Across the United Kingdom, from the bustling galleries of London’s Tate Modern to the historic halls of regional museums in Birmingham, Manchester, and beyond, a collective pledge has ignited. These bastions of culture are awakening to a stark reality: they hold a pivotal role in addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis that looms large over our shared future.
Last week, these institutions convened for the inaugural UK Museum Cop at the Tate Modern. It was a gathering marked not by silence, but by the resonant agreement of museums, sector organisations, and funders to spearhead sustainable stewardship of their collections and to use their influential platforms to spark public discourse on environmental issues.
This gathering was not just a meeting of minds but a confluence of purpose. Representatives from major cities across the nation, as well as national bodies from England, Wales, and Scotland, have recognised an undeniable truth: the time for talk has passed, and the moment for action is now.
The British Museum, a notable absentee at the Museum Cop, has nevertheless joined the chorus, severing ties with BP after a 27-year partnership. This move underscores a wider shift as leading museums and galleries reevaluate their relationships with the fossil fuel industry, heeding the persistent calls of environmental advocates.
A “first ever joint commitment for collective action” has emerged from this assembly, with museum leaders acknowledging their duty to not only preserve history but to actively partake in shaping a sustainable future. The Anthropocene, our current epoch marked by significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, is placing our planet in peril. Yet, it is within the power of these institutions to leverage their historical perspective and ethical responsibility to mitigate this damage.
Their promises are robust and far-reaching: leveraging their collections, exhibitions, and educational programmes to engage and empower the public; implementing sustainable management of their collections; crafting comprehensive decarbonisation strategies; and enhancing biodiversity within the green spaces they curate.
Maria Balshaw, director of Tate and chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council, reaffirms the unique vantage point of museums as long-term preservers of culture and history. The conference reached a consensus on critical actions to lessen the environmental footprint of museums and demonstrate how they can be beacons of positive change for society.
Nick Merriman, chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens and chair of the Cop, emphasises the unique role museums play in the climate dialogue. Their perspective transcends the ephemeral cycles of politics and economics, offering a steadfast vision for the future.
The united front of the museum sector calling for urgent action carries significant weight. Their message to UK politicians and businesses is unequivocal: the window for meaningful climate action is closing fast.
Moreover, the conference has made specific recommendations: a call for immediate reform of planning laws and bolstered investment to ensure the sustainability of heritage buildings; a “greener option first” principle to guide museum practices; and the integration of environmental sustainability into sector training and apprenticeships.
Sherwood, H. (2023). UK museums agree to collective action to tackle the climate crisis. The Guardian. [online] 6 Nov. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2023/nov/06/uk-museums-agree-to-collective-action-to-tackle-the-climate-crisis#:~:text=In%20a%20statement%20described%20as [Accessed 6 Nov. 2023].