Change is the only constant in life.

How Nature and Deep Listening Can Teach Us New Models to Foster Climate Actions?

This is the augmented version of a speech I gave on September 24th 2020 at the symposium “How to… From Climate Knowledge to Climate Action” organised by the Klimahaus 8°Ost in Bremerhaven, Germany.

The more our Planet is endangered, the more I look at Nature to make sense of everything. Nature evolves at a different speed than ours and at a fundamentally different scale as well. Getting inspired by Nature can help us to leverage social and environmental change at a local and systemic level and move towards better futures for people and the Planet. With 3.8 billion years of research and development, Nature should be seen as our main mentor.

The world we are in cannot work on a competitive model anymore. The systems ruling our society today are not generating models made to last. Monoculture, efficiency and optimisation are no longer fertile-models.

Two days ago, we organised an online meetup in the Online Community of We Are Museums with the director of the Women’s Museum in Denmark, Julie Rokkjær Birch. Listening to the history of the museum, born from a feminist grassroots movement in the 80s, and how the team reacted during the lockdown of COVID-19, made me realise that a resilient and agile museum is a museum about the here and the now.

I connected that directly to a research project we held with the Biomimicry Academy in Berlin in 2019/2020. We took the model of the ecosystem of a forest to guide us understanding new social ecosystems. The main goal of this research programme was to understand how museums could create symbiotic relationships with their neighbours.

The team made an analogy based on the fact that a tree in a forest can be seen as a museum in its neighbourhood. In this model, the flow of information between a museum and the local communities could be seen as nutrients and water transfer between the trees and the mycelium. To summarize quickly, the vision is to imagine the museum as a tree among others in a forest and neighbours as the mycelium connecting them all.

Being able to understand one’s ecosystem and biodiversity is all about the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and staying locally attuned while celebrating one’s individuality and core features.

But this can’t be done alone, in silos, in departments or within sectors. Julie also explained to us that she sees her museum as an organism and not as an organisation, where each employee is a cell working on different projects and making things happen, together. Cooperation, mutual benefit and symbiosis is Nature honour diversity and use a broad range of different interactions to allow mutual morphosis and evolution.

The more I understand Nature and I listen to resilient systems like a forest or the Women’s Museum in Aarhus, the more I feel some requisites are essential to imagine regenerative futures. Cultivating cultural courage and support, listening deeper and longer, celebrating plurality and understanding the potential of togetherness are keys to foster change.

Inspired by this, we have been working on a visual roadmap called “Museums on the Climate Journey”. This illustration is divided into four stepping stones for change, going from the macro to the micro-level.

1 In our map, the first space for transformation sees museums as a complex and dynamic system composed of a worldwide network of 80 000 agents of change.

Of course, systemic change starts with a step by step adjustments. But those steps should be directed towards transformations of the fundamental features and principles of the system itself. And this explains to my mind the unsolvable debate the museum community is going through about the museum definition.

We should take into consideration that museums are not isolated entities and that they go under the same mission and role in our societies.

Museums are ruled by a sense of purpose which defines their programmes and actions. The Black Lives Matter movement and the wave of ethical debates raised within museums highlight it even more today. If every museum moves toward better futures for people and the planet, we can expect a significant impact on our society.

2 The second level of action called “Use Your Voice” recognises museums as civic platforms.

Museums are respected and trustworthy institutions with the ability to add perspectives to the public dialogue. Museums have the potential to help in overcoming political difficulties and become an accelerator for collective actions.

Examples of actions include creating a platform for expression and discussion for different movements, withdraw from fossil fuels sponsors or start ecocide campaigns.

3 The third level of action “Act as a neighbour” imagines museums as part of a local ecosystem, part of a neighbourhood. At a community level, museums can start to collaborate and be part of the life of the district.

They can create a community-managed resources centre with shared-equipment and material with the local organisations, sell local or sustainable products in their shop, run upcycling workshops, turn the green space around the museum into a community garden and offer permaculture or gardening workshops or even offer a climate-anxiety first aid line.

4 The last level of action is “Turn your museum green”. It looks at the museum as a building. Turning the museum into a climate-positive institution will qualify museums as examples of sustainable practices from the facilities, the office spaces, how they produce exhibitions or what they sell in the shop.

Also, even though we are all aware that cultural institutions are huge carbon consumers, we often forget their digital carbon footprint. Indeed, it is getting bigger each time one object from the collection is being digitised and put online, that one event is streamed or that a new page is being published without following simple sustainable web design rules.

In collaboration with EIT Climate-KIC, we are currently working on a project called ‘Museums Facing Extinction’ which started last November 2019 in Berlin. That’s when this roadmap has been created.

Our goal is to produce a programme inspired by togetherness and system thinking to guide museums towards this transformation, from being climate champions to systemic change makers.

This will be available freely online hopefully at the beginning of next year, but for now, we are gathering examples of what is being done at local levels so feel free to contact me and share these with the We Are Museums Community.

Museum Futurist / Museums Mentor / Founder @wearemuseums Curator @museum_co