What If We Put Nature in the DNA of the Museum?

Diane Drubay
We Are Museums
Published in
7 min readDec 26, 2019

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The ‘Museums Facing Extinction’ pilot designed and supported by We Are Museums and EIT Climate-KIC was held in the Futurium in Berlin, Germany, from 21 to 24 November 2019.

It provided a space for collaboration across fields of expertise with the collective aim of addressing the climate crisis. Even at this early stage, the community has identified itself as uniquely regenerative and collaborative, unafraid to push professional boundaries and provoke uncommon considerations from one another. Focusing around four (soon five!) action levels, each of the upcoming ‘Museums Facing Extinction’ events will respond to the challenges identified by the group within the different levels of museums actions.

By compiling these practical solutions from each event, an ever-growing database of solutions for museums will be compiled and offered to the community to encourage further collaboration.

In this article, we will dive in one of the toolkits designed throughout the solution-design sprint format of the pilot event. Rather than providing an in-depth analysis of the deliverables, we cooked up for you short introductions providing insight to the creative process underwent by the diverse group of climate and cultural experts and change-makers. The ideas and solutions crafted during the multi-day sprinted solution design have built a framework for further collaboration across the museum community and identified practical steps towards better practice in individual institutions.

The group self-named “What If We Put Nature in the DNA of the Museum?” considers the process of creation stemming from action-level ‘Act like a Neighbor— Museums act as a part of micro-communities. Together with local stakeholders and grassroots movements, your museum becomes a powerful role model encouraging local social responsibility and can have a global impact on the planet.

→ One step to turn local micro-communities into climate role models

The Step-By-Step Creative Process

Following a series of inspiring provocations delivered by the participants, groups were formed to identify key themes or questions to be addressed. Through a natural process of discourse, result-sharing, re-grouping, rethinking and refining, three offerings to the museum's community were eventually drafted. The sprinted solution design produced early questions such as “what do communities need from museums?”. The group that discussed this provocation-inspired concern convened over what museums could offer their local communities. They arrived at a variety of concrete actions which they then presented to the room, many of which were carried on throughout the next day of solution building, after a few hurdles of interpersonal understanding.

They suggested to invite people into the museum and to offer resources beyond exhibitions. It was clear that museums must work to adjust their image if they wish for people to actively seek out their expertise. As Rena Baledi (Project Manager, Museum of Movements, Sweden) noted previously in her provocation; museums are still colonial structures which have done harm, thus work remains before the many offerings of the museum are more actively sought by the public. On that note, the group suggested that museums designate a ‘community gardener’ for inviting local persons and taking note of general interest or concerns in the community.

This individual could also help increase transparency in how the museum interacts with its community, and could, for example, aid in creating multi-month community organizing events.

The group announced that space for debate and discussion was necessary, which of course reflected many of the provocations heard earlier, including that of Camilla Tham (Anthropocene Engagement Manager, Natural History Museum of London, United Kingdom) and went further to suggest a redesign of spaces within the museum, in order to make all members of the community comfortable. They went as far as to recommend a ‘Botanical gardenization’ of the museum, with the goal of creating ‘an oasis in an urban jungle.’ This suggestion began to morph the Act Like a Neighbor action-level into a broader definition than what may have been initially understood. From this point, under the action-level Act Like a Neighbor, museums and their operations were understood as institutions which should not only act as neighbours to other sectors or groups within the local community but which should also actively consider and support their local ecosystem. The community-focused theme, from that point, became attached to the notion that ‘Nature should be
in the DNA of the museum.’

Nature in the DNA of the Museum — Principles for Local Engagement

David Weigend (Head of Education and Participation, Futurium, Germany), introduced the group’s early results. He explained that they had focused on varieties of resources and cultivating an openness to try new things among other topics of change. He also acknowledged that the group spent time oscillating between specific projects and more general topics. David presented the overarching goal of the second group as shifting the view audiences have of museums and establishing nature as part of the museum’s DNA.

Camilla Tham continued and gave context in relation to the Museums Facing Extinction action-level Act Like a Neighbor, explaining that they addressed the ecosystem and the local community as one, and 3 aimed at establishing a route for institutions to take into consideration natural elements on their own doorstep. She went on to say that it is important to understand who your audience is as well as how they value and experience nature. With that knowledge, museums are in a better position to create an impact on their community. Camilla went on to describe the importance of establishing a transdisciplinary approach and creating partnerships with local organizations, as well as with the community, in order to enhance flexibility and adaptability. She mentioned the goal of fostering an empathetic relationship with Nature and explained to the room that the group was stuck on how to genuinely reflect these suggestions within the work of your institution. After further exchange over their early work, a short discussion opened in the room, wherein participants offered suggestions and posed questions regarding evaluation impact. Later, Camilla mentioned that there is data about what kind of photos are more or less impactful, but the harder questions are still unanswered (i.e. what leads people to action) and went on to define the importance of seeking the answers to those difficult questions, as there are reasons that certain narratives are more effective than others (i.e. climate denial in the United States). Hannah Lee Chalk (Learning Manager, Manchester Museum, United Kingdom) then provoked the room by asking whether the intention was to keep trying to evaluate their respective levels of impact or rather DO something?

The template introduced by this group in their second round of result-sharing revealed that while they held tight to their original guiding concept and principles, they faced dilemmas and friction throughout their creation. In the end, while their goals were vast, their templet provided concrete actions which could be taken by museums in order to make nature ‘part of the museum’s DNA.’ David introduced their template, which included guiding principles and suggested activities such as: hosting team meetings outdoors and brainstorming in the forest, adopting local plants into the museum office space and establishing a garden in front of the museum, or documenting the local ecosystem and putting the map on display in the office. Camilla went further by stating that knowing your audience and enhancing the level of participation with them would be key to the success of any form of community action or engagement with the local environment.

In the Idea or the Project, Regeneration Is Key

The natural process of ideation described above was undergone by all of the participants of the ‘Museums Facing Extinction’ pilot event. Each participant arrived with their own ideas and were both challenged and cultivated by those of their fellow participants.

This article described the process which delivered practical ways to involve the local community and ecosystem in the approach of museums. Over the course of the multi-day sprinted solution design, ideas were developed and redesigned through consistent refinement, dilemma, and re-consideration. In addition to the varied toolkits, a shared sense of the unique and regenerative community being built by ‘Museums Facing Extinction’ resulted from the pilot event.

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Diane Drubay
We Are Museums

Founder of @wearemuseums. Co-founder of @alterhen. Arts & Culture for the Tezos ecosystem. Visual artist nudging for nature awareness.