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This area contains periodic reflections by Douglas Worts on issues related to culture, museums and sustainability.

July 18, 2020

Heritage Planning for Sustainable Cultural Impacts

NOTE: a shorter version was first published in 2019 on the AASLH Blog site (click here).

“Fridays for Future” Demonstrations, Queen’s Park, Ontario Legislature, March 2019 – Photo: DCW

John Dichtl, the President and CEO of the American Association for State and Local History, wrote an inspiring post in early 2019, about climate change and its implications for the heritage sector. It was published on the AASLH blog site (click HERE). In his post, Dichtl 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 central pillars of human knowledge creation – as being capable to helping to guide humanity forward through the treacherous waters we find ourselves in the early 21st century.

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 essential processes needed to manage the complexity and scope of current challenges and opportunities involve 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 vital 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 current fossil fuel use. Our society seems determined to retain its reliance on unfathomable amounts of energy required to power its transportation, housing, manufacturing, and so much more.  So what can heritage organizations do?

If museums and other cultural organizations were able to leverage insights from how humans in the past have navigated crises, they then could be applied in ways that help the living culture to adapt to our changing world. We could help manifest the old saying ‘we stand on the shoulders of ancestors’ – not simply duplicating or continuing what has come before, but rather to use our insights into the past as a way to better inform how societies assess current changes in the world and proactively adapt.  Playing such a role would require considerable innovation within the cultural field, as well as working with partners in new ways. Such a change within the heritage field could feel uncomfortable, especially for those who see cultural and heritage organizations playing fixed roles that were developed in the past. It is virtually certain that there would be need to share authority with vision/values-aligned partners, become increasingly co-creative and develop the ability to measure ‘success’ in the impacts created in the larger world (going well beyond simple visitation and revenue stats).   

As humanity grapples with the prospect of widespread climate destabilization, humans have a few options:

  1. dramatically reduce consuming energy as we do;
  2. find a substitute approach to providing energy, specifically renewable energy; or
  3. 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 serious crisis simply gets worse. 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 about how human cultures are driving climate change in perilous ways? Bridging this gap between reality and understanding/belief is fundamentally a cultural challenge. Not the kind of challenge that 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, how this 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 from the vantage point of an organization that believes that safeguarding its physical manifestation is its principal concern. But it worth recognizing that securing sites and collections falls well short of catalyzing meaningful, adaptive change within the living culture, not only the corporate culture.

The complexity of altering existing climate trends that are driven by producers retailers, investors, consumers, governments, legal systems, etc. that make up our culture, suggest that we need to create a systems-thinking framework to deal with this ‘wicked problem’. This is not only true for climate change problems, but also for the myriad forms of inequity, violence, abuse and more that have become baked into the systems that shape how our cultures and our societies.

If heritage and cultural organizations are seen as having the potential to become catalysts of cultural adaptation, then it is best to have a map of how to aim for two general types of positive impacts/outcomes. As John has suggested, one refers to ‘inner’ transformations and impacts that affect the internal culture of organizations. The second refers to organizational strategies that lead to ‘outer’ transformations and impacts across the living culture.

My goal in creating the model below was to offer a planning approach for heritage organizations to:

  1. identify ways that will make existing organizational resources as resilient and effective as possible (INSIDE), and
  2. offer a framework for how individual organizations, in concert with a wide spectrum of potential values-aligned partner organizations (including progressive businesses, foundations, governments and so on), can become catalysts of co-creative public engagement & cultural change (OUTSIDE).
“Inside-Outside Model: Museums Planning for Cultural Impacts” helps to identify how changes made within museums can lead to adaptive changes within the living culture.

At the centre of this model are the Heritage Organizations, which generate operational and public engagement strategies, designed to have meaningful impacts. When it comes to a goal like addressing the climate crisis, one group of these strategies may be designed to generate INSIDE IMPACTS – for example efforts that improve energy efficiency, or reduce waste, such as CO2 emissions. Inner strategies also include the potential acquisition of new skillsets to develop capacity for generating new kinds of strategies beyond the organization, such as skills in conducting cultural needs analyses, forging effective partnerships or carrying out public impact studies. The second group of strategies include many a broad range of OUTSIDE IMPACTS, across the living culture. These are inherently more difficult to achieve, because they are, by their nature, beyond the control of the cultural organization. Nonetheless, if there is need for cultural adaptation across individuals, communities, organizations, cities, and social/economic systems, then doesn’t it make sense that cultural organizations are primary players as catalysts in this kind of change?

