foundations, governments and so on), can become catalysts of public engagement and cultural change (OUTSIDE).
At the heart of this model are the Heritage Organizations, which generate strategies, designed to have meaningful impacts. One group of these strategies may be designed to generate INSIDE IMPACTS – for example ones that improve energy efficiency, or reduce waste, such as CO2. Inner strategies also include acquiring new skill sets to develop capacity for working towards new kinds of outside strategies, such as conducting cultural needs analyses or impact studies. The second group of strategies are designed to generate OUTSIDE IMPACTS. This includes some traditional activities, such as programs to engage and impact individuals, families and groups. For many, new opportunities are suggested for impacts at the levels of communities, neighbourhoods, other organizations (both for-profits and non-profits) as well as cities. Each of these focuses will have different challenges and opportunities that will need to be assessed. Much experimentation and testing will be required for the field to fully move into these areas of catalyzing cultural change.
One of the notable aspects of this model is that the heritage sector, along with all of humanity, is contained within the natural environment. So whatever is done, by any part of human society, has direct impacts on Nature – all of which need to be understood and incorporated into the strategies. One example is that any organization that relies heavily on tourism for attendance, generates a large carbon footprint simply by its relationship to tourists and how they travel. Our sector has complex relationships, which provide challenges, but also great opportunities for cultural impacts. I hope that this model generates discussion and creativity on the question of ‘how can heritage organizations help facilitate adaptive cultural change, in a fast-changing world’?
by Douglas Worts
Jan 23, 2019
Traditional Investments and Stock Markets are a Powerful Manifestation of Our Culture of UNsustainability – And Museums can Intervene in Positive Ways
Toronto Stock Exchange, 1878, WikiCommons
One of the most potent forces that drives climate change is the world of investments. Through the leverage of massive amounts of money accumulated in retirement funds, as well as in the bank accounts of corporations, plus wealthy and ordinary people, the traditional profit formulas of our ‘market-based economy’ have fuelled the proliferation of greenhouse gas emissions.
In recent decades, some governments have tried. with lacklustre success, to put in place policies and laws to limit environmental and social damage from business operations. Often these efforts are simply undone by other governments that are less willing to follow the insights of science and good sense.
Meanwhile, some businesses have been striving to reinvent themselves so that they are able to generate net positive value across social, environmental and economic domains. ‘Social enterprises’ and ‘B-Corps’ are examples.
Similarly, individuals and some businesses have embraced the world of ‘ethical investments’, using a series of screens to help focus on net-positive value generation, and to minimize negative environmental and social impacts.
In recent years, at least in some parts of the world, progressive stock markets have been requiring businesses that want to be listed on these exchanges to subscribe to ‘greening’ principles. This has often taken the form of measuring and managing carbon emissions, energy efficiency and social impacts. Now, the Toronto Stock Exchange is finally moving in this direction – albeit timidly. This article, in the National Observer, provides insight into this process.
The point here is that, as these changes take place, there is a need to support such efforts, and to foster greater public engagement and acceptance of the directions they represent. Of the myriad ways that museums can launch new types of climate-change-oriented public initiatives, this is one of them.
How our society has approached the generation of value is both quirky and now demonstrably lethal. Museums do have the ability to shine a light on the deep cultural values related to power and wealth that have driven traditional growth-based economic systems. And museums can also engage publics in discussing, imagining and generating a vision of the future, to which our broad communities can subscribe.
National Observer: article, The Toronto Stock Exchange is joining an international network that wants to green financial markets, Jan 17, 2019
August 29, 2018
Temperature Changes from Around the World, over the past 137 Years — Climate Change in Action
Yesterday, Canadian astronaut Col Chris Hatfield, posted the animation below. It is based on data derived from historic sources & NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration data, via https://anttilip.net/).
Generally, the Earth’s climate changes over a long period of time. However, in this era of ‘climate change’, the changes have been accelerated in dramatic ways. On a day-to-day basis, some people see a lot of beautiful days, mixed with some days of poor weather. These folks do not hear any alarm bells. One of the reasons for this is that the data – the feedback loops – seem like they are operating in slow motion. But when historical data, from reputable sources such as NASA, is compiled and provided in a way that condenses the trends into a short time frame, then even skeptical people will feel the impact of what is happening to our world. This short animation is an example of a compelling feedback loop on the increasing frequency of climate temperature extremes.
But it is not enough to simply demonstrate and teach that there are forces at play that need to be acknowledged, heeded and responded to. Humanity needs tangible ways for people to become personally involved in envisioning and creating a future that is both possible and sustainable. Embarking on such a path requires courage, humility and a willingness to examine the forces that are causing destructive trends in global, biospheric systems, like weather.
It is not possible to simply intervene in the weather systems themselves, because the causes are not to be found within the weather systems themselves. Rather they are to be found in the social, cultural and economic systems that shape human cultures around the world. Humanity has learned that climate change is caused by many things, but the biggest culprits are the loading of the atmosphere with Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHG) – much of which come from the creation and burning of fossil fuels as sources of energy. And the burning of fossil fuels is a central driver of local/global economies that have been designed to rely on: a linkage between money and power; an economic system that must continuously grow, or it is thought to be broken; continuously increasing consumption of goods and services; planned obsolescence (to keep people consuming more stuff); and more. Beyond this, GHG loading of the environment is associated with most forms of travel; most forms of heating buildings; and for generating a large portion of global electricity supply. This is why so much focus is often placed on the need for developing a renewable energy sector (which has just been dealt a damaging blow by the Ontario government).
So, as museums attempt to become change agents in the face of trends like ‘climate change’, they may first need to devise a multi-step approach. Such a plan would likely involve steps such as: engage the public in developing an understanding of what a changing climate looks like; helping populations everywhere to understanding how human activity and systems are actually destroying planetary systems; engaging individuals, groups, communities & organizations everywhere in co-creating a viable vision of a future that enables human and other life on Earth to flourish indefinitely; and, collaboratively generating steps to bring about the necessary changes to realize the vision.
There will be no quick fixes by new technologies, although new technologies will play important roles in realizing new visions. The hard work will be in re-building new cultural foundations that help to shape the transformation of many/most of the human systems with which we are familiar and relatively comfortable.
A clear way to watch the Earth's temperature changes over the past 137 years.(from historic & NASA – National Aeronautics and Space Administration data, via https://anttilip.net/)
Posted by Col. Chris Hadfield on Tuesday, August 28, 2018
by Douglas Worts
April 23, 2018
For over two decades, my work has focused on understanding and discussing the intersection between the rather vague concept(s) that we call ‘culture’ and the burgeoning, poorly understood and often misused concept of human ‘sustainability’ on planet Earth. I recently re-read my first published article on the subject, which came out in 1998. Published by the Museés de la Civilization, located in Quebec City, Canada, for ICOM Canada, this little-known volume collected contributions from numerous museum specialists on the topic of culture, sustainability and museums. Although twenty years old, I feel that my little contribution remains relevant to the core cultural needs and opportunities that museums face today.
(Originally published in Museums and Sustainable Communities: Canadian Perspectives, published by ICOM Canada, for the ICOM/AAM led conference ‘Summit of the Museums of the Americas’, Costa Rica, 1998)
“On Museums, Culture and Sustainable Development”
by Douglas Worts, Educator, Canadian Art Department, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario
What good are museums? How do they contribute to society? What measures do we have for gauging their impact? Can their role be modified to better serve the cultural needs of an ever-more complex society? These and other related questions have nagged me for many years.
Increasingly, I am convinced that museums need a larger and more fully articulated framework in which to operate than that which currently exists. For the most part, museums see themselves in some kind of vague public service role – a role that is loosely thought to be fulfilled through the occasional visits of individuals. Frequently cited statistics indicate that a large portion of the North American population visits museums in any given year. If examined closely, the financial cost of these visits can be very high (from about $5.00 per visit to over $140.00 per visit). But in addition to the financial aspects of understanding the effectiveness and impact of museums, I would argue that the real cultural needs of our society cannot be met through the occasional nature of most museum visits. Culture is a process that is much better integrated into people’s lives than that. For the most part, the cultural life of Canada (and most other western nations for that matter) is more significantly reflected and directed by both popular culture (for example: television, media, etc.) and by the economic orientation/preoccupation of our society. Although unavoidable in our world, such strong private-sector influence over social/cultural dynamics creates a dangerously superficial situation that does not penetrate into the emotional, intellectual, imaginary and spiritual depths of human cultural needs. If museums want to play a more substantial role in promoting the healthiest cultural dynamics possible, particularly in the realms of facilitating symbolic experiences with significant objects or through creating relevant forums for debate and discussion about our histories and futures, then there needs to be some serious rethinking of the overall framework for museums. This should include the development of a set of performance indicators that reflect meaningfully on the qualitative, as well as quantitative, impacts of the museum.
Having been involved with the area of Sustainable Development (SD) for more than a year, I am inclined to think that SD might provide a conceptual reference point that could help to reframe the role and potential of museums. The term Sustainable Development has many unfortunate associations with a perspective that multi-national corporations are using to rationalize their continued growth. However, the notion of sustainability as a holistic world view that aims to meet the needs of the human population while maintaining the natural environment in an un-degraded form provides a potent vision for all individuals to work towards, regardless of one’s professional or personal situation. Applying this thinking to museums, one could imagine that the public dimension activities of these organizations could aim to create optimal means of fostering consciousness within society of the needs and impacts of human life on this planet, as they work towards meeting the cultural needs of individuals, communities, countries, humanity and the environment. In this context, the range of people-oriented needs includes physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual. If adopted, such a vision would challenge museums to rethink many of their core assumptions, for example that exhibits should be their principal communication vehicle, and that collection-building should be a major preoccupation.
Through the LEAD-Canada (Leadership for Environment And Development) and LEAD-International programs, I have come to believe that a sustainable future for the world can only happen through a conscious participation in the issues that confront the global population. However, it is naive to think that people will gain a functional and responsible perspective on these issues until they have (at least) a good grounding in local/regional/national/ community dynamics. This is an immensely complex task, especially in the face of global economics, immigration, population trends, community fragmentation, pressurized work environments and rising poverty levels. If museums saw their main objectives in relationship to using symbolic and historic objects in facilitating healthy community dynamics relating to both archetypal and timely issues – at individual, community and global levels – then it may be possible for museums to reinvent themselves in a much more relevant form.
