Through the Rabbit Hole
Museums and Climate Change
Less than four years ago, way before the COVID-19 pandemic spread out across the globe, Margret Boysen, a scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, published her adult fairytale story “Alice, the Zeta Cat and Climate Change”.
Inspired by Alice in Wonderland, Boysen’s fairytale has an almost identical beginning, complete with mysterious white rabbit drawing Alice down the rabbit hole. She also glides past shelves and books but the rabbit hole proves to be the ventilation shaft of a climate research institute’s supercomputer. The journey continues through a universe of climate models, gleaned through a virtual world of computer models ranging from calculations of past climates, including ice ages, to scary future climate scenarios in which the world is unbearably hot and barren. Climate science is explained with the help of parables and metaphors, told by the likes of Lady Celsius and Prince Carbon, that break the science down into bite-sized chunks of knowledge.
Climate Change — the plurality of emergencies
Climate emergency demands urgent action to avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage. It is about change, and the need to react decisively, but climate change may not just be about climate. New York Times Op-Ed columnist and Pulitzer prize-winning Thomas L. Friedman actually writes about three non-linear climate changes happening simultaneously.
The first is what we generally consider to be THE climate change which Friedman calls ‘the change of the climate of the climate.’ Action needs to be taken now, rather than later! What could have been postponed, until fairly recently, is no longer possible. Later will be too late!
The second climate change concerns globalisation. In the simplest of terms, it can be described as the shift from an interconnected to an interdependent world informed buy speed and agility, collaborations that strengthen competitiveness and the strategic use of networks as claimed, amongst many other things, by a report published by the McKinsey Global Institute in January 2019.
The third climate change is about technology causing a major change in societies all over the globe. As machines acquire the attributes of human beings to think and reason, learn and engage, humanity is on the treshold of a new world where institutions run by machines can rethink the meaning of relevance.
Friedman began to speak about this three-pronged accelleration well before the COVID-19 pandemic came along. Now, more than ever before, his thinking is unquestionably relevant, particularly for museums! It is indeed necessary to explain the moment, more than ever before!
The Museum IS Alice!
There is a climate change happening for museums all over the world, not just one but three. This climate emergency for museums concerns climate, interdependability and technology which has accellerated even further with the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, Alice might be a most welcome analogy at this point!
For museums, the fall through the rabbit hole seems to be surprisingly slow as the pandemic continues to extend and expand over time with no end in sight. This reminds me so much of what Elaine Zelby shares in one of her recent blogposts
Alice falls for quite a while — long enough to scout out the environment, grab some food off a passing shelf, speculate erroneously about other parts of the world, drift into a reverie about cats, and nearly fall asleep.
The hallucinations of the rabbit hole, and this common understanding of passing into the labyrinth of some logic-defying realm, is the metaphor for the entry into the unknown. But the rabbit hole can also be a gate into a new world of unknown territories that museums are yet to discover. Back in 2015, Catherine Schultz writing in the New Yorker notes that
“In the current use of “rabbit hole,” we are no longer necessarily bound for a wonderland. We’re just in a long attentional free fall, with no clear destination and all manner of strange things flashing past.”
Much as Alice needs to get her bearings right thanks to her encounters with the Zeta Cat, Lady Celsius, Prince Carbon and the rest of the motley crew in Margaret Boysen’s book, so is Alice in need of understanding how the other three major climate changes described by Friedman can be approached, dealt with and handled. The characters to help museums do so might be too early to define. There may well be the need of a both a Zeta Cat and a Cheshire cat to guide the way forward, for example, even if at times misleading. Other characters might also come into the picture at some stage but what matters is that museums are engaging with all three climate changes.
Museums have been, indeed, championing advocacy for climate change action. Beyond the Museums for Future Movement, we have also seen the first experimentation with biomimicry, described by Janine Benyus as “the technology of biology”. Much work has been done on this topic by the We Are Museums platform including a collaboration with the Biomimicry Academy in Berlin supporting students to apply this thinking to museums, in which I also took part with great pleasure. Aspiring architects are exploring nature-inspired museum projects in their studies. New museum projects are also informed by biomimicry too. The New European Bauhaus project is the latest initiative that museums should also be looking into, particularly new projects that are currently in the works. Nevertheless, the risk is still there — with all the pressures brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic that museums are increasingly subject to, climate change runs the risk of being relegated way below other priorities.
Museums cannot shy away any longer from the newly-found sense of interconnectivity that has come to be in such a short time. The museum landscape is much more connected and yet there is certainly the need for more local museum publics consumption, an increase in services that can be much more personalised thanks to technology and a change in the geography of global demand where museums can position themselves globally thanks to technology irrespective of whether they are a heavyweight in New York or an aspiring champion in the Mediterranean. More than ever before, museums can also engage resources based at the other end of the globe, attracting top talent by fostering remote working that can also happen on the move. Last November, the McKinskey global institute rightly suggested that
“The virus has broken through cultural and technological barriers that prevented remote work in the past, setting in motion a structural shift in where work takes place, at least for some people.”
Museums continue to react and engage, embrace and relate to technology mostly because it continues to be understood as their only tool to fuel their relevance. The latest snapshot of the European museum landscape published by NEMO-the Network of European Museums Organisations suggests a definite exponential increase in the online presence of museums (93%), a third have added budgets and resources to increase this online presence and that 40% have changed tasks of existing staff to managing online activities of their museum. What could perhaps be the next step for museums is high-end customisation of the type described by Friedman
“ In the world of AI and big data, first of all, every company can sensorize. It can capture all the data around its business. Now, a company can actually know what it knows. Then it can take that data and analyze it, with big data and AI, it can find the needle in the haystack of its data as the norm, not the exception. It can see patterns it could never see before… I can customize just for guys from Minnesota with brown eyes and a mustache…”
Much like Alice, museums will find themselves much too big to pass through doors and need bottled help on high tables to become smaller and smaller to get through to gardens they have never been to. They might need to get bigger again to reach keys to unlock doors, but they also risk drowning in their own tears, too big as they expand and contract.
When Museums become Alice, they would ask the question that has long been written on the wall “Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” and acknowledge that “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” It may feel very much like one of many conversations with the Chesire cat!
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
One possible reply could be the one that Alice gave in this conversation …
“I don’t much care where –” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “– so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
But what would really, really matter is for them to continue being
“Curiouser and curiouser!”