Museums do have some history of generating impacts within the living culture, however, most of this is limited to impacts involving a sub-set of individuals and groups who visit a museum or heritage facility during their leisure time. In the Inside/Outside Model I have offered up here, the scope of potential impact areas that are perhaps less familiar to most museum professionals. Specifically I’ve suggested that museums and cultural organizations plan for impacts at the levels of groups, neighbourhoods, communities, other organizations (both for-profits and non-profits), cities, as well as social/economic systems and human/environmental relationships. Each of these focuses will have different challenges and opportunities that will need to be named clearly, strategies developed to catalyze the impacts and ultimately to assess outcomes. Much experimentation and testing will be required for the field to fully move into these areas of engaging the population in co-creative processes that catalyze meaningful cultural change.

One of the notable aspects of the INSIDE/OUTSIDE 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 (intentionally or unintentionally) – all of which needs to be understood and incorporated into the planning of public engagement strategies. This is particularly true because human systems and cultures currently generate a wide array of unintended consequences that must be reined in as they are made more conscious. The climate crisis, as well as pervasive systemic racism, are examples of unintended, or at least unowned consequences of the cultural status quo – and only cultural change can transform such damage into new cultural norms that enable humanity to continue into the future..

Another, very traditional ‘museum’ tradition that begs to be addressed adequately involves tourism. Any organization that depends heavily on tourism for attendance and revenue generates a massive carbon footprint, simply by its relationship to how tourists travel, what they consume and how they contribute to a given community. Currently, the calculations of tourism spending are extremely problematic because these have large carbon footprints that contribute to the destruction of the biosphere, and which are largely unaccounted for and completely unowned by any of the stakeholders.

A museum sector that set its priorities on addressing the cultural issues of the local living culture, and then approaches tourism as a secondary focus, might be a much more workable model. In this scenario, tourist experiences would revolve less around sites, objects and histories and more around building tourist knowledge and appreciation of how the local culture operates as it leverages its heritage(s), arts and creativity to generate effective cultural change and adaptation. In our pluralistic and globalized world, it seems vital that people can connect to lived realities in other parts of the world. This would help to build greater relationship, empathy, and cohesion. It is important to remember that, until we can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from our energy and consumption, travel will be a threatening problem from a climate perspective. However, alternatives already exist and can be scaled, if only humanity could put an end to a 19th century approach to energy, consumption, and economics.   

The museum sector derives great strength from the complex relationships it has with individuals, groups, organizations, communities and systems. Extending beyond the traditional notion of museums as providers of ‘service’, cultural organizations that embrace a vision of museums as cultural catalysts will require that we and our colleagues both understand and grapple with the challenges and opportunities for working collaboratively with partners to achieve meaningful cultural impacts.

The INSIDE/OUTSIDE Model is only a piece of the puzzle of how best to foster a culture of sustainability and flourishing. Nonetheless, I hope that this model generates discussion and creativity on the question of ‘how can heritage organizations help facilitate adaptive cultural change, in our fast-changing world’?

***

Douglas Worts is a ‘culture and sustainability specialist’, living in Toronto, Canada. He has been a museum professional for over 40 years, focused variously on interpretive planning, audience research, education technologies and teaching museology. Since 1997, his main interest has been in the cultural dimensions of humanity’s unsustainability, and the potential role of museums to foster cultural and adaptive change.

website: WorldViewsConsulting.ca

by Douglas Worts


March 1, 2020

When Museums Forget their Past…                                                                                                  …It is Hard to Move Forward

ICOM Canada publication on museums and sustainability, for Summit of the Museums of the Americas Conference, 1998, Costa Rica.

I recently came across a notice from ICOM Canada (International Council of Museums), inviting museum practitioners to contribute what their museum is doing to help address the unsustainability of current methods of travel and transport. It caused me to reflect on a time when I was on the ICOM Canada board of directors, specifically because we were engaged in many robust discussions about sustainability, culture and museums more than 20 years ago. 

I was prompted to go searching for the ICOM Canada Bulletin which I organized and edited on this topic. Sadly, I found no sign of the publication or its component articles, neither on an ICOM website, nor anywhere on the internet. So, I went looking in my own archives and discovered the article I wrote that introduced this issue of Bulletin. It is gratifying that we were talking in substantive terms about the central issue of culture in our unsustainable world, and how museums could become catalysts for cultural change.

But it was discouraging that organizations, and even whole fields of endeavour, can so easily lose connection to their own past. And when that happens, forward movement is seriously curtailed. 

Here is a glimpse into how ICOM Canada was talking about sustainability over two decades ago…

*********

Museums and Sustainability:

repositioning cultural organizations

Douglas Worts

March 2000

Sustainable Development — meeting the needs of today’s world without diminishing the capability of future generations to meet their needs. 

… from “Our Common Future: the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Report), UN, 1987.