For this to take place, many things would have to happen in museums. First, there would have to be a reassessment of whether it is objects, or people, that are at the centre of the museum’s mission. Traditionally, museums have chosen objects to constitute their principal reference point – usually objects as understood from the perspective of one or more academic disciplines. Moving towards a more people-centred model would cause great chaos for many museums. Secondly, there would need to be a serious diversification of public communication modes within the public programming stream of most museums. Exhibitions, the traditional mainstay of public programming in museums, have the potential to be good at providing certain types of experiences, but are usually limited to the use of declarative statements about those viewpoints that authorities in a specialized field believe to be true. An increasing number of museums (although mostly in science and children’s museums – not in art or history museums) have already embraced the interactive, forum-based exhibit experience. For these organizations there is a commitment to engaging visitors in a knowledge-building process that negotiates rather than declares beliefs. But even at their best, exhibitions are generally not powerful or convenient enough to foster an integrated, ongoing and frequent-contact relationship between museum and the public, with the exception of a handful of museum enthusiasts. For museums to play a more integrated role, they need to re-evaluate the place of exhibits in their public programming activities. Although museums should never forsake exhibitions as a communication mode, there needs to be a serious expansion of alternative communication vehicles (such as community satellite programming, television, radio, internet, popular press, schools, etc.). Ideally, these modes need to be constructed within responsive communication links that allow for the flow of ideas, feelings and experiences both into and out of the museum. People need to feel that they are connected to the world they live in – that they are more than helpless receivers of information that someone decides is good for them. Such a change in direction is nothing less than a revolution for museums.
My work with SD has led me to believe that much of the focus to date in environmental biology, global economics, international law, inter-governmental agreements, and the like, will not lead humanity towards sustainability unless individuals at the grassroots level feel part of the process. And the process needs to honour a sense of the past (on individual and collective levels), the reality of the present (on individual and collective levels), and options for the future. In this sphere, museums can play a critical role – they have collections and insights that can provide access points into the experiences and wisdom of the past; objects that can help to focus on contemporary issues; and spaces that can bring people together to imagine and work towards an acceptable future. However, if museums continue to wander down the object-centred paths they have long been on, then the critical cultural roles relating to sustainability will likely be played, for better or worse, almost exclusively by the private sector (through mass media and commercial interests – who will be players regardless) and governments. But museums do have a chance to play a more central role in negotiating and facilitating our collective futures than they have in the past.
The challenge for museums is greater than a shift in philosophical position and vision – it will also require new competencies. As a 1997 report of the Human Resources Task Force of the Canadian Museum Association has made clear, there are many core competencies that are needed to operate a cultural organization. It is my opinion that many of these core competencies, such as those related to ‘vision’, ‘valuing diversity’ and ‘managing change’, are currently absent within the museum world. Additionally, knowledge of the dynamics of symbolic experience, identity building, assessing/understanding community needs, developing vibrant communication linkages to people and creating relevant focal points and forums for idea exchange are all functions that museums have very little experience with and competencies in – yet seem critical if museums are to be meaningfully engaged in contemporary life.
If the museum field decides that it wants to secure a relevant role for itself into the 21st century by embracing a central vision of Sustainable Development, then it will have a lot of work to undergo many changes in its practices and its performance indicators, as well as develop new professional competencies. The challenge is formidable, but the opportunities and the needs are immense.
by Douglas Worts
April 19, 2018
The True Costs of Collecting – Museums, Climate, and Carbon
This post was co-written by Douglas Worts and Erin Richardson. Erin is currently pursuing doctoral research focusing on the cost of collecting in U.S. museums. The piece first appeared in the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice blog, January 31, 2018.
How much energy is required to maintain temperature and humidity levels inside a museum?
Because of the wide-ranging realities of museum environments, it is likely that no such aggregation of data has taken place. However, many individual museums have begun to ask penetrating questions about the carbon intensity of their operations. The links between environmental controls, energy and carbon emissions are both real and strong.
A major component of the carbon intensity of museums is related to storage, care, and use of collections (which applies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year).
In recent years, some of our colleagues, like Coalition member Sarah Sutton, have been encouraging and supporting museums in the development of responsible operations and actions that reduce carbon intensity. Collections care is seen by museums as central to their missions, while being a source of carbon emissions.
Collection-related activity therefore requires a close review of the assumptions underpinning this traditional museum function, including meeting optimal environmental standards, the necessity of objects in the museum, and the need to continuously expand.
Fine art and object conservators have recommended optimal environmental standards to preserve materials as long as possible.
At least for institutions in the West, these standards call for a stable environment of 70 degrees (f) +/- 2 and 50% relative humidity (RH) +/-5%. Such standards demand considerable energy to operate HVAC systems in areas where collections are kept, including storage facilities, galleries and special exhibition halls, as well as whenever in transit.
A large percentage of museums operate at these strict levels of environmental stability – believing that it is their professional duty to ensure that sector-wide standards are met.
Since a borrowing museum’s gallery and storage climate readings are always considered by the lender when approving a loan, many museums feel that without adherence to sector-wide climate standards, loans will be routinely denied.
There are museums, however, that do not adhere strictly to these standards – either because their collections are very robust and are not as sensitive to climatic shifts as materials made with paper, textiles, and organic materials; or, because they simply can’t afford to retrofit their buildings (often historic structures) with energy-efficient systems.
The Necessity of Objects
Traditionally, collections are seen as fundamental to museums – both by museum professionals and the public. It is true that material culture can be a powerful way to nurture the ‘muses’, thereby enabling citizens to feel connected to the past in ways that are relevant for both the present and future. However, objects don’t always have this effect, thereby raising the question of how public value is measured in museums and whether the exhibition of objects is the best way to generate public cultural value.
Most people will agree that museums hold a ‘public trust’. However, it is no small feat to define exactly what the nature of that public trust is, as museums strive to protect the material history of our pasts, while ensuring relevance to present communities.
There is an assumption, at least within museums that are supported by public funding, that the work of museums must contribute to the public good, which, like ‘public trust’, is also a vague notion. By fostering the ‘muses’ of creativity, insight, and innovation within the public sphere, museums and their communities have the potential for constant self-reinvention, so that they operate in timely and relevant ways amidst constantly changing cultural realities.
The only way for this approach to public good to be effective is to gauge impacts beyond the museum, using feedback loops that are rooted in community. If museums engage the wider public in processes of reflection, dialogue and action related to the issues and forces that are shaping our personal, local, and global worlds, then consideration of carbon emissions, both for the museum and the larger society, would indeed be relevant.
But what evidence exists that the larger public is engaged through museums in thoughtful reflection, dialogue and action related to the issues that are shaping culture? Where is the research on public impacts of museum operations, aside from institutional visitation and revenue?
For the past 35 years or so, the field of museum audience research (not necessarily market research, which often is quite different) has matured in wonderful ways. Researchers have helped museums to think more concretely about the public impacts of collections, exhibits, and programming.
There have been some great hubs of museological experimentation and insight that have pursued the vision of ‘continuous improvement.’ The International Laboratory for Visitor Studies, the Visitor Studies Association, the Institute for Learning Innovation, the AAM’s Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation, as well as many private audience research firms are just some of the ways that the museum world has striven to improve public impacts. Sometimes seen as disruptors, because evaluation can threaten some traditional ways of operating, audience researchers have helped museums ask bigger and more relevant questions about the organizations’ potentials.
Other museological forms, such as the ecomuseum, do make use of collections without necessarily needing to centralize objects deemed to be of cultural, historical, or scientific importance, in the physical plant of one charitable organization.
By having community members own/keep objects of significance, and make them available for the benefit of the community, ecomuseums demonstrate that institutionalized collecting is only one means to an end (i.e. meaningful and/or transformative experiences), not an end itself.
Collections Must Grow… really?
Building centralized facilities to store and exhibit an ever-expanding collection of things is a recipe for continuous growth. Many museum leaders see this growth as their organization’s purpose.
But what happens when museums with large holdings representing the past 200 years are confronted by a sea change in the cultural reality of the place in which they now exist? Cities around the world are experiencing population growth, urbanization, pluralization, and globalization.
Consider, for example, an unnamed art museum, with large collections of European and North American art, finding itself being offered a huge additional collection of European and North American art. This gift seems perfectly aligned with the museum’s Euro-North-American collecting mandate. But now consider that the acquisition would require a massive capital campaign to house the collection, especially because the donor required that the collection be kept intact, in galleries of their own, and fully displayed. And, to complicate this scenario further, imagine that the composition of the city within which the museum exists has transformed radically, through migration and settlement, to the point that European ancestry has become the minority background of citizens, when until recently it had been the majority.
The question is, what are the opportunity costs of potential cultural relevancy for the museum considering this acquisition in light of the current/future needs of the living population as it evolves?
By centralizing collections, are museums creating an oversized and potentially narrow, misguided commitment to a material past, at the expense of the present and future living culture?
The pressures surrounding cultural organizations are significant, and it is important to ensure that the impacts of these organizations are clearly examined. The unintended consequences of building ever-larger, centralized collections are becoming clearer.
Not only are the buildings expensive to build and operate (and it has been a classic museum situation to embark on new building projects without calculating and planning for the operation of these facilities), but they are also having deleterious impacts on the environment – of which increased carbon emissions is one example.
How Do Museums Have the Greatest Cultural Impact?
If museums want to have the greatest cultural impacts, then they will need to develop much clearer mechanisms to gauge how individuals, groups, communities, organizations, and the society-wide systems that lock our realities into certain patterns of behaviour, are all affected by community engagement strategies.
Decoupling our lives from the production of carbon emissions is a huge challenge that is forcing business, government, and individuals to rethink their attitudes and behaviours.
In some ways, this crisis is offering humanity a golden opportunity to redesign our societies so that human wellbeing on a finite planet is part of our future, not only our past. If we, museum professionals, do not consider the environmental, as well as the cultural, impacts of our field-wide collecting practices and internal climate control standards, we may find that we are myopically and foolishly contributing to the destruction of our planet. If this happens, we will truly be missing the culture/forest for the object/trees.
Erin Richardson has worked with museum collections for over twenty years. She holds MA in Museum Studies from Cooperstown Graduate Program and is a PhD Candidate in Leadership ad Policy at Niagara University. Her doctoral research focuses on the cost of collecting in U.S. museums.
