Droughts, fires, severe storms, floods, and other calamities are increasing dramatically because of climate change. Humanity is charging into its human-made disasters caused by increased levels of greenhouse gases which are produced when burning fossil fuels. And there are still millions who deny that climate change exists. To increase support for initiating stronger measures to stop climate change, it is evident that more people need to become educated about it.
Museums, science centers and similar institutions, including zoos, aquariums, and planetariums, are excellent places to disseminate knowledge about climate change. The American Alliance of Museums reports 98% of Americans, across all ages, races, and geographical locations, consider museums to be educational.
Museums have great potential to reach many people. According to the American Alliance of Museums, there are 850 million visits each year to museums. According to the book, Museums of the World, by De Gruyler Saur, there are 33,000 museums in the US and 55,000 museums globally. These are a lot of popular venues for reaching the public.
Historically, museums have not adequately reached out to the general public, especially the poor and minorities. Since climate change particularly harms the poor, minorities, and women in the third world, museums have an excellent opportunity to attract these groups by designing exhibits to show how climate change will mainly affect them. In turn, these new museum visitors will be more likely to support museums.
Being able to trust sources of information is very important in convincing the populace that climate change exists. In a study regarding which sources are trusted by people, a majority of the respondents didn’t trust governments as regards to climate change.
For example, 66% of Australians, along with 73% of polled residents in New York State, New York City, and New Jersey lacked confidence in national governments. Furthermore, 81% distrusted industry and corporations as informative sources on climate change. By contrast, 66% in Australia and 56% in the US trusted museums. They are considered the most trustworthy source of information in the US, and they are rated higher than local newspapers, nonprofits researchers, academic researchers, and the US government. The American Alliance of Museums asserts that museums are considered a more reliable source of historical information than books, teachers or even personal accounts by relatives.
Respondents in museum surveys feel that museums should include information on climate change. An Australian online survey dealing with the role of museums and science centers found that 76% felt that they should communicate leading-edge climate science.
The idea that museums should provide information on how individuals can change their lifestyles and make consumer choices to reduce greenhouse emissions was supported by 71%. The assertion that these institutions are in a unique position to challenge people’s ways of thinking and shift people’s point of view was supported by 80% of respondents.
There are several roles that museums could fill in changing attitudes and behaviour about climate change. First of all, they should provide evidence to refute the claims of climate deniers. They can provide information to those with little knowledge of climate change. Besides, those already concerned might become motivated to become personally involved in the climate change movement.
Additionally, the media is not adequately covering climate change, and this is another reason for museums to do so. For example, in 2018, the major television network nightly news and Sunday morning political shows (ABC, CBS, NBC, and the Fox News Sunday morning show) spent merely 142 minutes on climate change.
Unfortunately, exhibitions about climate change might cause difficulties for museums. Individuals might jeopardize their employment if the institution is challenged by powerful government or private leaders. The institution itself could lose critical funding and acquire new political enemies.
However, countering this dilemma is the fact that current conditions of life on the planet are in jeopardy. Climate change in the past led to massive extinction rates. Therefore, those who can reach the public should be expected to stand up for science and the future of species now inhabiting the planet.
Museums of natural history are great places to teach about climate change as they already include botany, zoology, biodiversity, and geology. Climate change exhibits can be based on what these museums have previously collected and studied.
History museums are also important venues to educate about climate change. For example, the Little Ice Age is a good topic for European museums. The climate was greatly disrupted during this time with many scholars seeing a direct relationship between the Little Ice Age and plagues, famines, witch trials, and social upheavals. And all this occurred because of a mere 2 degrees change in the temperature! US museums could examine the relatively new theory that during early colonialism there was a high death rate of Native Americans, especially from European diseases. Their former lands reverted to forests leading to cooling temperatures.
Along with natural history museums, botanical gardens, zoos and aquariums are great places to learn about the effects of climate change on plants, fish, other animals, biodiversity, and entire ecological systems.
The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums found that more than 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums worldwide per year. An article in Scientific American reported that annually 183 million Americans visit a zoo or aquarium. According to the American Zoo and Aquariums Association (AZA), there are over 10,000 zoos worldwide with 2400 in the US. Thus, these venues offer may opportunities to provide information on climate change.
The AZA states that: By communicating about the impacts of climate change on wildlife and habitats, AZA and its member institutions can play an important role in inspiring people to take personal and civic action that will help decrease atmospheric CO2 concentrations to protect humankind’s wildlife heritage.
Thus, zoos and aquariums are excellent places to educate many about climate change. An excellent example of a zoo exhibition is the “Journey to Churchill” located in Winnipeg Canada, which connects visitors with the impacts of climate change on the animals and people of the Arctic. On ten acres there are animals including caribou, foxes, wolves and polar bears plus lots of multimedia information presented in various buildings.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California is a great example of how aquariums can contribute to knowledge about climate change. Sarah-Mae Nelson is the Climate Change Interpretive Specialist there. The organization “Climate Interpreter” has around 500 members and is involved with US educators at aquariums, zoos, museums, parks and marine sanctuaries. In an interview, she gave a frightening example of climate change already occurring. She said that twenty years ago, an exhibit contained five rocks that were covered with cobalt blue sponges, which is a sponge which lives in cold water. Now because of rising sea temperatures, not one rock has that sponge living on it. In 2010 the aquarium hosted one of the first aquarium exhibits in the country, entitled “Hot Pink Flamingos,” to focus specifically on climate change.