Sustainable Development (SD) provides a framework for re-thinking how humanity addresses the challenges of our times – including environmental health, social equity, humane urban planning and viable economic systems. We often think of ‘development’ as a process that pertains primarily to non-industrialized countries. Surely much technological and economic innovation is required if these countries are to play a partnership role in our increasingly globalized world. But industrialized countries have a lot of development to undergo as well. Problems of wealth distribution, racism and other systemic inequities, as well as environmental degradation and resource depletion, are evidence of cultural values in the West that are wholly unsustainable. (see Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, Our Ecological Footprint, for a fascinating snapshot of our current reality).

As a holistic approach to development, ‘sustainability’ involves a balanced, integrated view of social, environmental and economic dimensions of our world. In order to ensure such a balanced approach to our collective future, several component pieces will be required. Innovative, technological solutions are needed for commodity production, recycling and waste management. New economic models must integrate into production systems an appreciation of both natural capital (ie. responsible use of natural resources) and social capital (ie. responsible approaches to how people affect and are affected by commercial initiatives). Improved social and environmental legislation, in both national and international arenas, is required to ensure that human and natural resources are treated with respect. Beyond these considerations, there must be acknowledgement that the foundation of a sustainable world will be found in human values and actions – both individually and collectively. Culture – which essentially reflects the ways we negotiate our conscious relationship with this world – is the domain in which sustainable values are either nurtured or starved. Family environments, schools, and vehicles of popular culture play central roles in the cultivation of our values – which to date have fallen well short of being sustainable. Since museums are, by nature, cultural organizations, they have the potential to play important roles in shaping our collective tomorrow.

There are many ways to live in the world, witnessed by the wide range of cultures that have enabled individuals to survive and flourish through past centuries. And although there are still countless cultures that cover the Earth, the forces of globalization are transforming all of them. As migration, technological communication and economic interconnectedness characterize our world in the year 2000, cultural systems that holistically embraced social, spiritual, environmental and economic dimensions of life are becoming splintered. And the western values that have lead us towards globalizing trends — specifically the desire for economic, intellectual and ideological power — are inserting themselves into other cultures. Finding ways to mediate the interactions of cultures, especially in pluralist communities, so that individuals live and participate consciously in ways that are sustainable, may constitute the toughest challenges that humanity has faced to date. One might ask, what does this have to do with museums?

In museums, we normally gauge our successes in terms of new acquisitions, the popularity of exhibitions, our comprehensive collections, scholarly publications, grants received and economic impacts – and I would suggest that we don’t measure these very convincingly. In some ways, museums are the perfect mirror for a culture dominated by hoarding values that encourage the acquisition of material wealth, power and influence – usually without much reflection on the broader implications of these activities. Yet museums have the capacity to transform themselves into much more effective ‘places of the muses’– where inspiration, creativity and insight is fostered across the population, and dialogue is facilitated between individuals and groups. In other words, museums can help facilitate two essential components of sustainability at the individual level – deep reflection on one’s place in the mystery of life, as well as participation in meaningful and respectful dialogue between people. To achieve this, however, many foundation-blocks of traditional museums will have to be rethought, including both values and practices.

In the spirit of embracing principles of sustainability, exciting initiatives within the museum community are well underway — from practical work on exhibits, to national policy reviews. This issue of ICOM Canada Bulletin is devoted to summarizing a range of exciting initiatives, each of which is attempting to explore different aspects of the question, ‘what is the potential of the museum to play a meaningful role in ensuring a sustainable future?’.

Renee Huard and Harm Sloterdjik, both from Montreal’s Biosphere, reflect on some of the early and more recent principles of sustainability, as embodied in their organization which was inspired by the vision of Buckminster Fuller. In a discussion of a new life sciences exhibition, Glenn Sutter, Curator at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, introduces the complex issues associated with achieving sustainability. Robert Archibald, President of the Missouri Historical Society, provides a synopsis of an American Association of Museum’s national think-tank initiative that is attempting to articulate a plan for strengthening the relationship between museums and communities. David Dusome, Executive Director of Museums Alberta, introduces a national prototype project in Canada that will test new performance measurements for museums – such indicators will be critical in charting a new course for museums and assessing institututional successes. Nina Archabal, Director of the Minnesota Historical Society, writes about the role of culture and sustainability in an urban-renewal project in the American mid-west.

These are just some of the ways that museums around the world are re-evaluating how they can play the most valuable role in our turbulent and changing times. Some of the publications of ICOM and UNESCO provide particularly exciting visions for museums. Oddly enough, even organizations like the World Bank are slowly cluing into the central role that culture plays in any development initiative – and they have created some very valuable resources that are worth consulting.

Many in Canada are still unfamiliar with the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Strategy for Sustainable Development. Several years ago, the federal government passed legislation compelling over two dozen departments to develop SD strategies, and then update them every three years. In the Department of Canadian Heritage (DCH), the first strategy, implemented in 1997, was driven by Parks Canada and focusses primarily on parks-related, environmental issues. Now, on the cusp of its second strategy document, Parks Canada has become a separate agency – leaving the DCH to tackle the job of clarifying what role it sees for culture, arts and heritage in the quest for sustainability. Due out this autumn, the second SD Strategy for DCH will be worth watching for.