Douglas Worts is a culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada. Douglas approaches culture broadly, as ‘how we live our lives’, seeing museums as potential facilitators in forging an emerging ‘culture of sustainability’. His professional work combines a 35+-year career in museums with over two decades exploring how culture shapes and directs the prospects for global human sustainability.
April 2, 2018
Is There Another Way?
Reflection on Museums, Neutrality and Activism*
Last year, there was a flurry of activity within professional museum circles revolving around the assertion that ‘Museums are not Neutral’. This initiative has been motivated by the desire that museums should move out of the margins of societal relevancy and take their place as central forums for addressing the issues that define the culture of our era. Whereas the tradition of museums has been to avoid controversial topics like the plague, there is a burgeoning sense that museums can be vital contexts for addressing controversial issues.
When museum education leader Mike Murawski created and publicized a T-shirt with the logo “Museums are not Neutral” emblazoned on the front, he opted to use a provocation to generate both reflection and dialogue. Since then, there have been many conversations about the role of museums as activists. I have encountered numerous online museum discussion groups that have engaged with Murawski’s public statement. At times I could feel a tendency within these discussion groups to simply adopt the position. At other times I have witnessed a deeper analysis emerge. The following is my attempt to add value to this conversation.
We seem to exist in an era that has embraced slogans. It seems to me that the field of marketing is taking over the world. With its roots firmly in business – enticing people to act in ways that they may not have otherwise done (i.e. to purchase products and deliver profits to businesses) – the reach of marketing has spread in a rather malignant way. Recent shockwaves have erupted from the widespread use of electronic data mining to manipulate people towards scary destinations. Forensic technology analysts are drawing convincing lines between the manipulative activities of a range of right-wing enterprises and large swaths of populations in numerous countries. These enterprises used nefarious means to cull data from social media, providing pathways to getting at voters in so-called democratic electoral activities, and manipulate the electorate towards their self-centred ends. They also have developed ways of using fake news and polarization tactics in a bid to sway political processes. Out of this, some very peculiar voting patterns have emerged — in the USA, the UK and even in Canada.
It feels like democracy has all but died – because it is being directed not by an honest commitment to dialogue, respect, equality and responsibility, but rather by partisan, manipulative and devious activities. If it weren’t for the groundswell in grass-roots, public resistance to some of these shocking trends, I suspect that democracy might be officially on its way out. Several years ago, close to home in Toronto, we were subjected to the ideological rantings of a newly elected mayor, Rob Ford, who could rarely muster much more than his favourite slogan of ‘we’re going to stop the gravy train’ at City Hall. Hmmm! As a result of the Ford mayoralty fiasco that ensued, then Brexit, as well as the Trump presidency, I am now very leery of slogans – and that includes the “Museums are not Neutral” slogan.
Slogans can be powerful things. Like mottos, slogans have a long-standing place in the world. At their best, they can communicate an idea, value or a vision succinctly and memorably. The real problem with slogans occurs when they are being used to pre-empt thoughtful, respectful, considerate reflection and dialogue. “Make America Great Again” is a good example of a twisted, retrograde, manipulative attempt to stoke the fires of popular discontent with a suggestion that the solution to the USA’s complex problems lie in revisiting some version of a romanticized idea of the past. It is like a snake oil salesman selling a simplistic dream to people who have real problems, but ones that won’t be fixed with snake oil.
Even when one considers the traditional ‘successes’ of slogans at driving growth within businesses and economic markets – humanity is slowly realizing that economic growth is not only not a solution to our current problems, but is itself a malignant direction. Since humanity has tied economic growth to consumption, and consumption is tied to carbon, and carbon is bound to climate change – nothing good is going to come out of this growth-based direction. Slogans are unhelpful, even dangerous, when they boil down actions into the simple adopting of a new position, when what is required is a full appreciation of the complexities of a problem and a plan to address the issues.
“Museums are not Neutral” is a puzzling slogan to me, because it is not clear just where this line of thinking is going. I would be the first to agree that museums are not neutral. As an audience researcher in a large art museum for many years, I know only too well how the simple act of walking into a museum – especially an art museum – creates a sense of intimidation for many people. The quiet sense/ expectation of authority, institutional integrity and trust that is projected by museums often squelches potentially creative and thoughtful engagement with visitors. Beyond this, I am very familiar with how museums have historically claimed a necessity to be ‘neutral’ in relationship to topical issues – such as racism, climate change, growth-based economies and much more. Museums have been grappling with, that is to say ‘avoiding’, the ‘problem of controversial topics’ for decades! In my experience, this traditional claim by museums about needing to be neutral (i.e. avoiding any controversy) was based on the systemic insecurity and fear of museum managers/boards, based on little insight into what the cultural ‘to what end?’ of museums might involve – if museums were to be involved in the living culture. Since they assumed that it was the traditional museum activities of collecting and exhibiting that needed to be protected, they didn’t want to put those activities in jeopardy by becoming embroiled in messy, controversial topics. But this institutional ‘neutrality’ was not harmless avoidance. By avoiding the issues of the day, museums were at times responsible for a museum systems-level perpetuation of a host of cultural ills, such as social inequality. For example the use of museum mission statements and collection policies enabled many art museums to keep the visual culture of Indigenous communities out of collections and exhibits for decades. One rationale for this policy that I have encountered was rooted in the argument that historical visual cultural objects linked to Indigenous communities were ‘not art… they were ethnology’, and belonged in ethnological museums. The siloed, and often self-centred world of academic disciplines had a hand to play in this type of situation. Thankfully, most museums today are trying to correct those past wrongs.
Recently, Jillian Steinhauer wrote an article on the topic of ‘museums having a duty to be political’. I have a lot of sympathy for her ‘call to action’. Museums need to be venturing into the middle of the issues that are defining our living culture. I have considered myself an activist in all kinds of ways, over most of my life. It can be a difficult and uncomfortable place to stay for very long. However, venturing into the middle of vital issues – be it decreasing social/economic equity, increasing environmental degradation, increases in the high-jacking of political processes, increasing guns and violence, etc. – should not mean simply taking and holding a position. In many ways, if there is one cultural pattern that needs to be broken here, it is that of everyone having to decide what slogan to stand under.
In our pluralist, urban, globalized, economically driven world, there is a need to open up the conversations and find ways to truly create societies based on peace, empathy, creativity, relationships and some viable form of balance within the natural systems of our planet.
Steinhauer speaks about artists taking up activist positions. Artists do react to the world in powerful and provocative ways – hopefully in ways that stimulate others to reflect deeply on issues, take a hard look at where they stand personally on such issues, foster respectful and empathetic dialogue between people who hold various views and ultimately lead to responsible, engaged actions. I see the role of artists as very different from the role of museums. The complex, fast-paced changing world that we live in needs systems to help facilitate how citizens engage as fully as possible with cultural dynamics. By bringing people together in ways that build bridges within and across human communities, museums have the ability to strive towards supporting our living culture in making room for deep personal reflections, public dialogue and human action. Of course artworks, history, science, storytelling, shared spaces, and more can help provide the catalyst for these processes. But we need to be clear that our goal is not simply to push out a perspective into the world through the work of our institutions, using our various discipline-based lenses. We need our cultural organizations to be nimble, engaged, in-tune, skilled, humble facilitators of the kind of meaning-making that is required of in our era. This likely means that museums can and should stretch far beyond the walls of traditional museums/collections. Similarly, they should operate far outside the confines of the leisure-time economy. More than anything else, from my perspective, museums desperately need to develop cultural feedback loops that are rooted in living communities, to help guide their activities towards meaningful cultural impacts. These ‘impact measures’ and feedback loops – essential to how museums assess their ‘success’ at being relevant – will need to be stratified, so that they shed light on impacts on individuals, groups, communities, organizations, cities, economic and social systems and more. New skills will be needed. But museums have the ability to venture into the middle of vital cultural issues of our time. I don’t think it works if they see themselves as ‘activists’, because, if museums and their staffs take sides, they will have a very limited ability to be effective facilitators within the culture.
My gut feeling is that we need fewer slogans and more honest dialogue.
*Originally published on the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice website.
March 29, 2018
Reinventing Culture with Sidewalk Toronto:
There is a fascinating new initiative in Ontario’s capital in which Waterfront Toronto is collaborating with Sidewalk Labs (of New York City). Toronto is redeveloping a large tract of land, called the Portlands, into a vibrant new neighbourhood within the city. The mixed-use, residential-commercial area aims to weave together progressive ideas and emerging technologies to create a community that is diverse, accessible, safe, efficient, liveable, healthy, carbon-neutral and more. The new Portlands will replace the low-density, industrial use which has existed there for decades.
The collaborative project, which is called Sidewalk Toronto, is focused on the creation of a prototype phase in which a smallish (60 acre) parcel of land will be used to conceive, build and test a neighbourhood known as Quayside. It will essentially be an ‘action research’ project that enables the City to test many new concepts, approaches and technologies that can later be considered for application within the Portlands, and beyond.
Sidewalk Labs (SWL) is an organization created by Alphabet, the parent company of Google. As such, it has a unique ability to bring together capital, skills, technology, as well as an understanding that humanity must re-conceive how it lives on the planet. With a strong belief that technology can and will be vital in shaping a sustainable world in the future, the people at Sidewalk Labs seem to believe that a new framework for the redevelopment of communities must be created — because the old frameworks are no longer working. SWL have a strong commitment to using community engaged processes to both envision the future they are trying to create, and implement the best strategies for realizing that vision. As part of reinventing the complex, interdependent systems that shape our lives, economic, social, cultural and political systems will need to be transformed as well. This is not a top-down, or linear process. Rather it needs to be iterative, experimental and collaborative. Therefore, the creation of Quayside is an opportunity to test a new approach to community-engaged, emergent, experimental processes of urban redevelopment. Ultimately, the goal is to gain insights into how best to “create people-centred neighbourhoods that achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity”. To me, this is a cultural goal that rests at the foundation of our living culture. I wonder what potential role(s) progressive museum folks could play here?
I attended a large community engagement event a few days ago at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, in which the Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Toronto representatives made presentations, before setting in motion many small discussion groups with citizens. My interests and background range from culture, arts, heritage, economics, sustainable enterprise modelling, democracy, equity, urban development, social justice and more. So there were many ways for me to step into the dialogue.
