What have we done?

This is a summary of what we’ve achieved and what there is still to do, through our Stories of Extraction project, enabled by the Activist Museum Award. The call is out for the second year of this Award, and we wish the next awardees the best of luck. It has been a pleasure working with the University of Leicester, and the fellow awardees. We’d also like to offer respect and gratitude to Bob Janes for initiating and supporting this award. Thank you!

First, who are we?

We are Climate Museum UK, a very new mobile and digital museum stirring & collecting responses to the the Earth crisis. A team of creative people based in the UK, passionate about the planet, we produce & gather art, objects, ideas, games and books. We use these in activations to help people to play, make, think & talk about the Earth crisis and to open their imaginations to possible futures.

Our digital collecting

We needed to develop the digital side of our work, and to do this in a way that was informed by our ethical principles (intersectional, compassionate, participatory, holistic, planet-kind, possitopian). We had been running some projects online e.g. #EverydayEcocide — collecting eco-blindness in media & culture, and had just begun #ExtremeWeatherStories — collecting experiences of people in frontline of climate breakdown. And using mainly Pinterest to organise and share thousands of links on environmental topics.

The project began

We were able to begin work on our Award project in January 2020. See our first post that outlined our hypothesis and why we were focusing on extractivism. The aim of our award project was to scope how we might develop a distributed digital collection, encouraging a more commons-based approach to digital museum practices. We had the idea of creating a portal onto digital cultural collections (nationwide and beyond), opening with the theme of extractivism.

Collecting views on extractivism

We identified four dimensions of extractivism, and invited people to write blogposts in response to this, perhaps exploring how particular museums or collections could be better interpreted in relation to the following:

  • People-centred: experiences of people whose land, animal & plant kin, and their own bodies & cultures, are treated as resources for exploitation.
  • Material-centred: systems of extraction, production, transport & trade around commodities & artefacts.
  • Place-centred: histories & impacts of extraction through places e.g. cities, bioregions, ecological reserves or heritage sites.
  • More-than-human-centred: extraction of animal & plant kin through hunting, ecosystem destruction, transplantation, breeding & exploitation.

We created this model to understand the acceleration and scope of extractivism.

By Bridget McKenzie

We set up this Medium platform and sent out some invitations to associates to write articles. Several were enthusiastic but were soon stymied by Covid-19 and work pressures. One guest post here is by Justine Boussard, asking ‘Whose normal is it anyway? Looking for the origins’. And three more guest posts are due to come. We will keep this publication alive, and you are invited to respond to the question of how extractivism can be represented in museums.

Other posts you can find here include: ‘The Possible Path’ not ‘Build Back Better’; Maskbook — Art of Change 21; Thinking about an ecocentric worldview; Cultural organisations for Regenerative Culture; and Museums & Bioregionalism.

Learning resources

We carried out a project with A New Direction to produce some learning resources for schools, using historic sources and objects, to help them explore Colonialism and Climate. It uses Jamaica and Nigeria as places to focus the exploration.

Collecting views on the digital commons project

How can we collect in a way that is non-extractive, or commons-based, and that will allow us to tackle extractivism and the Earth crisis?

In February we issued a survey to cultural heritage professionals, asking their views on a hypothetical project, in which asset-holders would ‘donate’ relevant objects into a digital repository and encourage participatory interpretation of them, illuminating their relevance to climate and ecology. By donating, the asset-holder would keep the object but point to the repository with a digital label (e.g. QR code on a gallery label), and actively invite diverse interpretations of the object which can be added to metadata directly by participants or by the asset-holding organisation.

By the time this survey was out, the Covid-19 pandemic was peaking, and museum staff were being furloughed. We received (only) nine responses, but at least 70% said they were extremely interested in contributing! About half would be able to contribute fully by donating, inviting interpretations, doing talks/events, and supporting/promoting the project.

The topics that most feel their collections are relevant for — were colonialism, landscape and food/farming, but also underpinned with values, imagination, empathy and storytelling. Objects that might be ‘donated’ include: Singer sewing machine; an overstuffed walrus; miner’s strike badges; an electric storm surge machine developed in the wake of 1953 floods; armour from Kiribati. Ideas for digital collecting tools included: Twitter hashtags; the Gift app; Omeka; and Wikimedia.

Because the survey responses were underwhelming, we organised a Zoom meeting in August. You can read the outcomes of the discussion here, after which we revised the idea for an ideal digital project. This ideal project would really focus on activists as users of digital collections — a user group that has been largely ignored. It would embody digital collections powering activism to tackle the big challenges of social and environmental justice.

Side projects

The enquiry led to members of our team doing several spin-off projects. For example, I compiled a massive article (a collection of views & articles) capturing all the links between the Earth crisis, extractivism and the Covid-19 pandemic. I took this further by creating a large collage to illustrate these connections.

Team member Lucy Carruthers worked with Scarborough Museums Trust creating Museum Farewell, an animation asking ‘what if…?’ their collection of taxidermied animals were re-animated and sought to return to the contexts from which they’d been extracted.

Artist Beckie Leach has been reflecting on the role of artists in how they respond to the colonialist and extractivist background to the current Sixth Mass Extinction. She will be applying this in communications around the Remembrance Day for Lost Species, at the end of November.

Writer Alara Adali has been working on a collection of voices of people affected by climate change, and thinking about how contemporary digital collecting is a form of journalism. How do we respectfully collect people’s stories? How does this help them in their predicaments?

Being an Activist Museum Worker

Together with the two other Activist Museum Award winners, the International Museum of Slavery and Museum as Muck, we had some conversations and decided to do an open event about being an activist museum worker. This asked: What challenges arise, what changes have you made happen, and what tensions arise in facing intersecting issues? Often we are fighting the same battles under different banners, so how can activists work together on common aims?

We (Climate Museum UK) led on the organisation of this event, and the recording can be downloaded from here.

What next?

We expect to be carrying on with this enquiry, at least until January to make it a round year. You can still share posts with us to be published here. It has been a bit of a mixed pot of themes, so they will split off into different projects. These include:

#EverydayEcocide — a continuation of this collecting project, which we offer up as a research project for students interested to examine the different types of Everyday Ecocide that have been surfaced since 2016.

#MyClimateMuseum — encouraging people to create climate museums in their own homes, schools, outdoor sites or museums. Sharing their artworks, objects, digital resources, even their recycling or mending projects, to engage people with climate and ecology issues. Our prompts will borrow from museum practice to encourage putting objects into groups, displaying them well, creating interpretations and cherishing things for the future.

#EcoLensOnThings — using social media as an experimental platform for interpreting and inviting interpretations of collections with a climate and ecology lens. We have started by using Twitter, simply to show ways that objects could be seen through an eco lens. See this Twitter thread as an example. And this post by Justine Boussard reflecting on this approach.

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