Increasingly, culture is finding itself at the centre of development initiatives around the world. Museums have an opportunity to play a meaningful role in mapping our collective future – but we will need to approach this prospect with humility and respect for scale of this undertaking.

*****

“Development divorced from its human or cultural context is growth without a soul.”

… from Our Creative Diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, UNESCO, 1995

*****

Some useful references:

American Association of Museums, Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, 1992.

Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawkins, Natural Capitalism, Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1999.

Goa, David, “Introduction”, in Cultural Diversity and Museums: Exploring Our Identities, Ottawa: Canadian Museums Association, 1994.

ICOM, “Museums and Cultural Diversity: Draft ICOM Policy Statement”, Report of the Working Group on Cross Cultural Issues, 1998.

Musee de la Civilisation, Museums and Sustainable Communities: A Canadian Perspective, Quebec City: ICOM Canada, 1998.

Rivard, Rene, “Ecomuseums in Quebec”, Museum, vol. 37/1985.

Ryan, William F, Culture, Spirituality and Economic Development, Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 1995.

Tator, Carol, et al., Challenging Racism in the Arts: Case Studies of Controversy and Conflict, Toronto: U of T Press, 1998

UNESCO, “Action Plan on Cultural Policies for Development”, adopted in Stockholm, April 1998 by Intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies for Development.

UNESCO, Culture, Creativity and Markets – World Culture Report, Paris: UNESCO, 1998.

UNESCO, Our Creative Diversity: Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, Paris: UNESCO, 1995.

Wackernagel, Mathis and William Rees. Our Ecological Footprint, Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers, 1996.

by Douglas Worts


January 10, 2020

Measuring Carbon – a Complex Challenge

Meg Lowman standing in front of a balloon the size of a tonne of CO2 Copenhagen. <www.esa.org/esablog/ecology-in-policy/three-elephants-in-the-living-room-at-copenhagen/>
 
As countries, organizations, cities and individuals grapple with the growing ‘climate crisis’, it is vital that humanity understands how to track GreenHouse Gas Emissions (GHG) trends.  A ‘ton’ of carbon in the air is inherently a tough concept to wrap one’s head around. Accordingly, I wanted to update a post I wrote a couple of years ago, about the importance of Scope 1, 2 and 3 GHG Emissions. It is more critical than ever that we are aware of the issue of measuring carbon, especially because the rhetoric and misinformation by oil companies continues to ramp up…
 
Within my field of museums, a growing number of professionals are grappling with the many dimensions of climate change.  Measuring GreenHouse Gas emissions is a complicated business both technically, and conceptually, so it is worth knowing that there are three ‘scopes’ of measurement that are used commonly by climate ‘insiders’, but which remain largely unknown beyond insider groups.
Scope 1 includes all GHG emissions that result from a company’s operations.
Scope 2 includes indirect emissions that are linked to energy that is produced outside the company, but used by the company in its operations.
Scope 3 are all the indirect emissions – i.e. those that are linked to either upstream inputs into the company’s operations (aside from emissions related to energy generated by outside suppliers – which is Scope 2) , or which occur further down the value chain (e.g. by customers using the company’s products and services). In the fossil fuel industry, approximately 80% of emissions are from Scope 3 sources (e.g. 80% of emissions from oil and gas occur when the finished products are burned as fuel by consumers!). These emissions are rarely included in GHG emission accounting by industry or governments. (check out this article in the National Observer today – https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/01/09/news/oilsands-giant-cenovus-commits-limiting-carbon-pollution-just-not-its-own-product ).
 
Museums that are considering reducing their carbon footprint often will examine the options available by changing what they can most easily control. They may do an energy retrofit and convert to renewable energy, or improve their building insulation, or try to buy local products – all of which are good and important, but which may not effectively address the elephant in the room… the culture of UNsustainability that humans have created, locally and globally. Many museums see themselves as being engines of tourism, which also happens to be a very large engine of carbon emissions. An organization or town that fosters tourism, may be very conscientious about managing it’s direct emissions through such strategies as energy efficient buildings, sourcing of local materials for its operation and may even buy electricity from specialty retailers that package renewables – Bullfrog Power is an example in Canada. However, Scope 3 emissions, coming from all the CO2 that is produced by tourists as they drive, fly, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, etc – are left largely untouched. 
 
Similarly, the fossil fuel industry may now reluctantly be attempting to grapple with its Scope 1 and 2 emissions, but rarely wants to talk about Scope 3 emissions. Oil companies prefer to pretend that emissions related to consumers driving their cars, heating their homes, or ordering items on Amazon, are the responsibility of everyone else except the petroleum industries.
 