One element of Sidewalk Toronto’s work to date caught my eye. It involves an App called “Old Toronto” <https://oldtoronto.sidewalklabs.com>, which layers thousands of photos of Toronto over the decades onto a Google Map of the city. Friends have started to peruse the wealth of historical imagery, accessed through a geographical lens. There is no doubt that there are lots of cool images (from the Toronto Archives) – which open windows onto the past, as it pertains to neighbourhoods across the city. However, when I asked what they hoped the public impact would be from this app, I was a bit surprised by the superficiality of the answer. The person guiding this project was vague, saying he hoped it would interest people enough for them to engage. That’s all well and good, because folks who self-select to use the App are motivated enough to look at the pics and will make some meaning of their experiences – but the answer was insufficient.
If Sidewalk Toronto is actively interested in fostering public participation in how communities need to weave insights from the past into how best to address issues in the present, as well as to help craft an ever-evolving vision of the future, at both individual and collective levels, then addressing the past needs to be more active than looking at old pictures. I am quite aware that it is possible to build on top of this App, of course, but I heard little of a larger integrated vision for heritage. Traditional museums, artists, historians, scientists, storytellers and such may be important players in the discussions about how best to build tomorrow’s communities. With regard to museums, the fact that their traditional focuses have been on exhibits, collections and on-site programs, (for use during leisure time), may mean that they need to take a big step backwards in order to ask the tough questions about how to weave cultural goals into this kind of city-building experimentation. But this is both the challenge and opportunity of our time. All interests – whether it be business, government, schools, manufacturing, farmers, science and more – need to be thinking outside their traditional boxes. We won’t invent a new tomorrow, if we continuously return to old ways of thinking and doing.
There is a golden opportunity being presented in the type of situation that is being offered by Sidewalk Toronto. I’m hoping that this project can help to re-set the bar such that museums can both challenge themselves and the larger society to re-imagine how the arts, heritage and culture, can become linked, in vital and contributory ways, to the emerging culture of the present and future. New tools and strategies will be needed in order to help activate the muses within the contexts being generated by this type of project. Experiences and insights from the past require more diverse and active tools/strategies than a simple rear-view mirror (as useful and interesting as such mirrors can be).
Sustainable Enterprises, both For Profit and Not-for-Profit, Will Require Fundamental Changes to Economic, Social and Political Systems
Humanity’s current economic systems have placed our collective future in a very problematic straight-jacket. But it is not just the economy that is the problem, it is how all of us link to the economy – personally and collectively – in short, the cultures of our world are all skewed toward the economic status quo.
Although there have been many influential economic thinkers over the years, few have been successful at igniting widespread trends in rethinking, redesigning and implementing meaningful, positive change to our economic systems – change that will put humanity onto a sustainable path. Assumptions about the need for continuous economic growth within an essentially competitive business environment, along with the structural links between economic growth and consumption, as well as the links between consumption and carbon emissions – all conspire to create the Gordian knot that blocks the path towards a sustainable future.
Kate Raworth is a brilliant, young economist in the UK who in recent years has had a significant impact on global discussions about the economy. Her recent book, called “Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist”, has already sent creative shockwaves around the planet.
Recently, Raworth collaborated with a number of creative video/graphic artists in making short video-animations to highlight the seven steps that she focuses on in her book. Here are links to the first six steps (the 7th will be finished soon). Each is about 90 seconds. Links are provided below.
I am especially interested in Kate’s ideas because they get at the foundational need for adaptive, cultural change – in values, attitudes, assumptions, vision, behaviour, organizations, systems and more. But how does a society embark on a process of cultural change that involves the entire population in processes of deep reflection, dialogue and change-oriented action? Given my background in the cultural and sustainability sectors, I think that through Kate’s type of thinking — (which has both informed and been informed by the creation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)), cultural organizations around the world can undertake a transformation that:
- re-sets their own vision and purpose;
- creates new ways to engage individuals, communities and organizations in the issues that are shaping the culture of our day; and,
- shift from their leisure-time, edutainment orientation to that of being facilitators and nurturers of adaptive processes across the living culture (as opposed to how our institutionalized approach to culture currently operates).
But this is just how I am thinking about her work. Have a look at the short videos listed below to get a sense of Kate’s approach to economics.
- Change the Goal: From GDP to the Doughnut –https://youtu.be/Mkg2XMTWV4g
- Tell a New Story: From the neoliberal narrative to a story fit for our times — https://youtu.be/V2vN_fu-wns
- Nurture Human Nature: From rational economic man to social adaptable humans — https://youtu.be/SOKHWOMVMyo
- Get Savvy with Systems: From mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity — https://youtu.be/mNUMkPltnnE
- Design to Distribute: From ‘growth will even it up again’ to distributive by design — https://youtu.be/FqnFa0POTpM
- Create to Regenerate: From ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design — https://youtu.be/XcgcMpgbNHA
- Be Agnostic about Growth – COMING SOON: From growth addicted to growth agnostic
What are your thoughts about how to shift the cultural foundation blocks of humanity?
Geothermal Retrofit Strategies & Heritage Neighbourhoods: Going Far Beyond Energy Efficiency
In the mid 2000s, I became interested in a community-based project geared to both preserve and transform heritage neighbourhoods – transformations that can have far-reaching impacts, some of which include:
- building cultural cohesion through crafting a joint vision of the future;
- negotiating the emergent values needed to guide forward-thinking actions;
- preserving heritage structures that help us all appreciate how we are part of a cultural continuum; and
- addressing one of the most ‘wicked problems’ of our time – climate change.
This is the story of one such initiative.
It was over 10 years ago that I lead the charge on ‘Green Laurier”, which was a geothermal heating/cooling project in Cabbagetown (downtown Toronto, Canada). Green Laurier was a feasibility study to understand whether geothermal technology has the potential to both preserve heritage neighbourhoods and to reduce serious environmental impacts that are associated with existing residential structures that make up our city. The project attracted a $25,000 grant from LiveGreen Toronto. LiveGreen is an initiative of the city that was designed to engage citizens in advancing the cause of a sustainable future – a future in which the needs of humans and those of our natural world are addressed in balanced and conscious ways.
For those who have lived in heritage neighbourhoods within urban centres, there is an understanding that heritage structures have a lot of character and evoke a sense of connection with the past. However, there is also an understanding that these structures are old, often inefficient, drafty and requiring a lot of maintenance. I have lived in many heritage structures in Toronto, almost continuously, for some 40 years.
Geothermal technology is not new, but it is enjoying a surge in interest. Essentially, geothermal systems draw heat from the ground to warm buildings during winter and deposit heat from our houses into the ground during summer. It requires comparatively little energy to move heat using this technology, especially in contrast to conventional, energy-intensive systems that generate heating and cooling.
It all started when I was teaching a course at George Brown College in 2005, called “Sustainability, the City and You”. One of my guest lecturers, a hydrogeologist, spoke about her work designing and installing the massive geothermal system to heat/cool a newly built campus for the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, in Oshawa. I was so amazed by the approach that I began thinking about its application to retrofitting heritage buildings that make up our cities.
Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, with each one reflecting the spirit of its time. They all remind us that we stand on the shoulders of ancestors – and that we are all part of a continuum. One striking aspect of cities, for me, is that the vast majority of existing buildings are not only historical and speak to where we have come from, but they are also major contributors to the problems related to energy inefficiency, heat loss and carbon emissions. Geothermal is a technology that can address some of the fundamental challenges of making our cities sustainable.
So, in 2007, while attending a summertime street party with my neighbours on Laurier Ave, I planted the seed for a collaborative initiative to at least research, if not transform, how we heated and cooled our houses. Green Laurier gained momentum – especially involving the work of a couple of my neighbours – Mark Henshel and Sameer Dhargalkar. However, the project involved many more people than those who lived on Laurier Avenue. For example, the DonVale-Cabbagetown Residents Association caught wind of the project and wanted to be involved as a partner in pursuit of the LiveGreen Toronto grant. George Smitherman, (our MPP – Member of Provincial Parliament), along with Pam McConnell, (our city councillor), David Miller(Mayor of Toronto), Glenn Murray (MPP who became our provincial representative after George Smitherman), all became supporters of the project.
This initiative involved a massive amount of volunteer work to: conceive and write up the project; submit our proposal to the City; develop a Request for Proposals; review consultant submissions; conduct interviews; and then work with the selected consultants for over a year to produce the final report. It was an exciting time.
I still maintain some of our key documents and materials on my website – http://douglasworts.ca/ – for anyone who is interested. I also just came across a 2008, Toronto Star article – one of many pieces written about the project. It can be found at <https://www.thestar.com/>
This project may have happened a long time ago, but, for me, it still seems relevant – both for what it says about the need for urban transformation, but also in relationship to the potential for cultural engagement that reaches into the lives of people (far beyond culture as a form of leisure-time entertainment). Humanity has not moved very far towards addressing the deeply rooted energy and emissions challenges associated with the built structures that make up the majority of our cities. We need lots of experimentation to figure out how best to chart a course towards a sustainable future.
How Do Museums Deal with Fear and Danger?:
Possible Lessons from Chris Hatfield
November 22, 2017
This TED talk by Chris Hatfield is not new, but I just encountered it today. He explores the relationship of fear and danger, using his experience as an astronaut to illustrate his points. It is well worth a look – because I think that there are lessons to be learned here which can be applied to the topic of climate change and how museums can connect with it effectively.
Climate Change instills a variety of reactions in people – ranging from fear to denial (and denial may simply be a manifestation of fear). The thought of the world warming to the point where polar ice caps melt, weather patterns change, species die out or migrate, and much more is a fear-instilling notion – at least for most of us. And climate change is extremely complex – so it is hard to truly understand it, and therefore, hard to know what to do about it.
Hatfield examines the prospect of danger and fear from the vantage-point of an individual. He recounts how NASA has built a very sophisticated training program for individual astronauts, which is what neutralizes the emotional chaos that comes with intense fear and enables a calm confidence to dominate the situation.
The question, and opportunity, that was raised for me is ‘how can museums help orient a population to the complex dangers of climate change while fostering a calm, action-oriented understanding, without triggering massive fear, denial and resignation’? Hatfield doesn’t answer this question, but he does offer some good starting points for the conversation. Collectively, museums can help to:
1) engage the larger culture in a thoughtful reflective dialogue, and;
2) design/develop a program of cultural change to address both individual and collective fears, as well as the underlying situation that has caused that fear.
As museums strive to connect with the issues and forces that are shaping our culture today, it is perhaps useful for museum professionals to turn inwards and assess how we ourselves understand and deal with our own relationships to fear and danger.
