Blog: Sustainable development and museums

Published: 29 Jul 2020

Author: Henry McGhie
Blog: Sustainable development and museums

Our world is off track in many ways. We can see a range of social challenges – rising inequality within and between countries, the degradation of nature in the UK and worldwide, and the massive challenge of tackling climate change within a limited timeframe. On top of this, we are now faced with Covid-19, a curve-ball event.

"Museums aren’t just places that preserve old things and focus on the past. They are places that bring people together and use collections to explore the past, the present and the future." - Henry McGhie, Fellow

In fact, Covid-19 is a good example of how our current challenges are connected. Environmental destruction not only puts people at risk of diseases: it also plays a part in creating new risks. It is thought that Covid-19 probably originated in bats and spread to another animal, and then evolved to change into something new that humans could contract. Pandemics are on the increase, as are zoonotic diseases (that is, diseases originating in animals). Our globalised world helped the virus spread rapidly. Inequality within and between countries put people and communities at varying levels of vulnerability to the hazard. Controlling the virus has had a massive impact on the economy. So, we will have direct losses due the virus, and indirect losses due to the impact of the virus on society and the economy. This is just one example of how our current challenges are interconnected.

So what can we do about them? Sustainable development is an approach that aims to address challenges by considering the three dimensions of sustainability – social, environmental and economic. This works by enhancing positive contributions, reducing negative impacts and ensuring that, in solving our own problems, we’re not just off-loading them onto someone else.

The year 2015 was hugely important for sustainable development, with the adoption of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. The importance of these can’t be overstated. They are globally agreed agendas to put society on track to a future where people attain their basic rights and where nature is protected and thriving. Yet, few people or organisations have heard of them, let alone played a part in bringing them to life. All three agendas acknowledge the importance of an all-of-society approach.

I’ve been working on sustainability, climate change and museums for a long time. Museums aren’t just places that preserve old things and focus on the past. They are places that bring people together and use collections to explore the past, the present and the future. For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been looking at how museums can play a part in addressing sustainability challenges, notably climate change and nature conservation.

I’ve been doing this by organising conferences, writing books, developing partnerships and arranging exhibitions. My work is about helping to bridge the gap between policy agendas and public action. For example, I’ve been collaborating with UN Climate Change since 2017, and this helped lead to the inclusion of museums (among other non-state actors) in the Work Programme for the Paris Agreement at COP24 in Poland. I’m also on the International Council of Museums Sustainability Working Group, and we helped shape a Resolution on Sustainability, adopted by the members of International Council of Museums (ICOM), on using the Sustainable Development Goals as a template for sustainability activity.

I left the museum where I worked in 2019 to focus my time and energy on advancing and accelerating this work, which matters a great deal to me. Now I help museums to get started on sustainability, by writing guides that set out how they can contribute to these agendas. One guide I wrote, Museums and the Sustainable Development Goals, has been downloaded over 11,000 times. I’ve just published another, Museums and Disaster Risk Reduction: building resilience in museums, society and nature. I suggest that anyone interested in the role – current and potential – of museums and cultural institutions in addressing big-picture challenges should have a look at these guides as a starter.

As society emerges, or faces a Covid-19 world, drawing on and contributing to current agendas makes a lot of sense. As the Sustainable Development Goals already incorporate the main challenges facing society, as well as human rights, and multiple international conventions and agendas, they are a ready-made blueprint for organisations to use to contribute effectively to society.

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