Managing climate altering trends requires effective ways of measuring GHG emissions – it is a vital feedback loop. We need to agree on what needs to be measured, who is going to do it, and then acting on what we learn from that measurement.
 
I often talk about the need for museums to plan for and assess public ‘outcomes’ of their public engagement efforts. In particular, I think the entire public needs to be aware of the current trends in environmental and social damage, and be part of imagining a vision of a livable future, plus devising ways to bring about societal change. It is not enough that our sector create outputs (exhibits, programs, etc.) that seem to be linked to the topic of climate justice. It is necessary to understand the actual impacts of our efforts – and we need to be constantly striving to find mechanisms that enable our efforts to scale the public impacts we strive for (i.e. to help the living culture to adapt to the changing reality of the biosphere). For example, there is precious little evidence of the actual public impacts that are generated by exhibits that focus on the topic of climate trends. And we also need to understand the many forms that public impacts can take, including: impacts on individuals, groups, neighbourhoods, cities, organizations, social systems, legal systems, economic systems, political systems and on systems of the natural environment.
To this end, I have provided a link to part of Bob Willard’s website. Bob is one of Canada’s most influential thinkers in the area of how business is striving to change in order to flourish economically, socially and environmentally. In Bob’s article, he is arguing that energy companies should be excluded from rankings of companies that are considered to be contributing to sustainability. The reality is that oil/gas companies often are listed on sustainability ratings lists as ‘leaders’ amongst sustainable companies, but only because of how these ratings are assessed, which too often are overly narrow.
 
The bottom line is that reducing GHG emissions is vital for all people and organizations. Museums can help reduce direct GHG emissions, and we should do what we can. However, our greatest potential for impact is to engage the larger public in becoming self-reflective, collaborative and active in changing their day-to-day behaviours so that the larger culture evolves in dynamic balance with our ever-changing world. Fostering meaningful cultural change in our fast-transforming world is complex. As we experiment with, and assess, new techniques of public engagement, museums can become ever-more-effective catalysts of creative cultural change.
 

October 26, 2019

Greta Thunberg, Vancouver, October 25, 2019 – click photo
 
Greta Thunberg has been in Canada for over a week now – speaking about the climate crisis. As she moves across the continent, speaking in many places, she is attracting a great deal of attention and making many people feel variously hopeful and nervous.
 
Yesterday, in downtown Vancouver, and in solidarity with a group of youth who are taking the Canadian Government to court for climate related impacts, Greta delivered another powerful address. Standing beside Greta was Severn Suzuki – daughter of David Suzuki. In 1992, at age 12, Severn Suzuki delivered a stinging address at the UN Climate Summit in Rio. Have a look! <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJJGuIZVfLM>.
 
Severn blasted adults, governments and businesses for abandoning future generations, even in the face of clear science that said that current social, economic and political trends were heading in the wrong direction. She called on leaders to step up, take responsibility and direct humanity towards safe waters. She was largely ignored. Severn continues to work towards a more just world.
 
Greta acknowledged that the history of climate injustice goes back a long time, and to have Severn standing beside her was an amazing moment.
The two videos provided here are well worth spending a bit of time with.
Watching powerful, young women taking on the forces of injustice, within our cultures of UNsustainability, is an inspiration. Notable to me is that ways that both Greta and Severn are not egotistical and self-serving. Their passion, anger and hope all revolve around a vision for a flourishing future for all. Their words and actions instil a sense of hope, but also underscore the need for vision, solidarity, empathy, passion and selflessness.
 
Individuals, like Greta and Severn, have found ways – even as youth – to create social cohesion, build shared vision and empower the creative potential of millions. If they can have this kind of effect, surely the networks of museums and ‘cultural’ organizations within our professional networks can find ways to generate the public engagement necessary for our living cultures to adapt in this dangerous world. The heavy lifting will be in the realm of catalyzing people to act differently, to make different decisions, to come together to change systems. New approaches to exhibits and destination tourism will not be enough. Societal trend analysis, experimentation and impact assessment will be vitally important tools as museums stretch themselves to animate the ‘muses’ across our living culture, with a view towards adaptive cultural change, rather than our current non-adaptive trajectory.
 