Museums Responding to Climate Change Realities
October 29, 2017
In her recent article in Slate, Eleanor Cummins offers some interesting observations about how some museums are responding to growing threats from natural forces as a result of climate change. She highlights how some museums are investing significant sums to make their buildings and collections even more secure than they have been historically. NYC’s Whitney Museum of American Art is cited as one example of adapting to climate change. There, revised plans for its recent building project resulted in the museum being waterproof even if floodwaters rise to 16.5 feet. At the Salvador Dali Museum, in Florida, 18-inch thick walls were used in construction so as to withstand the forces of a Category 5 storm. The argument for such adaptations that help reinforce and strengthen traditional building methods is that the concentrations of material culture held within museums need to be protected. Without such interventions museum treasures could be lost forever, in the blink of an eye. There is truth in this assertion. If, for a relatively minor cost, new buildings can be made more ‘resilient’, why not build structures that can withstand the forces of new climate realities? Cummins notes, however, that retrofitting existing museum buildings is another story when it comes to cost. Defending existing museums against floods and hurricanes is a very expensive proposition – one that should cause people to take stock of the bigger picture.
For me, the trajectory of Cummins insights began to shift in an interesting direction with her question, “if museums are so prepared, could they help the rest of us – literally? Not really.” This question inquires into whether museums could be places of refuge in a serious climate event – literally providing safe haven for citizens. Museum leaders she spoke with said ‘no’. What becomes very clear in this story is that the focus of museum building that takes stock of climate change is directed at museum collections, not the wellbeing of the living culture.
For me, Cummins has shone a light into a central issue about the underlying purpose of museums. Leaders of cultural organizations that she interviewed seemed to reference museum missions as the grounding points for their actions. And many museum missions revolve around a mandate to collect and preserve certain types of objects. In fact, corporate documents of museums frame their legal responsibilities and commitments with regard to the acquisition and preservation of the cultural materials they have decided to collect and house. This, in part, is an implication of adapting corporate and legal frameworks to define the work of cultural organizations. Although museums may have started out as private, royal or religious collections, the movement of museums into the public realm involved a rationale that these objects would contribute to the wellbeing of individuals, community and society as a whole, as culture continues to change and evolve. As the 20th century progressed, museums adopted an increasingly corporate legal structure. At the centre of most museums is a group of objects that are put on display, ostensibly for the benefit of community. It is interesting to me that few, if any, museums systematically track the changing needs, opportunities and realities of the living culture, so as to position itself in the most effective way possible. Instead, museums normally start with assumptions about the value of their collections for the public. This begs the question of whether the main distinguishing features of many museums (e.g. collections, exhibits, programs, etc.) actually have demonstrable and convincing impacts on the wellbeing of the culture – especially during times of fundamental, global/local change?
In my view, the 21st century is a period in which humanity is experiencing unprecedented cultural change – second only to the 20th century. The relationships of humans to the larger forces of Nature are mind-boggling. As a species, we now are heaping so much pressure on the biosphere that its capacity to regenerate itself is being eroded at stunning rates. Globalization, urbanization and pluralization are three gargantuan forces that are re-shaping this thing we call culture (defined as how we live our lives, not only on how we look backwards). Until very recently, (sometime in the 1970s), the biosphere had ample capacity to entertain whatever humanity dreamt up, with both its positive and negative impacts. For the past 4 or 5 decades, we have been in ecological ‘overshoot’ – and we continue to run down the natural capital of the planet. In this context, what do we consider the cultural issues of our time? Is it really preserving certain types of materials that have been collected by museums? Or do we need to find a way to see that our living culture is defined by humanity’s changing relationships, both within/across our species, and in our interactions within the larger natural world?
At a time when every type of organization is being pressured to change – because ‘business as usual’ is acknowledged to be unacceptable – we are witnessing some remarkable leadership in certain sectors and stunning resistance in others. The most progressive of businesses are already weaving together their economic interests with their understanding of having to have net-positive impacts on the environment and net-positive impacts on the social fabric. Progressive governments and religions are looking deep into their values and working to transform their operations. In many ways, museums have the capacity to radically re-think their priorities and begin to develop new public engagement strategies that are designed to meaningfully address the cultural needs, realities and opportunities of our time. But such a path is not to be found in the missions of many existing museums. And placing a high priority on protecting collections when the larger culture is imperiled may be tantamount to ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ or ‘rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic’.
Assessing how museums can re-position themselves as catalysts of cultural consciousness and change within the larger realities of the world is a big task. However, the museum community is full of intelligent, passionate professionals, along with an honoured position of trust within the larger community. The biggest challenge may be breaking out of the shackles of its own history and place in the institutionalization of culture. If we can muster the courage for deep self-reflection, then revisit/recast the first principles of museums (as ‘places of the muses’), and build the cultural feed-back loops that can guide the evolution of the field, then the potential is huge.
We might first start with the question of why museums have positioned themselves so predominantly in the leisure time economy? This is not a place from which they can have much impact on the forces that are re-shaping our changing culture. As well, collections, exhibits and public programs may all offer potentially effective strategies for cultural engagement and impact, they are not the only way for museums to play an active role in fostering a culture of consciousness and change that our 21st century reality requires. Asking questions about how museums measure ‘success’ and impact is another big conversation that needs to take place. Attendance and revenues may be indicators that make sense to the corporate goals of museums, but these are cultural measures of nothing. Together, museums have the ability to embark on a path of imaginative and relevant experiments in public engagement, reflection, dialogue and change-oriented action. Through these types of activities, museum professionals have the potential to reposition the field within the living culture. It will take courage and humility to embark on this path, but it is possible.
While protecting collections from the ravages of climate change may well be worth doing – such activity needs to placed within a larger framework of cultural priorities that are tied to the wellbeing of individuals, collectives, organizations and systems (both natural and societal). At all costs, we need to avoid digging the hole deeper.
by Douglas Worts
Fostering a Culture of Engagement & Flourishing to Address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
September 25, 2017
Recently, during a joint conference of the Alberta Museums Association (Canada) and the Western Museums Association (USA), Candace Matelic and I delivered a workshop on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We positioned the SDGs as both an inspiration and a framework for museums to better connect with their communities. If you have not yet encountered the SDGs, you aren’t alone. They were ratified about the same time that the Paris Accord was being negotiated (Fall, 2015) – and the Paris Accord got much more attention in the media. Plus, the SDGs have simply, and sadly, not experienced as much uptake in North America as they have in other countries.
However, the SDGs represent a huge step forward for creating fundamental change in how humanity operates, and how we all relate to the natural environment. Virtually every country on the planet signed the agreement, which contains a vision for a future upon which humanity addresses its own needs within the carrying capacity of our planet’s biosphere. The SDGs revolve around 17 goals, and are underpinned by 169 detailed targets – thus creating both a compelling vision as well as practical grounding points for meaningful change. Unlike previous UN initiatives, which tended to focus on specific problems in particular parts of the world, the SDGs have been crafted through a lens in which each of the goals applies to every country. For example, Goal #1 is to “End Poverty in all its forms, everywhere”. As such, it highlights that poverty is an issue in every country – but to different degrees and in different contexts – all of which requires a spectrum of strategies across the globe, depending on the country. It means that each country will need to develop strategies for each of the 17 Goals. In this way, the SDGs are relevant in each nation and provide practical, necessary focuses for humanity to address our local and global challenges.
To bring about the kind of change that is needed to achieve human sustainability in our world, it will take changes at many levels, but especially cultural ones. WorldViews Consulting is a partner in an initiative called 17 Goals, which was created and realized through the efforts of the AtKisson Group. The website for 17 Goals reflects the interests of a large collaborative effort of partners, involving both for-profit and non-profit organizations, all of whom share a commitment to seeing positive change happen across the world. Our world faces the perils that it does because of large systems problems that have deep cultural roots in everything from individual values and behaviours, to the laws, policies and priorities within and beyond national boundaries. Museums have the potential to respond to our transforming world by becoming enhanced catalysts for real cultural reflection, relationship, dialogue and action. The workshop developed by Candace Matelic and me is the most recent manifestation of our joint interest in helping museums to join in the cultural change that is needed to support the global efforts of the SDGs.
I will provide more details about our work in the coming months.
Image from Actuarial Climate Index website
Feb 4, 2017
Progressive Businesses/Industries May Be Best Bet to Bring Climate Change Back onto The US Government’s Agenda
As the Trump administration scrubs all references to climate change from its websites and policies, many people are wondering (as they watch in horror), how to help create a flourishing world. Since the elected officials in the USA’s new federal government have no time for science and don’t have a track record for creating consultative, thoughtful plans, it may be that progressive businesses can help shift the conversation.
Many organizations have already assessed how best to effectively weave their business/financial visions and practices into the fabric of an evolving society that has complex needs, aspirations and constraints. It is fair to say that progressive businesses are in a process of transformation that will not only generate financial value, but also environmental and social value. Traditional business models have set their sights on generating as much income as possible, as they do whatever is necessary to reduce their costs. Historically, social and environmental damage, along with their related financial costs, were dismissed as ‘externalities’ by economists – letting business off the hook with regard to responsibility. However, there are foundational shifts taking place within the business community – or at least across progressive parts of that community. Newer approaches to business modelling are designed to help build a world in which people today can meet their needs, while providing for a future where upcoming generations can meet their own needs. It only makes sense that businesses that damage the Earth’s natural systems, or which create social dysfunction (especially inequity), will not have much of a future. It seems so counter-productive to enable businesses to destroy the very fabric of humanity, as they unconsciously wreak havoc with the biosphere – but this reflects the historical foundations of business legislation. Although regulations have been created to direct businesses towards greater social and environmental responsibility, the new Trump administration is attempting to turn the clock back some 50 years by undoing as much of the regulatory framework for business as possible.
Successful, progressive businesses have already realized that a flourishing future requires a dynamic balance of social, economic and environmental realities. The days of driving maximum profits through the endless production and consumption of ‘stuff’ are fast disappearing. The smart businesses today are not simply looking to generate satisfied consumers. Rather they are increasingly cultivating engaged consumers who fully understand, and take responsibility for, the implications of their consumption habits. Such businesses also understand, and take responsibility for, literally adding value to both the social and environmental fabric of our world as they generate economic benefit. It is a very complex challenge, made even more difficult because a sustainable business applies its thinking and planning across the entire value chain of their business operations. This goes beyond traditional economic considerations of inputs/processing/outputs. Responsible businesses today are concerned with: the social/environmental impacts related to supply chains; employing manufacturing processes that do no harm as they generate their intended value; ethical approaches to marketing and consumer education; concern for both intended and unintended public consequences for the public; as well as, recycling/disposal of products that have come to the end of their lives.
