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Climate Change

Introduction

Human-induced, or anthropogenic, climate change is a defining challenge of the twenty-first century, demanding urgent action. As we already face severe impacts caused by climate change, such as biodiversity loss, rising sea levels and intensified natural disasters, and with 2023 being the hottest year on record, the need for decisive action is undeniable.  

Around the world, governments, whole industries and commercial and charitable organisations are attempting to address this challenge, and museums are playing their part, too, finding new ways to cut carbon use. The Association’s Curatorial Committee believes that art curators have a part to play in advancing sustainability and in programming exhibitions geared at accelerating climate awareness. We aim to help raise consciousness of this issue among art curators, offering guidance and signposting resources that we hope will help curators consider how they can make the best-for-the-planet choices in their daily work.

Why curators should see sustainability and climate action as part of their job 

‘Curate’ comes from the Latin word ‘curare’ which means ‘to take care of, look after’. Today, the curatorial profession encompasses a wide range of activities within museums, galleries and other spaces, from the behind-the-scenes tasks of collections development, management and research to public-facing interpretation and communication, and increasingly collaborative and community-related work.These all involve looking after the objects in our care, and working in the interests of the people we are answerable to (usually, the public) – in other words, caring for objects and people.  

Dubbed a ‘crisis multiplier’, climate change poses a complex, multi-levelled threat to human security and wellbeing, one that may seem both overwhelming and removed from the day-to-day duties and responsibilities of an art curator. Climate change, however, is also one of the most significant threats to cultural artefacts and the galleries, libraries, archives and museums charged with caring for them. It threatens the safety of cultural objects and spaces because changing weather patterns makes fires, floods and pest infestations more frequent. Practically, curators need to support conservation and documentation staff to ensure that objects and heritage assets are stored or displayed safely. Intellectually, they must grapple with how to interpret existing and new cultural objects and make them meaningful and relevant to audiences in a rapidly changing world. Equally, they must consider how they can care for the needs, interests and aspirations of their audiences and other stakeholders. Climate change and ecological crisis affect people in every aspect of their lives, including their cultural pursuits. 80% of the UK population are said to be concerned about climate change, meaning that there is a widespread expectation that cultural organisations will both reflect and address this concern.

In ways that are only now being recognised, the challenges of, and opportunities offered by, caring for objects, people and the planet are intrinsically connected. We believe that curators and other cultural and heritage workers need to recognise that the planet is a key stakeholder in their work and view sustainability and climate action therefore as significant components of their professional responsibilities. Much good work is already being done in this field by museum leaders, but the full implications of the responsibility of curators towards the planet in their individual priorities and use of resources perhaps have yet to be fully realised – and it is this area that is the focus of our new initiative. 

Guiding principles and goals 

In recent years the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has attempted to galvanise and support a global museum movement towards sustainability. In its 2019 Resolution on Sustainability and Agenda 2030, it highlighted five critical dimensions to this issue, known as the ‘5 Ps’:  

  • People: aim to eradicate poverty and ensure dignity and equality for all 
  • Planet: focus on protecting the Earth’s resources and combating climate change
  • Prosperity: ensure all humans enjoy a prosperous life in harmony with nature
  • Peace: commit to fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies 
  • Partnership: enhance global solidarity, focusing particularly on the needs of the most vulnerable.  

Alongside these goals, ICOM has adopted a set of guiding principles to inform its climate action plan, reproduced below as a potentially useful set of considerations for all museum climate action plans:  

  • Engagement with all levels of the organisation (including executive boards, committees and affiliated organisations) 
  • Cost-effectiveness and flexibility (ensures actions are economically viable and adaptable 
  • Respect for human rights and cultural contexts (recognises the rights and needs of minorities and Indigenous peoples, and respects existing international and national agreements). 
  • Holistic and systematic approaches (applies sustainable development across all an organisation’s functions) 
  • Partnerships and multidisciplinary engagement (promotes collaboration across various sectors and disciplines, extending beyond the cultural heritage sectors) 
  • Phased integration (gradually embeds sustainable practices into existing programmes, policies, and strategies) 
  • Ambition and accountability (strives for measurable contributions towards sustainable development and maintains transparency in progress and challenges). 

As the full impact of climate change is predicted to affect disproportionately the Global South, the subject raises important issues of social and political justice. This was recognised by the United Nations in 2015 when member states pledged to take urgent action to combat climate changes and its impacts as part of a broad package of sustainable development goals. They agreed the following climate targets:  

  • Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries 
  • Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning 
  • Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning 
  • Implement the commitment undertaken by developed-country parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to a goal of mobilising jointly $100 billion annually by 2020 from all sources to address the needs of developing countries in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation and fully operationalise the Green Climate Fund through its capitalisation as soon as possible 
  • Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States, including focusing on women, youth and local and marginalised communities 

We believe that such high-level commitments and awareness of the complex impacts of climate change form an essential part of the background to the decisions that individual art curators can take in terms of their curatorial roles and use of resources. 

Next steps 

The Curatorial Committee’s climate initiative aims to help prepare the curatorial community for the unavoidable consequences of climate change and to help reduce and mitigate them. It seeks to demonstrate how resilience, adaptation and, importantly, hope can both catalyse discussion and foster innovative ways of thinking that make alternative futures possible.  