Douglas Worts

October 18, 2019

Climate Change, Flying and Guilt:  the Need to Change Culture as we Modify Behaviours

Today, Greta Thunberg tweeted this bit of research in the NY Times on how ‘frequent flying’ is contributing to climate change. Air travel is certainly a significant part of the climate and cultural challenges.
“JUST 12 PERCENT OF AMERICANS TAKE TWO-THIRDS OF ALL FLIGHTS” (AND I SUSPECT THAT THIS IS LIKELY TRUE FOR PEOPLE IN OTHER WESTERN COUNTRIES AS WELL”.
We all have a certain ability to make different decisions about what we do and how we understand the impacts of our actions. However, it is also important to acknowledge that there are many moving parts to this wicked problem, of which climate change is frightening and potentially deadly symptom. For example, airlines have acquired a staggering number of aircraft that need to be kept in the air, in order for the businesses to survive, given our economic system. Similarly, travel companies survive by selling travel to consumers, for which there is an imperative to keep the public consuming. At a slightly deeper level of the system, iInvestors of all sizes and descriptions invest life savings into a wide spectrum of activities, many of which involve air travel and the consumption/burning of fossil fuels. Those investors’ futures rely on the ‘success’ of these ventures. In short, our capitalist, consumer-based economy requires consumption to continuously grow, even if that growth will send destruction across the biosphere. This sounds awfully close to the definition of cancer – growth that destroys the host organism!
 
It is extremely clear that humanity MUST stop loading the atmosphere with carbon and other GhGs – and that means flying a whole lot less – at least in vehicles that dump GhG emissions into the atmosphere. Unless we are able to develop the resolve to accomplish such goals, the system will self-correct – making life much harder, or impossible, for many people to survive. A changing climate is a symptom of how humanity’s way of life on Earth is so out of control that, if we humans don’t change it, forces of nature will reset the direction of what life on Earth looks like.
 
As we collectively strive to change our behaviours, it is imperative that we keep the entire cultural/social/ economic/political system in mind. For some people to simply stop or dramatically reduce a certain behaviour, without restructuring the system, may simply shift problems elsewhere. Humanity’s approach to business and economics, and the values that drive these approaches, lie at the heart of contemporary culture – and it is these pieces of the puzzle that continue to drive the status quo toward a very unstable future.
 
New Zealand may be the only Western country so far that has said that it will alter its economic system so that continuous economic growth is no longer a foundation block of its socio-economic system. By doing this, there is an opportunity to fundamentally alter the entire cultural dynamic. Such a shift makes it possible to prioritize the goals of equity and wellbeing (for all people and Nature), across the entire cultural system.
 
For this type of change to happen, it needs to involve all stakeholders (not just museum visitors) in meaningful reflection, dialogue and action. Museums have the potential to be both places and forces that can be catalytic in helping make this type of change happen. These goals of creating reflection, dialogue and action across entire populations means that the work cannot be limited to traditional museum sites, located within leisure-time contexts. Rather, the challenge and the opportunity is to foster catalytic change in all corners of our society where change needs to occur.
Experimentation, and the sharing of insights, will be vital parts of how the museum community rises to this challenge and seizes the opportunities.
 
 

August 26, 2019

Checking in on Climate Science, its Trends and Tipping Points: Plus… a Couple of Tools for Museums to Help Plan for Climate Change Programming & Projects

With Canada about to embark on a federal election, and the USA approaching a major leadership vote next year, an increasing number of people are focused on how to use our political system to enact the kinds of policies and legislation capable of addressing the climate crisis. This video lecture, by Australian Professor Will Steffen, titled “The Big U-Turn: Calling Australia to Action on Climate Change” is about 50 minutes long – and it provides a succinct, comprehensible view into the science of climate change and potential scenarios that lie ahead for humanity. It is sobering. For many on this list, much of the info is already familiar. However, the examination of scenarios is compelling.
 
The lecture is very useful for several reasons:
  • it clarifies the climate science within the framework of Earth’s complex system
  • it illustrates how exponential growth in population, cities, consumption, energy use and pollution are affecting the planetary system
  • it sketches what can be expected from our changing climate, and when, using scientific, data-driven modelling techniques
  • it underscores the need for urgency in humanity becoming net-zero in terms of carbon emissions.
What the lecture does not do is to clarify the strategies for transforming cultures, values and human systems. Personally, I don’t expect climate scientists to illuminate the cultural, social, economic and political fine points of HOW humanity can re-orient itself to a sustainable vision of the world – a vision capable of driving massive societal change. In a world which has been built using an economic model that offers power and wealth as the principal goal for most activities, humanity has cast a long and unconscious shadow over life itself.
*
Politics and business/economics are arguably the main forces that continue to shape the direction and wellbeing of our times. But the inadequacies of our particular approaches to democratic principles and to our framework for economics/business are a big problem, since both are controlled by vested interests, not by engaged and informed populations. Figuring out how to transform existing political and economic models are part of what needs to happen.
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I’ve produced a simplified ‘systems map’ related to climate change, as a tool for museum professionals. This kind of document may aid in fostering discussion and planning for climate-crisis-related cultural programming. By looking at the myriad forces that are causing our ‘culture of climate change’, as well as their impacts, museums and their partners can better identify where in the social dynamic they can most effectively intervene and innovate. This map is only a sample of how to conduct a ‘systems analysis’ of a focus like climate change. Doing this sort of analysis helps to understand the nature of complex problems.
*
Since Climate Change is part of a very large and complex set of dynamics, involving many aspects of human society, it is helpful to map our the causes of the problem, as well as the causes of the causes. Similarly, by articulating the effects and the effects of the effects, it is possible to see many places where it is possible to intervene with innovations in order to affect trends such as a changing climate.
 
