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

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 Index website

Feb 4, 2017

Progressive Businesses/Industries May Be Best Bet to Bring Climate Change Back onto  The US Government’s Agenda

As the Trump administration scrubs all references to climate change from its websites and policies, many people are wondering (as they watch in horror), how to help create a flourishing world. Since the elected officials in the USA’s new federal government have no time for science and don’t have a track record for creating consultative, thoughtful plans, it may be that progressive businesses can help shift the conversation.

Many organizations have already assessed how best to effectively weave their business/financial visions and practices into the fabric of an evolving society that has complex needs, aspirations and constraints. It is fair to say that progressive businesses are in a process of transformation that will not only generate financial value, but also environmental and social value. Traditional business models have set their sights on generating as much income as possible, as they do whatever is necessary to reduce their costs. Historically, social and environmental damage, along with their related financial costs, were dismissed as ‘externalities’ by economists – letting business off the hook with regard to responsibility. However, there are foundational shifts taking place within the business community – or at least across progressive parts of that community. Newer approaches to business modelling are designed to help build a world in which people today can meet their needs, while providing for a future where upcoming generations can meet their own needs. It only makes sense that businesses that damage the Earth’s natural systems, or which create social dysfunction (especially inequity), will not have much of a future. It seems so counter-productive to enable businesses to destroy the very fabric of humanity, as they unconsciously wreak havoc with the biosphere – but this reflects the historical foundations of business legislation. Although regulations have been created to direct businesses towards greater social and environmental responsibility, the new Trump administration is attempting to turn the clock back some 50 years by undoing as much of the regulatory framework for business as possible.

Successful, progressive businesses have already realized that a flourishing future requires a dynamic balance of social, economic and environmental realities. The days of driving maximum profits through the endless production and consumption of ‘stuff’ are fast disappearing. The smart businesses today are not simply looking to generate satisfied consumers. Rather they are increasingly cultivating engaged consumers who fully understand, and take responsibility for, the implications of their consumption habits. Such businesses also understand, and take responsibility for, literally adding value to both the social and environmental fabric of our world as they generate economic benefit. It is a very complex challenge, made even more difficult because a sustainable business applies its thinking and planning across the entire value chain of their business operations. This goes beyond traditional economic considerations of inputs/processing/outputs. Responsible businesses today are concerned with: the social/environmental impacts related to supply chains; employing manufacturing processes that do no harm as they generate their intended value; ethical approaches to marketing and consumer education; concern for both intended and unintended public consequences for the public; as well as, recycling/disposal of products that have come to the end of their lives.

Up until recently, it has been government regulations that have largely been responsible for prodding businesses to mitigate the worst of the collateral damage caused by their actions within social and environmental realms. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which started in Boston in 1997, has had a large impact on businesses that aim to transform traditional, profit-centred corporate practices into a more balanced ‘triple-bottom-line’ approach. And investment research organizations, such as Sustainalytics, have helped investors make informed choices that not only generate solid economic returns, but also generate positive social and environmental value. More recently, the Future-Fit Foundation, headquartered in the UK, but with partners in Europe, Canada and elsewhere, has developed the Future-Fit Business Benchmark (FFBB). Drawing on extensive research from business, environmental and social sources, as well as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the FFBB provides tools and a framework to help businesses become ‘fit for the future’. In a similar vein, there is a surge in research related to the design of businesses that will contribute to a ‘flourishing’ world – using John Ehrenfeld’s notion of business that aims to achieve “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever”. In Toronto, Canada there is a group developing the Flourishing Business Model Canvas, which is both a business design tool to help enterprises fully think through the challenging task of creating sustainable businesses. This work is being lead by Antony Upward, a Certified Management Consultant and Flourishing Enterprise Designer, along with a large group of designers, researchers and business leaders. Another point of inspiration is rooted in the work of Alan AtKisson, a sustainability innovator, educator and designer whose company, the AtKisson Group, has been working globally with businesses, governments, non-profits, educational organizations and the United Nations to develop the planning and innovation skills necessary to move humanity towards a sustainable future. All of this is to say that there is a great deal of inspiring work available to help businesses, governments and consumers alike to help create a world that will meet humanity’s current and future needs. The kinds of resources referenced above (and there are many others as well) may be able to help governments craft a vision of the future to which this new American administration may subscribe.