Up until recently, it has been government regulations that have largely been responsible for prodding businesses to mitigate the worst of the collateral damage caused by their actions within social and environmental realms. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which started in Boston in 1997, has had a large impact on businesses that aim to transform traditional, profit-centred corporate practices into a more balanced ‘triple-bottom-line’ approach. And investment research organizations, such as Sustainalytics, have helped investors make informed choices that not only generate solid economic returns, but also generate positive social and environmental value. More recently, the Future-Fit Foundation, headquartered in the UK, but with partners in Europe, Canada and elsewhere, has developed the Future-Fit Business Benchmark (FFBB). Drawing on extensive research from business, environmental and social sources, as well as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the FFBB provides tools and a framework to help businesses become ‘fit for the future’. In a similar vein, there is a surge in research related to the design of businesses that will contribute to a ‘flourishing’ world – using John Ehrenfeld’s notion of business that aims to achieve “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever”. In Toronto, Canada there is a group developing the Flourishing Business Model Canvas, which is both a business design tool to help enterprises fully think through the challenging task of creating sustainable businesses. This work is being lead by Antony Upward, a Certified Management Consultant and Flourishing Enterprise Designer, along with a large group of designers, researchers and business leaders. Another point of inspiration is rooted in the work of Alan AtKisson, a sustainability innovator, educator and designer whose company, the AtKisson Group, has been working globally with businesses, governments, non-profits, educational organizations and the United Nations to develop the planning and innovation skills necessary to move humanity towards a sustainable future. All of this is to say that there is a great deal of inspiring work available to help businesses, governments and consumers alike to help create a world that will meet humanity’s current and future needs. The kinds of resources referenced above (and there are many others as well) may be able to help governments craft a vision of the future to which this new American administration may subscribe.
Historically, business lobbyists have exerted huge pressure on governments to further the economic interests of corporations and industries. Theirs has often been driven by a desire to maintain the economic and social status quo – using the rationale of ‘don’t mess with success’ – even if the status quo is creating untold damage to both the social and environmental fabric. As some organizations (for example Unilever) develop more holistic approaches to their business modelling, goals and desired impacts, they are proving that a sustainability/flourishing approach will help ensure the generation of multiple forms of value (economic, social and environmental). This kind of progressive thinking needs to influence governments so that any business and consumer incentives and regulations can be effectively designed to support the creation of a broadly defined understanding of what we call ‘value’ – not simply economic profits.
As globalization in recent decades has transformed economics, the complexity of supply chains, manufacturing operations, and a slew of unintended environmental and social consequences has lead to both positive and negative outcomes. It is increasingly clear that if traditional, profit-first business principles are held onto with a death-grip, then the outcomes will not serve anyone in the longer term.
Humanity could do with a new generation of lobbyists to help inform and assist governments to be as focused as possible on creating solutions to the myriad problems facing the world. Progressive businesses and industries can help to shift prevailing cultural values to become more grounded in our current local and global realities. Perhaps lobbying from the progressive side of business may help to redirect the Trump administration away from its plan to create incentives that would try to rejuvenate the coal industry. Certainly as Trump’s plan moves forward, progressive businesses that have invested large amounts of money into renewable energy will be very negatively affected. It seems clear that the Trump-led government has not done any solid analysis or projections of the implications of its plans to bolster certain sectors at the expense of others. Otherwise, we would have seen an evidence-based rationale for the directions in which they are headed – which is not the case.
Generally, change is hard for people, but it is especially difficult within a population that has devolved into combative, intolerant partisanship. There are a lot of people currently who feel that they lost any sense of connection to how political decisions are made. Democracy in the ‘free world’ is the lowest ebb of any time in my life. Change is fundamental and continuous force in life. At this point in time, human systems must be modified in order to ensure that the ability of the biosphere to regenerate itself and to support life around the world is not destroyed. Science, which has brought so much value to the human experience in recent centuries, confirms that the biosphere is suffering under the stresses put on it by humanity. Sadly, ideologically narrow and regressive forces are attempting to short-circuit virtually everything that is on the frontiers of contemporary science. Currently a major storm is brewing, involving the convergence of: an exponentially increasing global population; expanding urbanization; escalating mobility and pluralization; the deterioration of the biosphere (including Climate Change); the globalized nature of our consumer-based human economy that remains preoccupied with profits and power; as well as, a prevailing inclination to think that the past offers the allure of a ‘golden age’ to which we can return. Change is happening across our world – but much of it is happening without conscious intent or consideration of likely implications. It is the Titanic heading merrily towards the iceberg, with an arrogant attitude that the ship is unsinkable. A thorough analysis of the many interdependent systems is needed, plus the adoption of intelligent innovations – economic, political, cultural, social – that can help us strike better balances within our human systems and between humanity and the biosphere.
The values that drive our unbalanced economic system is at the core of our sustainability challenges, which is a big challenge because the dysfunction is not simply within the economy, but it is embedded in the culture itself. When the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, then President George Bush called for Americans to do their patriotic duty and… go shopping! This was simply because the country’s economic health, which was threatened by the terrorist attack, is tied to consumption. For many in our society, shopping is not only an economic process, it is a social and even a therapeutic activity. But shopping for the sake of driving GDP is insane – because there are so many unintended consequences related to traditional consumption. This situation is made even more worrisome because consumption is tied to the core value within manufacturing circles of ‘planned obsolescence’. Specifically, what industry produces for consumption is designed to last only a certain time period so that the industry can continue to produce more materials to consume. Our traditional employment strategies and wealth generation are both tied to planned obsolescence. This reality hastens the exploitation of natural resources, thereby drawing down the natural capital that humanity’s future depends upon. Shopping is simply not a solution to problems of global equity, conflict and well-being. This kind of retail behaviour is a form of insanity – with a death wish appended to it.
The Ecological Footprint, developed through the early 1990s by Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, is a system for measuring the impact of humanity on Nature. Using such assessment tools, experts have determined that it was around the late 1970s or early ’80s that human activity had grown to a point where it placed so much demand on natural systems (both for the products we rely on and for the processes of neutralizing our waste) that the biosphere could not regenerate itself year after year. The result has been similar to someone who finds that his/her past ability to live off the interest generated by the capital asset within their bank’s savings account is no longer possible. If you have an interest-bearing asset, but you decide to live beyond the interest income itself, they you will have killed the goose that lays the golden egg. Humanity now finds itself in this position. Sadly, patterned ways of understanding and acting in our ever-changing world die hard, with the result that many businesses and citizens resist change. Now the White House aims to return its economic, social and environmental policies to a point rooted in the 1950s — which will be totally inadequate to deal with today’s globalized complexity. In many ways, traditionalists find greater comfort in looking backwards. And although it is critical for a people to know from whence they came, romanticizing and becoming preoccupied with the past is a recipe for disaster as the world keeps moving forward. The need for understanding current trends, fostering empathy and relationship, as well as building new solutions to meet today’s needs is the order of the day if we are to avoid the most serious risks facing humanity.
When it comes to assessing risk, actuaries are on the front lines. Actuaries, most of whom work within the insurance sector, are highly skilled professionals capable of understanding business, human and environmental risks. For years, these professionals have been quietly assessing the insurance industry’s business risks associated with climate change and extreme weather, and they have some compelling things to say about it. Certainly not all businesses are positioned to use their core competencies to do this, but some are, and their voices will be heard more clearly by the Trump administration than those of scientists. Check out how actuaries have joined in the public dialogue about our globally changing climate.
ACTUARIES DIVE INTO CLIMATE CHANGE DATA!
Actuaries are some of the heavy lifters of risk-based data analysis, focusing on understanding trends in risks and benefits. For the most part, they limit their work to helping insurance companies manage financial risk in order to optimize financial returns within the field of insurance. However, their capacity to assess risk within dynamic social and natural systems goes way beyond the financial and profit-oriented aspects of our world. Over the past couple of years, a group of bright and motivated actuaries from the USA and Canada organized themselves to create an actuarial lens on the phenomenon of climate change. Late in 2016, they launched their project – which provides a quarterly measure of changes in extreme weather events and sea levels, available online at www.ActuariesClimateIndex.org.
Using a reference period of 1960 to 1990, the work of this group sheds light on changes in the extremes of weather/climate. As the authors state, there is value in examining ‘averages’ in temperatures, precipitation, storms, droughts and so on – however, it is more revealing to examine patterns within the extremes of these aspects of weather. I am very pleased to see this part of the business community (both the insurance industry and specifically the actuaries) step up to use their considerable skills to help humanity get inside the complexity of trends and patterns that are shaping in our world today. It is ironic that at this moment when business is increasingly embracing the issues of humanity’s future within the limits of a closed biosphere, some political leaders are sticking their heads in the sand as they collectively aspire to return to a romanticized notion of the past. Writing executive orders to carry out very poorly thought out plans for returning to the golden age of smog is not an astute path to leadership into a future that humanity can actually survive. Nor will positive results flow from pretending that climate change doesn’t exist and that social equity is not central to creating a peaceful, flourishing world.
As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” It will require new thinking, tools and approaches. For example, the wildly expanding realm of social entrepreneurs are stretching the imagination and reality to create businesses that simultaneously generate economic, social and environmental value. Meanwhile, initiatives such as the Future-Fit Business Benchmark and the Flourishing Business Model Canvas, offer insights into the depth of thinking, analyzing and creative experimentation that is happening in this realm.
Check out the Actuaries Climate Index. I am guessing that many businesses will not want to return to an unsustainable 1950s mindset. The world has changed – except for some of the fossils in the fossil fuel industry, and manufacturers that subscribe to the dangerous value of planned obsolescence. Our economy needs to be designed to create social, environmental as well as financial value – and we will only see that goal slip away if the Trump administration pursues its current naive vision for the future.
Douglas Worts, Culture and Sustainability Specialist
Originally published on LinkedIn, January, 31, 2017
Actuaries Dive into Climate Change Data!