 
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I’ve also shared something I have called the Inside-Outside Model for Envisioning Cultural Impacts. It was created as part of the work by the Sustainability Task Force, advising the American Association for State and Local History on an approach for integrating sustainability principles and actions into that network. For me, it is another tool that can help facilitate create thinking within progressive museum planning teams.
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Inside-Outside Impact Model, by DCW – a way to link a wide array of possible public engagement strategies related to climate change action, that can have impacts both inside and outside organizations.   See April 19, 2019 entry (below) for an elaboration on this model.
 
 
 
 
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I’d love to hear more of how museum colleagues are planning for climate-related initiatives, their questions, their frustrations and their innovations. 
 
Douglas Worts

July 29, 2019

Global Overshoot Day, 2019 – Opportunities for Museums and Cultural Adaptation

If the world lived like all of these various countries, the Earth’s biosphere would run out of capacity to support humanity’s lifestyle at the designated day. Humanity is living far beyond its means.
For many years now, the Global Footprint Network and its partners have calculated the day on which the Earth’s ability to deliver all of the clean air, water, soil, energy, etc that humanity and other species rely on, (plus the biosphere’s amazing ability to naturally reprocess human waste into productive materials), has been maxed out!
 
It was only about 40 years ago that the planet had more than enough capacity to provide humanity with all that it consumes, while it reprocessed all of its waste. But since we collectively exceeded the ‘carrying capacity’ of Earth (sometime in the 1970s?), we have been running down the ‘natural capital’ of our planet. It is somewhat akin to a person who has been living off the interest of a savings account, but then finds that inflation no longer enables them to live solely on the interest generated by the capital. Many in this situation might be tempted to draw small amounts each year from the capital to make up the difference. What could it hurt? But before long, the capital’s ability to generate interest drops noticeably as annual withdrawals escalate. This is the phenomenon of overshoot. And when it happens on a planetary level, it isn’t as simple as dealing with a bank account that is no longer providing interest at previous levels. What is similar, is that fundamental changes in lifestyle must be embraced.
 
Using a global chart of accounts that calculates all the human activity and waste of the Earth’s population, both intended and unintended impacts, Earth Overshoot Day illustrates that nature of peril that humanity now confronts. The only good option is to fundamentally rethink and rebuild the foundation blocks of both local and global cultural values, systems and behaviours.
It would be one thing if Nature was simply changing, for example with the onset of another ice age. Humanity have few leverage points in such a situation. But with this situation, the crisis has been created in large part by human beings. Our individual and collective ecological footprints have grown steadily over many hundreds of years. And that growth has been exponential. So the momentum now is rather feverish!
Humanity has the requisite creativity to alter the current trends. However, it is unclear if there is sufficient human will to do so. That is where the opportunity emerges for museums to step into the role of catalysts of cultural adaptation. This is not a role that museums have traditionally played. It is not in their mission statements, or in their traditional organizational skillsets or activities. But museums do have the ability to step up here and begin to figure out how to embrace this role.
 
Being a catalyst is not like being an authority in a certain area of academic or disciplinary specialization. So it will feel bizarre and uncomfortable for a while as museums work through how best to embrace their own changes. It will take humility, creativity, courage and tenacity. There are many potentials for museums to experiment with new types of public engagement, including a strong commitment to building local relationships and trust amongst the great diversity that makes up our populations.
 
The opportunities for positive public engagement and change are limitless if museums can bridge the insights and knowledge of scientists, artists, historians, businesses, governance systems, educational systems, ecological economists (we desperately need to move from traditional economic models to progressive, holistic, circular economy models!) and the communities themselves. The only other real alternative is to stick with the systems of our status quo – and that option will not leading anywhere good!
 
For More on Global Overshoot Day – https://www.overshootday.org
 
For More on Move the Date – Strategies for Addressing Overshoot – https://movethedate.overshoot.org
 
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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. 

“Fridays for Future” Demonstrations, Queen’s Park, Ontario Legislature, March 2019 – Photo: DCW

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:

  1. dramatically reduce consuming energy as we do;
  2. find a substitute approach providing energy, specifically renewable energy; or
  3. 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:

  1. identify ways that will make existing resources as resilient as possible (INSIDE), and
  2. 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).
Inside-Outside Impact Model 5, by DCW

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.

by Douglas Worts


April 23, 2018

Cover of “Museums and Sustainable Communities: Canadian Perspectives”, published by Museés de la Civilization, Quebec, for ICOM Canada, 1998

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?