Historically, business lobbyists have exerted huge pressure on governments to further the economic interests of corporations and industries. Theirs has often been driven by a desire to maintain the economic and social status quo – using the rationale of ‘don’t mess with success’ – even if the status quo is creating untold damage to both the social and environmental fabric. As some organizations (for example Unilever) develop more holistic approaches to their business modelling, goals and desired impacts, they are proving that a sustainability/flourishing approach will help ensure the generation of multiple forms of value (economic, social and environmental). This kind of progressive thinking needs to influence governments so that any business and consumer incentives and regulations can be effectively designed to support the creation of a broadly defined understanding of what we call ‘value’ – not simply economic profits.

As globalization in recent decades has transformed economics, the complexity of supply chains, manufacturing operations, and a slew of unintended environmental and social consequences has lead to both positive and negative outcomes. It is increasingly clear that if traditional, profit-first business principles are held onto with a death-grip, then the outcomes will not serve anyone in the longer term.

Humanity could do with a new generation of lobbyists to help inform and assist governments to be as focused as possible on creating solutions to the myriad problems facing the world. Progressive businesses and industries can help to shift prevailing cultural values to become more grounded in our current local and global realities. Perhaps lobbying from the progressive side of business may help to redirect the Trump administration away from its plan to create incentives that would try to rejuvenate the coal industry. Certainly as Trump’s plan moves forward, progressive businesses that have invested large amounts of money into renewable energy will be very negatively affected. It seems clear that the Trump-led government has not done any solid analysis or projections of the implications of its plans to bolster certain sectors at the expense of others. Otherwise, we would have seen an evidence-based rationale for the directions in which they are headed – which is not the case.

Generally, change is hard for people, but it is especially difficult within a population that has devolved into combative, intolerant partisanship. There are a lot of people currently who feel that they lost any sense of connection to how political decisions are made. Democracy in the ‘free world’ is the lowest ebb of any time in my life. Change is fundamental and continuous force in life. At this point in time, human systems must be modified in order to ensure that the ability of the biosphere to regenerate itself and to support life around the world is not destroyed. Science, which has brought so much value to the human experience in recent centuries, confirms that the biosphere is suffering under the stresses put on it by humanity. Sadly, ideologically narrow and regressive forces are attempting to short-circuit virtually everything that is on the frontiers of contemporary science. Currently a major storm is brewing, involving the convergence of: an exponentially increasing global population; expanding urbanization; escalating mobility and pluralization; the deterioration of the biosphere (including Climate Change); the globalized nature of our consumer-based human economy that remains preoccupied with profits and power; as well as, a prevailing inclination to think that the past offers the allure of a ‘golden age’ to which we can return. Change is happening across our world – but much of it is happening without conscious intent or consideration of likely implications. It is the Titanic heading merrily towards the iceberg, with an arrogant attitude that the ship is unsinkable. A thorough analysis of the many interdependent systems is needed, plus the adoption of intelligent innovations – economic, political, cultural, social – that can help us strike better balances within our human systems and between humanity and the biosphere.

The values that drive our unbalanced economic system is at the core of our sustainability challenges, which is a big challenge because the dysfunction is not simply within the economy, but it is embedded in the culture itself. When the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11, then President George Bush called for Americans to do their patriotic duty and… go shopping! This was simply because the country’s economic health, which was threatened by the terrorist attack, is tied to consumption. For many in our society, shopping is not only an economic process, it is a social and even a therapeutic activity. But shopping for the sake of driving GDP is insane – because there are so many unintended consequences related to traditional consumption. This situation is made even more worrisome because consumption is tied to the core value within manufacturing circles of ‘planned obsolescence’. Specifically, what industry produces for consumption is designed to last only a certain time period so that the industry can continue to produce more materials to consume. Our traditional employment strategies and wealth generation are both tied to planned obsolescence. This reality hastens the exploitation of natural resources, thereby drawing down the natural capital that humanity’s future depends upon. Shopping is simply not a solution to problems of global equity, conflict and well-being. This kind of retail behaviour is a form of insanity – with a death wish appended to it.