January 9, 2017
For years I have been aware that some of the heavy lifters of risk-based, data analysis belonged to a very large industry – the insurance sector. Actuaries focus on understanding trends related to risks and benefits. For the most part, they limit their work to helping insurance companies manage financial risk in order to help optimize economic returns within the field of insurance. However, their capacity to assess risk within dynamic social and natural systems goes far beyond the financial and profit-oriented aspects of our world. Over the past couple of years, a group of bright and motivated actuaries from the USA and Canada organized themselves to create an actuarial lens on the phenomenon of climate change. Late in 2016, they launched their project – which “provides a quarterly measure of changes in extreme weather events and sea levels, available online at www.ActuariesClimateIndex.org “.
Using a reference period of 1960 to 1990, this group sheds light on changes in the extremes of weather/climate. As the authors state, there is value in examining ‘averages’ in temperatures, precipitation, storms, droughts and so on – however, it is more revealing to examine patterns within the extremes of these aspects of weather.
The six climate index components are:
- Frequency of temperatures above the 90th percentile;
- Frequency of temperatures below the 10th percentile;
- Maximum 5-day rainfall in the month;
- Consecutive dry days;
- Winds above the 90th percentile; and
- Sea level change.
“The Actuaries Climate Index is an educational tool designed to help inform actuaries, public policymakers, and the general public about climate trends and their potential impact.”
I am very pleased to see this part of the business community (both the insurance industry and specifically the actuaries) step up to use their considerable skills to help humanity get inside the complexity of trends and patterns that are shaping in our world today. It is ironic that at this moment when business increasingly embraces the issues of humanity’s future within the limits of a closed biosphere, some political leaders are sticking their heads in the sand as they collectively aspire to return to a romanticized notion of the past. Check out the website.
January 4, 2017
A few colleagues and I recently published a new article in the journal “Sustainability”. The piece emerged from the work my colleagues and I are undertaking on ‘ecomuseums’. For those new to this term, ecomuseums were first introduced in France in the late 1960s and 70s. They were designed as museums-without-walls that could help address the living cultural needs and opportunities of a community, partly through strengthening the heritage foundation of the region and partly through active consideration of the myriad forces that shape the world we live in and the future that citizens aspire to create. Ecomuseums involve a holistic approach to thinking about the living culture that is alive in the experiences, traditions, past(s), social structures and processes that are shaping the constantly evolving culture within the biophysical reality of a geographic area.
Our group is currently in the running for some federal research money on ‘community-engaged museums’, as a vehicle for involving citizens in addressing the cultural needs of our time. Specifically, the research will be grounded in ecomuseum initiatives in Saskatchewan, Canada. This article frames the work we are planning – and discusses some of the roots of the project.
Our proposed action-oriented research on ecomuseums involves the use of a set of sustainability planning tools with a group of burgeoning Saskatchewan ecomuseums. One of these tools is the Flourishing Business/Enterprise Model Canvas <www.flourishingbusiness.org/>, which is a method for creating an organizational structure and approach that will help achieve the various types of value (social, economic, environmental and cultural) that these communities are striving to achieve. We are also incorporating planning tools developed by sustainability thinker/innovator/educator/consultant Alan AtKisson, <http://atkisson.com/tools/>. One of our goals is to focus on how best to create cultural measures of impact that can help guide these ecomuseums towards cultural outcomes – for individuals, groups, organizations, businesses, local ecosystems and more. We hope to hear back from SSHRC in the next couple of months about our research proposal.
My fellow authors are: Glenn Sutter; Tobias Sperlich; René Rivard; Lynne Teather; and me.
The article can be accessed for free through this link:
Museums and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
(originally written for Museum Transformation Movement blog <https://museumtransformation.wordpress.com/blog/>, April 2016).
It has become a cliché that we live in an extraordinary time. Never before has humanity experienced so much change in so short a period – and the pace continues to quicken.
A few years ago my aunt died at the age of 102. Aunt Elizabeth was born in 1909. In her lifetime she experienced the introduction and widespread adoption of countless revolutionizing social innovations including: radio, automobiles, air travel, television, safe x-rays, MRIs, robotics, space-travel, moon-landings, the internet, cell phones and so much more. Due to sheer circumstance, she happened to be born into a country and a family where she had means and opportunity to gain an advanced education, marry a successful lawyer, raise her family and eventually spend several decades travelling the world in her later years. I had the good fortune to have her as my aunt – an incredibly reflective, thoughtful, caring and wise woman who had stories to tell about her visits to most corners of the planet. When I was young, she scared me – I’m not sure why. But as the years passed I developed a great fondness for her and loved her gentleness and ability to see everything around her in the world – remaining curious and open right to the end of her life. I think she was wise.
When I began my career in museums over 35 years ago, I entered the field through the portal of art history. Accordingly, I was fairly familiar with the act of looking back through time, which can be an interesting thing to do. I continue to spend a fair bit of time exploring the past, including doing genealogical research into my ancestors. There is much to be learned from the past because we truly do ‘stand on the shoulders of ancestors.’ The most vivid example of this truth that I have experienced came from Auntie Bessie Walters, one of two Maori elders whom I met at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand in 1993, while I was doing a lecture/workshop tour on visitor-based creativity in museums. I should mention that Bessie, and her colleague Bettie Rewi, both Maori elders on staff at the museum had roles that I can only describe as a kind of a ‘moral compass’ and guides for the museum. They knew a great deal about Maori history, but that wasn’t quite it, there was something more to it – which I was about to learn. I will also say that at the Te Papa Museum there is an amazing bi-cultural policy and that all Maori materials are overseen by Maori, which means that a different set of assumptions apply to how these collections are used. I knew something of this before I arrived at Te Papa that day, but after spending a morning with Bessie in the Maori galleries many of my assumptions about museums were challenged. And little did I know or expect that for the next 20 years or more the memory of Bessie would continue to push me think ever more progressively about what museums should and could be! But that is a longer story… my point here is more specific.
Bessie said to me “did you know that my ancestors were not the ‘first people’ of New Zealand?” I replied, “yes.” She continued, “…then you may know that when my ancestors came to this island they killed all the original inhabitants… and, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about how the responsibility for that act now rests with me.” I was speechless. It was the first time that I felt I understood the meaning of the phrase to ‘stand on the shoulders of ancestors’. Bessie was fully connected to her earlier relatives and their actions – they were all part of one continuum, each playing parts, but linked in a living way. It was a full acknowledgement of the past, even an embracing and a conscious engagement in the present. I didn’t feel an oppressive guilt from acts that happened generations earlier – that wasn’t the point. Rather it was the importance of acknowledging the reality of how people got to where they are today – the continuum. Bessie’s orientation was towards the future, yet with a strong and rooted connection to the past that was not dogmatically bound by it. Embodied wisdom and insight from life lived – that is what Bessie seemed to me – not unlike that which I felt from Aunt Elizabeth.
Both Bessie and my Aunt Elizabeth are dead now. I never did develop the same kind of connection with Auntie Betty, who I heard retired some years ago from the museum. In these days of tremendous change in the 21st century, I wonder who offers the kind of wisdom and insight that I have glimpsed through the likes of Bessie or Elizabeth? If they were here today, I think that both would be encouraged by a recent development at the global level.
In September of 2015, the United Nations unanimously passed a resolution, approving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will guide all nations until 2030. These goals are an acknowledgement that the world has changed so much in the past decades that it must now have a unified set of goals to bring the planet into balance – environmentally, socially and economically – in order to avert the dangerous trends that are happening in our world today. Extraordinary advancements in technology and knowledge have lead to many great things, but the shadow of humanity has grown proportionately. Increasing problems related to hunger, disease, inequity, poverty, violence, environmental degradation, climate change and more are formidable challenges that exist for humankind to solve. Globalization has transformed the world’s economies, altered human migration patterns, and changed the way we feed ourselves and even the way the Earth’s climate operates. Meanwhile, urbanization is fundamentally transforming humanity’s relationship to natural systems. It only makes sense that a global, coordinated effort should be put in place to address the challenges of our day.
The following 17 SDGs are compellingly simple in how they are stated – and yet each has enormous complexity just beneath the surface. Unlike its predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals, most of which focused on issues related to the ‘developing world’ where some of the worst problems of poverty, hunger, housing and sickness are to be found, the SDGs were conceived so that all nations will see themselves reflected in virtually all of the goals. As a result, the SDGs are a compelling framework for cultural transformation, across the planet.
But what, one might ask, does this have to do with museums? Again, I go back to my conversations with Auntie Bessie. For the Maori, their cultural vitality, as measured within the living communities, has always been linked to adaptation. As the world around them changed, their communities responded to ensure their continued wellbeing. In fact this is what defines success for all species. The success of culture is not simply that old patterns of behaviour continue forever. That sounds like a Peter Pan syndrome, where growth and maturing becomes blocked. Culture needs to evolve, change and adapt. It is one of the problems of having institutions as stewards of cultural change, because institutions are not often designed to organically change according to the changing cultural world around them. For museums to be effective at continuously taking the changing cultural pulse of its constituency, then transforming its own form so that it is best able to be relevant to the world in flux, museums must be designed to be nimble. They also need to have basic tools that enable them to be good at:
- taking stock of the forces of change at play in society at any given time and
- facilitating the cultural stakeholders into dialogue so that appropriate action and response are possible.
The current orientation of cultural organizations to operate largely within the realm of the leisure-time, discretionary-spending economy, seems questionable at best. Nonetheless, work by progressive museums, such as the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has returned to its first principles and developed a new ‘Theory of Change’, which puts ‘community wellbeing’ at the center of their goal. They also have broadened their tool box of assets and stakeholders and are working both within the museum and across the community as they aim to build greater cohesion and wellbeing.
There are significant opportunities for new types of experimentation with public engagement being presented these days, especially using the backdrop of the SDGs. Here, the global agenda of issues acts as a powerful frame, both locally and globally, to help anchor and set priorities for museums that aim to open up new dialogues and set new goals with local stakeholders. All countries, ‘industrialized’ and ‘developing’, will easily find ways to connect to at least half or more of the SDGs. It may be that the scale and nature of the challenges will be different in Birmingham, Flint Michigan and Los Angeles, but generally, the SDGs will apply across the board as a fairly common agenda.
The SDGs are very timely topics and will provide much food for thought as museums around the world grapple with how to open up the conversations and increasingly see culture as the values-based foundation, upon which most of human society will rest. It is time that culture, and museums, move from the leisure-time economy and help to shape the human project as it moves through the 21st century.