Museum interior
Unsplash / Anthony Delanoix

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.

Environmental Standards

Fine art and object conservators have recommended optimal environmental standards to preserve materials as long as possible.

Hygrothermograph in Museum

 

Hygrothermograph, Internet – no suggestion of copyright.

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.

Culture is Relationships - 2018

 

‘Culture is Relationships’ diagram, by Douglas Worts, updated 2018.

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.

samuel-zeller-357975

 

Unsplash / Samuel Zeller

Other museological forms, such as the ecomuseumdo 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.

bianca-isofache-400460-1

 

Unsplash / Bianca Isofache

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.

California Academy of Sciences

 

California Academy of Sciences – a state of the art building designed to reduce energy use to a minimum, reduce emissions and generally produce a light ecological footprint. Public Domain image.

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

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.

DougPic

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.

Fig 1 – T-Shirt – LaTanya S. Autry, Jillian Steinhauer, The Art Newspaper & Mike Murawski

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.

Douglas Worts


March 29, 2018

Reinventing Culture with Sidewalk Toronto:

a Collaboration

Sidewalk Toronto – Objectives, as presented in Toronto, March 20, 2018

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).

Douglas Worts


Sustainable Enterprises, both For Profit and Not-for-Profit, Will Require Fundamental Changes to Economic, Social and Political Systems

Doughnut Economics Model, by Kate Raworth, kateraworth.com

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.

  1.  Change the Goal: From GDP to the Doughnut –https://youtu.be/Mkg2XMTWV4g
  2. Tell a New Story: From the neoliberal narrative to a story fit for our times — https://youtu.be/V2vN_fu-wns
  3. Nurture Human Nature: From rational economic man to social adaptable humans — https://youtu.be/SOKHWOMVMyo
  4. Get Savvy with Systems: From mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity — https://youtu.be/mNUMkPltnnE
  5. Design to Distribute: From ‘growth will even it up again’ to distributive by design — https://youtu.be/FqnFa0POTpM
  6. Create to Regenerate: From ‘growth will clean it up again’ to regenerative by design — https://youtu.be/XcgcMpgbNHA
  7. 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?

Douglas Worts


Geothermal Retrofit Strategies & Heritage Neighbourhoods: Going Far Beyond Energy Efficiency

Laurier Avenue, Toronto, Canada – site of the Green Laurier Project

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.

Douglas Worts, David Miller (Mayor of Toronto) and Sameer Dhargalkar – during awarding of Live Green Toronto grant for the Green Laurier Project, 2008

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.

Douglas Worts


How Do Museums Deal with Fear and Danger?:

Possible Lessons from Chris Hatfield

Chris Hatfield – TED talk, March 2014

Photo: JAMES DUNCAN DAVIDSON / TED

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.

Douglas Worts


Museums Responding to Climate Change Realities

Image source: ABC Broadcasting, Australia

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)

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

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.

Douglas Worts


Image from Actuarial Climate Indexwebsite

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!

Actuaries Climate Index combines 6 components: hot days; cold days; low precipitation days; high precipitation days; frequency of high wind days; and sea level changes.

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:

  1. Frequency of temperatures above the 90th percentile;
  2. Frequency of temperatures below the 10th percentile;
  3. Maximum 5-day rainfall in the month;
  4. Consecutive dry days;
  5. Winds above the 90th percentile; and
  6. 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.

Douglas Worts


Fostering Cultures of Flourishing Through Community-Engaged Museums and Ecomuseums

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:
http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/8/12/1310

Douglas Worts


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.[1] 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.

Bessie Walters and Betty Rewi, 1993
Maori Elders, Aunties Bessie (Walters) on left, and Betty (Rewi), at Te Papa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand, 1993 – Photo: Douglas Worts

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)[2], 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[3], 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:

  1. taking stock of the forces of change at play in society at any given time and
  2. 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.[4]

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

[1] 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

[2] For more information on the SDGs, see http://17goals.org, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs

[3] See http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/goals/

[4] 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/


Grappling with Economic Growth – reflections on the UN’s SDGs (a thorny cultural challenge)

(Originally published on my website July 23, 2014)

business man climbing to a graph showing his growth and success
“Business Growth”, Unattributed image from The Staffing Stream website.

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)

Normandy Beach 3
In 1944, the beaches of Normandy, France were the site of D-Day landings by Allied forces – a pivotal point in World War II. On that day the fortunes of the Allies turned around and the Germans began to retreat. Seventy years after, the innovative structures that made the ‘artificial harbours’ remain a haunting reminder of this major event in modern human history.

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.

Douglas Worts