We therefore aim to raise awareness of the threat of climate change and highlight the practical as well as ethical and political aspects of the choices that curators have in their daily work. We recognise that in many large institutions the development of sustainable practices is often handled by non-curatorial staff, notably registrars, conservators and estate managers, and is led by directors. However, we feel it is important that all curators understand and therefore can properly support this climate-related work, and also feel empowered to take responsible, climate-aware steps themselves. Awareness of the issues might lead curators to: 

  • support and advocate for sustainable practices within their organisations and partnerships  
  • reduce their travel, particularly by air, and/or travel with a reduced carbon-cost;
  • choose loans to exhibitions or displays that will not require air travel
  • challenge exhibition designers and other collaborators to choose sustainable solutions wherever possible 
  • investigate the history of climate change through the collections they curate 
  • propose exhibitions or displays that explore climate issues in ways that engage and inspire their visitors
  • review all their activity in the light of what would be best for the planet.

Over the coming months we would like to showcase here steps that curators in the UK are taking in relation to climate change, and we invite curators to email us with details of their reflections, projects or initiatives, so that we can create a portfolio of examples of curatorial responses to the climate crisis. 

We will also arrange events on this subject. If you would like to hear more, or indeed, join our working group, please email us.

Climate Toolkit 

‘It’s about building a foundation for a community of curators’ actions focused on programming climate adaptation and resilience. Hopefully, it will also encourage governmental action on climate mitigation. The goal is to find different scales of perception and experience to gain a polished perspective of what is ahead of us.’ 

John Kenneth Paranada, Curator of Art and Climate Change, Sainsbury Centre, 2024 

The reality of climate change is upon us and addressing its impact on human and planetary health will require a sustained and collective effort throughout the UK’s cultural and heritage sectors. 

To help raise awareness of this issue, we have begun to pull together some resources that we hope will inspire and empower art curators to help navigate the complexities of climate action and drive societal change towards sustainability.  

Please email us if you can suggest useful additional resources. We would like to make this list ever more useful.   

Policy documents: 

CIMAM: Bizot’s Refreshed Green Protocol 2023 

ICOM Action Plan on Sustainability 2030 

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Climate Change 2015 

Organisations: 

Gallery Climate Coalition 

Julie’s Bicycle: Creative Climate Action 

Tate: Tackling the Climate Emergency  

Serpentine: Climate Emergency

Culture Declares Emergency

Museums Association: Museums for Climate Justice

United Nations: Art Charter for Climate Action

Conferences, events: 

Resist, Persist: Gender, Climate and Colonialism, conference, Barbican, London 2023 

Climate Crisis >> Art Action, conference, Whitechapel Gallery and Gallery Climate Coalition, London 2023 

Curating Climate Change, conference, American Swedish Institute, Minneapolis 2024 

Sainsbury Centre First UK Museum to Appoint a Curator of Art and Climate Change, article, 2023 

United Nations Climate Conferences 

Exhibitions: 

Sediment Spirit: The Activation of Art in the Anthropocene, Sainsbury Centre, Norwich 2024 

A World of Care: Turner and the Environment, Turner’s House, Twickenham 2024

Emma Stibbon: Melting Ice | Rising Tides, Towner, Eastbourne 2024 

Matt Collishaw: Petrichor, Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, Kew Gardens, London 2024 

RE/SISTERS: A Lens on Gender and Ecology, Barbican Art Gallery, London 2023 

Gregor Sailer: The Polar Silk Road, Natural History Museum, London 2023 

Green in the Grooves, Camden Arts Centre, London 2023

Dear Earth, Hayward Gallery, London 2023 

Back to Earth, Serpentine 2022

Our Time on Earth, The Curve, Barbican, London 2022 

Arctic: Culture and Climate, British Museum, London 2020 

The Botanical Mind Online, Camden Arts Centre, London 2020 (online)

Michael Pinksy: Pollution Pods, Somerset House, London 2018 

Publications:  

John Kenneth Paranada and Vanessa Tothill (eds.), Planet for Our Future: How Do We Adapt to a Transforming World, Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, 2024

Sarah Wade, Emerging Exhibition Ecologies: Curating Contemporary Art at a Time of Crisis. Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, 2023. 

Jago Cooper, We Need a Planet for Our Future, Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, 2023. 

John Kenneth Paranada, Imagining a Kaleidoscopic Image of Earth’s Life, Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, 2023. 

Nico Wheadon, Museum Metamorphosis: Cultivating Change Through Cultural Citizenship. Rowman and Littlefield, 2022. 

Katya Garcia-Anton, Harald Gaski and Gunvor Guttorm (eds.), Let the River Flow: An Indigenous Uprising and its Legacy in Art, Ecology and Politics, Verso, 2020. 

Sam Solnick, Poetry and the Anthropocene, Routledge, 2017. 

Jennifer Newell, Libby Robin and Kirsten Wehner, Curating Connections in a Climate Changed World, Routledge 2016. 

Emily Scott, Archives of the Present-Future: On Climate Change and Representational Breakdown. Avery Review, Lars Muller Publishers, 2016. 

Jacob Boswell, Notes from the Wasteland: Competing Climatic Imaginaries in the Post-Apocalyptic Landscape. Avery Review, Lars Muller Publishers, 2016. 

Curatorial Committee Working Group: Thomas Ardill, Jennifer Mundy, John Kenneth Paranada

June 2024 

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