The Ecological Footprint, developed through the early 1990s by Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, is a system for measuring the impact of humanity on Nature. Using such assessment tools, experts have determined that it was around the late 1970s or early ’80s that human activity had grown to a point where it placed so much demand on natural systems (both for the products we rely on and for the processes of neutralizing our waste) that the biosphere could not regenerate itself year after year. The result has been similar to someone who finds that his/her past ability to live off the interest generated by the capital asset within their bank’s savings account is no longer possible. If you have an interest-bearing asset, but you decide to live beyond the interest income itself, they you will have killed the goose that lays the golden egg. Humanity now finds itself in this position. Sadly, patterned ways of understanding and acting in our ever-changing world die hard, with the result that many businesses and citizens resist change. Now the White House aims to return its economic, social and environmental policies to a point rooted in the 1950s — which will be totally inadequate to deal with today’s globalized complexity. In many ways, traditionalists find greater comfort in looking backwards. And although it is critical for a people to know from whence they came, romanticizing and becoming preoccupied with the past is a recipe for disaster as the world keeps moving forward. The need for understanding current trends, fostering empathy and relationship, as well as building new solutions to meet today’s needs is the order of the day if we are to avoid the most serious risks facing humanity.

When it comes to assessing risk, actuaries are on the front lines. Actuaries, most of whom work within the insurance sector, are highly skilled professionals capable of understanding business, human and environmental risks. For years, these professionals have been quietly assessing the insurance industry’s business risks associated with climate change and extreme weather, and they have some compelling things to say about it. Certainly not all businesses are positioned to use their core competencies to do this, but some are, and their voices will be heard more clearly by the Trump administration than those of scientists. Check out how actuaries have joined in the public dialogue about our globally changing climate.

ACTUARIES DIVE INTO CLIMATE CHANGE DATA!

Actuaries are some of the heavy lifters of risk-based data analysis, focusing on understanding trends in risks and benefits. For the most part, they limit their work to helping insurance companies manage financial risk in order to optimize financial returns within the field of insurance. However, their capacity to assess risk within dynamic social and natural systems goes way beyond the financial and profit-oriented aspects of our world. Over the past couple of years, a group of bright and motivated actuaries from the USA and Canada organized themselves to create an actuarial lens on the phenomenon of climate change. Late in 2016, they launched their project – which provides a quarterly measure of changes in extreme weather events and sea levels, available online at www.ActuariesClimateIndex.org.

Using a reference period of 1960 to 1990, the work of this group sheds light on changes in the extremes of weather/climate. As the authors state, there is value in examining ‘averages’ in temperatures, precipitation, storms, droughts and so on – however, it is more revealing to examine patterns within the extremes of these aspects of weather. I am very pleased to see this part of the business community (both the insurance industry and specifically the actuaries) step up to use their considerable skills to help humanity get inside the complexity of trends and patterns that are shaping in our world today. It is ironic that at this moment when business is increasingly embracing the issues of humanity’s future within the limits of a closed biosphere, some political leaders are sticking their heads in the sand as they collectively aspire to return to a romanticized notion of the past. Writing executive orders to carry out very poorly thought out plans for returning to the golden age of smog is not an astute path to leadership into a future that humanity can actually survive. Nor will positive results flow from pretending that climate change doesn’t exist and that social equity is not central to creating a peaceful, flourishing world.

As Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” It will require new thinking, tools and approaches. For example, the wildly expanding realm of social entrepreneurs are stretching the imagination and reality to create businesses that simultaneously generate economic, social and environmental value. Meanwhile, initiatives such as the Future-Fit Business Benchmark and the Flourishing Business Model Canvas, offer insights into the depth of thinking, analyzing and creative experimentation that is happening in this realm.

Check out the Actuaries Climate Index. I am guessing that many businesses will not want to return to an unsustainable 1950s mindset. The world has changed – except for some of the fossils in the fossil fuel industry, and manufacturers that subscribe to the dangerous value of planned obsolescence. Our economy needs to be designed to create social, environmental as well as financial value – and we will only see that goal slip away if the Trump administration pursues its current naive vision for the future.

Douglas Worts, Culture and Sustainability Specialist

Originally published on LinkedIn, January, 31, 2017


Actuaries Dive into Climate Change Data!

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