 Douglas Worts, “Extending the Frame: Forging a New Partnership with the Public”, in New Research in Museum Studies: Art in Museums, 1995. http://douglasworts.ca/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/worts-extending.pdf
 See Santa Cruz Museum of History and Art presentation on “Theory of Change” that his guiding their innovative new work. https://prezi.com/qerbnvzqchw3/mah-theory-of-change/
(Originally published on my website July 23, 2014)
The United Nations is in the midst of framing how it plans to roll out its much anticipated Sustainable Development Goals – or SDGs. It will attempt to juggle the many, and often competing interests and needs of individuals, nations and the global biosphere on which humanity ultimately depends.
Recently, the EU executive, supported by the entire college of commissioners from the 28 EU member states, loosely defined its position on the main areas where societal progress is needed. These include poverty, inequality, health, food security, education, gender equality, water and sanitation, sustainable energy, decent work, inclusive and sustainable growth, sustainable consumption and production, biodiversity, land degradation and seas and oceans. They refer to a critical need for a ‘rights-based agenda’ that addresses a spectrum of human and environmental realities. In this context, Monica Linn of the UN Economic Commission stated that “putting growth at the centre of our policies is not right for today’s challenges.” It is very encouraging to see the UN make a commitment to SD Goals and to see the EU declare that economic growth should NOT be at the centre of Europe’s own development strategy.
Over the past decade, the UN’s Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) have spurred many strategies designed to address some of humanity’s most dire situations, especially in ‘developing’ nations. Many significant and positive impacts have been accomplished. Despite these successes, I never did understand why the MDGs focused almost exclusively on the world’s ‘developing’ countries. Why were there not major strategies put in place to help the so-called ‘developed’ countries chart a course of change that would help build a new foundation for local/global sustainability? In the West, the development challenges are very different than in ‘developing’ countries, but no less critical, especially since it is Western values, systems (e.g. economic) and measures of success that to a large extent are being inculcated into the futures of ‘developing’ nations.
Where significant infrastructure already exists to meet the basic needs of a people (e.g. water, food, housing, education, etc.), then increasing ‘quality of life’ becomes the aspiration. But there is much debate about what this means and involves. Many studies confirm that economic growth is not a driver of ‘quality of life’, once a certain threshold of meeting peoples needs is achieved. But, in the West (and perhaps everywhere else too), our individual and collective preoccupation with economic growth goes deep into to our value-systems. Breaking the strangle-hold that economic growth has on both Western and ‘global’ organizations requires more than policy and legal adjustments (although these are essential) – it demands shifts at the cultural level.
Values are tough to change – often because they function both consciously & unconsciously. We have all encountered people and organizations professing certain laudable values (e.g. honesty, generosity, integrity, etc.), yet behaviours tell a different story. These situations do not necessarily reflect an intent to deceive, rather it simply points to the power of the unconscious in shaping behaviour given the lure of money and power. A truly sustainable human community on this planet demands an expansion of individual and collective consciousness to include the global in meaningful and compassionate ways! I once heard the mythologist Joseph Campbell say in an interview that it was anyone’s guess whether humanity is capable of expanding its consciousness to envelop the global reality – which, he said, would be the challenge of the 21st century. This, to me, at its deepest level, is a cultural challenge.
My background is in the cultural sector–specifically museums & art galleries. Seventeen years ago, I was invited to join Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) – which is a cross-disciplinary, global network of professionals who share a commitment to sustainability. LEAD was created at the time of the Earth Summit (1992) and generously funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Since 2002, LEAD has become a self-supporting network with some 2500 Fellows from over 90 countries.
As a result of being immersed in such an amazing cross-disciplinary, international group, my professional world of museums expanded in an extraordinary way. My “understanding” of ‘culture’ changed dramatically. I realized that societies, at least in North America, had commodified ‘culture’ into a product/service within the entertainment/tourism economy. By giving ‘culture’ a corporate status, as a non-profit, it enabled certain types of activities to be integrated into prevailing socio-economic realities. Expertise replaced wisdom as the traditional point of cultural insight. I have seen this play out for decades within the museum community–but it applies much more widely. This is not to disparage ‘expertise’, because humanity has gained much through it. Yet, in many ways, humanity has lost a great deal through the sidelining of wisdom in favour of expertise, the latter of which is often anchored in silos of narrow academic disciplines. ‘Expertise’, when granted an extremely privileged place within a culture, casts a long shadow. This is not dissimilar to what has happened with society’s obsession with continuous economic growth. Shadows are a naturally occurring phenomenon, but it is important to know about them and ensure that things in those shadows get acknowledged and are treated with respect (because unacknowledged forces in the shadows have a lot of power). Global sustainability is a challenge that involves looking into the shadows cast by our cultural norms – and changing systems, behaviours and values accordingly.
In my days as a museum staff member (I played various roles: educator, exhibit developer, audience researcher, policy-maker, etc.), curators, who come out of academic disciplines, had been granted a central role in the power structure of museums. Meanwhile, educators, who are bridge-makers between the museum & the public, were granted far less authority and were often seen as hand-maidens who needed to support curatorial vision, authority and activity. Museums have begun to redesign existing power structures to better address issues of public accountability – but there remains a long way yet to go.
I see museums as ‘places of the muse’ – as much a state of mind of individuals and groups who become open to the inspiration and creativity that is demanded and offered by the circumstances of a specific time and place. To this extent, there is no reason that museums need to be bound to the four walls of their corporate home base. But for museums to become truly effective at helping the culture to grapple with the issues and forces of their time, museum staffs must have a sense of how to read societal feedback loops regarding the needs and opportunities of the culture — and these are rooted in the community, not inside the corporate entity (e.g. not bound to attendance and revenue – although these should have a place within a comprehensive set of cultural indicators of wellbeing). As a long-standing audience researcher in the museum world, I came to see the accepted power structure and corporate systems as being the opposite of what would deliver the optimal ‘cultural impacts’. As organizations committed to public engagement and education, museums have the potential to harness the insights of experts in a range of academic fields, in order that they serve the larger public good in tangible ways. Insights from my audience research work shed light into the gap between what actually happened in the galleries (i.e. a lot of superficial experiences for individual visitors), compared to what was possible (i.e. inspired reflection, dialogue that lead to meaningful insights). But, in the absence of any ‘cultural’ measures of success integrated into the corporate operations, the museum had no relevant cultural feed-back loops to guide and develop its work. And when I suggested change to how the museum did its work, it often threatened the existing power structure. Inertia became the institutional response to the changing reality of the actual culture. In many ways, this is akin to what is happening with humanity’s preoccupation with placing economic growth at the centre of all social/economic/environmental policies — the tyranny of the shadow.
In my view of the world, our cultural organizations could become incredible agents of cultural change – fostering a ‘culture of sustainability’. But for that to happen, cultural organizations themselves will have to change. If museums and such were able to find a new balance between their existing expertise and other relevant areas of knowledge, using wisdom to weaving them together within an insightful view of the larger picture, then new potentials for these organizations emerge. Similarly, economic growth will continue to have an important place in our globalized economic system – but there are other ways of understanding the demands of a sustainable world that must be woven into the strategy, guided by wisdom and insight. The EU’s executive seems to be heading in this direction.
Several large challenges await the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It will be hard enough to get some kind of consensus on the goals themselves, but the real test will be in engaging the world in a process of aligning the systems, values and cultures that can turn these goals into a ‘culture of sustainability’.
Remembering and Invoking the Muses
(originally published on my website June 6, 2014)
As I get older, I realize how important it is to remember the forces, conditions, events and people that got us to where we are today – individually and collectively. If we hope to avoid repeating the past, it seems obvious that we need to both know and understand it. Marking the passage of 70 years since a pivotal event, such as D-Day, provides an opportunity to reflect on the human capacities for innovation, violence, resilience, destruction, creativity, empathy and more. My own visit to the French destinations of Normandy and Vimy Ridge, just a few weeks ago, provided a chance for me to think personally about these issues. Now, the massive media reflection on D-Day offers society a way to reflect on humanity and its range of potentials for both positive and negative actions.
I was born not too long after the end of World War II. It seems odd that, given this proximity, I really did not learn much about the war while I was young. Older generations didn’t want to talk about it. And in school, the way this topic was taught took the form of a very impersonal history. As a result, it took a long time for me to develop any real insights into the complexity of wars in the 20th century – especially since war never really affected me personally. The closest I came was some American friends living in Canada were anxious about being drafted – although none were. It was during a visit to the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, about 20 years ago, that I finally realized the scale of what Hitler had accomplished during early phases of WWII, before the Allies started to push back the Germans. So much pain and suffering – all brought on by the deep seated lust for power and dominance. It was a chilling moment – one of the most powerful I have had in a museum!
More than a dozen years ago, while working at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I developed a volunteer program involving veterans. These amazing men and women were all in the range of 80 to 90 years old, each having played critical roles in the collective bid to reclaim and secure democracy and peace as prevailing qualities of Western societies. For decades, these individuals had remained largely silent – wanting to give this chapter no more space than it had already taken. But with the waning years of their lives upon them, they realized the importance of remembrance – not just the experiences of one’s personal life, but to remember the events and people who came before us and helped to define who we are today. The saying that echoes loudly for me in this regard is “we stand on the shoulders of ancestors” – and it is essential that we make the time and energy available to do this, or history is likely to repeat itself, perhaps even more intensely than before.
On a related note, my choir, Common Thread Community Chorus, recently collaborated with a group of Latin American musicians, Proyecto Altiplano, to perform the ‘Cantata Santa Maria De Iquique’. It is the story of how, in Chile in 1907, mine owners massacred over 3000 miners and their families when the workers demanded that they be treated fairly. It is a hair-raising story, and one that is foundational for the people of Chile. All of us in the room – musicians, choir members and audience alike – were shocked at how this amazingly written music overwhelmed virtually everyone with emotion. My point is that the arts are capable of truly linking people across time, space and history in ways that are essential as humanity grapples with the collective shoulders that humanity now stands on. Our musical experience called upon archetypal forces that connected performers and audience to the experiences of others – even more remarkable because most of us singers do not even understand the Spanish we were singing (although we did know the basic story). It is important to make the space and time for creative, catalytic experiences that continuously bring people together in positive ways – for remembrance, for sharing a vision of the future and for reaffirming that we are always going to be stronger working together than working against each other.