Botanic gardens, numbering 1775 worldwide, are also good venues for climate change education. According to the Botanic Gardens Conservation International 300 million visitors visit botanic gardens yearly.
An example of a botanical garden exhibition on climate change is “Klimagarten 2085” which is co-sponsored by the Botanical Garden of the University of Zurich. One greenhouse will be set at 2 degrees centigrade above the current annual summer temperatures, whereas the second greenhouse will be 4 degrees higher. Therefore, the rates of plant growth will enable comparisons between what the Swiss currently produce and consume and what may happen to these crops in the future.
Art museums are also appropriate venues for climate change as shown from the following quote by Jeffrey J. Cohen, professor of environmental humanities:
Narrative—whether in words, pictures, or film—is the best technology we have for making the inhuman scale of climate change understandable. The data that environmental science generates isn’t always compelling because it isn’t storytelling. The arts and the humanities know how to change hearts as well as minds.
College and university art museums are excellent venues for climate change exhibits. In 2010, art museums at Bowdoin College, Brown University, and the Universities of Colorado Boulder, Maryland, Michigan, Utah, Yale and Princeton were all sites of climate change exhibitions. Children’s museums provide excellent venues for reaching our future leaders. The Scarborough Rotunda Museum in England hosted an interactive exhibit entitled “Future Fossils” in September 2019. Visitors were met by the “Chief Investigator from the Future Fossils Federation” who led them to a “secret place” where they heard voices of Scarborough’s young climate activists and were invited to make pledges to combat change. In the “research lab” they “looked at the current climate crisis in a vibrant and theatrical way.”
The Tel Aviv Museum of Art is currently hosting a climate change exhibit entitled “Solar Guerilla: Constructive Responses to Climate Change.” It includes various projects from around the world that deal with climate change in new and innovative ways.
The following are a few museum exhibitions that show ways in which museums are responding to climate change. They show the possibilities of what all museums could do to educate and motivate members of the general public.
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has recently reopened its fossil hall. Every fossil is presented in the context of past climate change and helps to explain current climate change. Besides exciting dinosaur fossils, there are other fascinating fossils, such as a fossil palm leaf originally from Alaska.
Kirk Johnson, director of the museum, points out that at one time the North Pole had no ice, and fossilized crocodiles, turtles, and palm trees have been discovered there. An interactive game teaches about the effects of climate change on such popular things as chocolate, flowers, and beaches and also shows ways people can lower their contribution to greenhouse gas production. Johnson states: “The cumulative effect is that no person will be able to walk through the hall … [which] is the most visited room at the most visited science museum in the world, without contemplating climate change and humans’ role in it.”
The American Museum of Natural History is located in New York City and is visited by five million people annually. It includes a permanent exhibit entitled “Our Changing Climate.” This museum also collaborated with the Museum of Samoa in an exhibition entitled “Rethinking Home: Rethinking Climate, Linking Samoa and New York.”
It dealt with both the aftereffects of Hurricane Sandy in New York and Cyclone Evan in Samoa. One of the goals of the joint venture was to help people from different backgrounds respond to impacts from climate change, and it is an excellent example of museum contributions to climate justice.
The Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change is located at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and was the first museum solely dedicated to climate change. Travelling exhibits are very useful as they reach people not able to attend traditional museums. Portable displays are also great for museums as they can share both the cost and the benefits of specific exhibits.
Various universities have produced traveling climate change exhibitions. The Yale Peabody Museum of Science presented an interactive traveling exhibition that showed how New England is affected by climate change. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry produced an exhibit on permafrost, which is soil that is frozen the whole year. This is an essential exhibit because one of the major effects of climate change is to melt the permafrost, which then releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, previously trapped in it
Sweden has already produced several traveling exhibitions on climate change. Lund University in Sweden created a traveling presentation which portrays an imaginary exhibit from 2053 and in this futuristic exhibit the Swedish government has opened a museum named FOSSIL.
The exhibition is called “Carbon Ruins” which celebrates that global net-zero carbon dioxide emissions were reached in 2050. The aim of “Carbon Ruins” is to make visitors feel that they are in the period where the transition to post-fossil society has already occurred. Exhibit visitors see many relics from when humanity was dependent on fossil fuels, including plastics, frequent flyer forms, and remnants from the fast-food industry. Another traveling exhibit in Sweden presents significant threats of climate change and also promotes hope.
More museums dedicated solely to climate change are planned for the future. The Climate Museum will be located in New York City. It will use both science and art to respond to climate change. The Climate House will open at the botanical garden in Oslo, Norway in 2020.
Thus, natural history, science centers, historical and art museums, and other similar institutions, such as zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens have a significant role to play in stopping climate change. There are millions of museum visits to thousands of museums, and museums are considered to be both educational and trustworthy by the general public. Now the challenge is to reach new audiences to order to save our current environment.