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Museums have a responsibility to speak out about the climate and ecological emergency.
Museums hold our collective memories in the form of objects and specimens from the past. They are institutions of the long term that operate beyond the short term cycles of politics and funding.
They hold, among other things, the evidence of the five earlier mass extinctions in the Earth’s history, and of previous non-human-made climate change. This brings with it a moral imperative to sound the alarm about the current climate and ecological emergency, and to inform and activate citizens to do something about it.
This imperative is particularly urgent in the light of the Covid-19 epidemic which has brought into sharp focus the consequences of ecological breakdown.
The Horniman is London’s only museum where environment, ecology and human cultures can be seen side by side at a global scale. It is located in the borough of Lewisham and attracts a diverse local audience of over 900,000 visitors a year, principally in families.
We know that visiting parents and carers are very concerned about the future that the next generation will be facing, so our central mission is now about the interlinked issues of climate, biodiversity and social justice.
We were amongst the first museums to declare a climate and ecological emergency, and followed this up with a more detailed Manifesto for Change in January 2020, and the appointment of a dedicated climate and ecology action officer.
The motivation for change came as I joined as Chief Executive two years ago and engaged staff and external stakeholders in reviewing the Horniman’s mission. We found that it is much-loved, but most people couldn’t say what it is for; they simply listed its attractions: museum galleries, aquarium, butterfly house, gardens, nature trail, café.
Its existing mission was about promoting an appreciation of global cultures and natural environments, which felt rather weak in the light of what was happening in the world. Our founder, Frederick Horniman, was a Quaker whose parents were active in the anti-slavery movement and penal reform, so there was an ethos of engagement in vital issues at the heart of the institution.
So, fairly rapidly we realised we had a unique position in London through combining global nature and culture, and trustees agreed a new mission: The Horniman connects us all with global cultures and the natural environment, encouraging us to shape a positive future for the world we all share.
The Manifesto came about after a period of reflection following the emergency declaration, and thinking through what it would take to become a greener and more biodiverse museum. We talked in particular to local groups such as the London Environmental Educators Forum and Clean Air SE23, as well as colleagues in Lewisham Council responsible for delivery of their Climate Emergency Strategic Action Plan.
The actions in the Manifesto build on existing work including replacing bottled water and plastic takeaway packaging in the Horniman Café with lower environmental impact products, and raising public awareness through events and exhibition such as the Beat Plastic Pollution pop-up display in the Aquarium, which was shortlisted for the Museums Change Lives Awards in 2019.
The Manifesto, which is accompanied by a detailed action plan, can be seen on our website. It includes a commitment to become Greenhouse gas neutral by 2040 through developing an energy centre to help the transition to renewables, and to compost 97 percent of organic food and gardens waste annually.
Our renamed Climate and Ecology Action Group has a brief to accelerate the work, and we’re encouraging our staff to take actions in a personal capacity – for example by using our cycle to work scheme and introducing lunchtime sessions on living sustainably.
The pandemic has further confirmed our previous commitments to reduce flying and to increase videoconferencing.
We also have a series of initiatives which are more specific to our role as a museum and gardens.
Our Aquarium is a pioneer in developing techniques to stimulate coral sexual reproduction, and became the first institution globally to successfully induce predictable broadcast coral spawning as well as the first successful in-vitro fertilisation of captive corals in the UK.
Our breakthrough of controlled captive coral spawning is supporting coral research facilities all over the world, by opening up opportunities to examine the effects of climate change, aid restoration of the reefs and support sustainable livelihoods.
Another key to the achievement of our mission is the Nature and Love project. It’s called this because research shows that many people are turned off by the enormity of climate and ecological issues, feeling disempowered and unmotivated. One of the most effective ways of overcoming this is to appeal to people’s love of family, particularly the next generation.
At the Horniman this is especially powerful because, as already mentioned, we know that parents, grandparents and carers are really worried about the future these children are going to inherit. Given that the word most often associated with the Horniman is ‘love’ (as in ‘I love the Horniman’) this is a powerful call to action.
We plan to refurbish our Natural History Gallery, which is some 60 years old and makes no mention of people’s influence on environment and climate, at the same time as updating our Aquarium to highlight Project Coral. We will link all this with our outside spaces, where we’ll create two new public zones.
One will be a Sustainable Gardening area, opening up our plant nursery to the public to encourage greener lifestyles, and the other will be a new nature-themed play area which will open up access to our hidden half-mile nature trail.
The purpose of these physical changes will be to engage larger and broader audiences in taking action around the climate and ecological emergency. We’ll work with community groups, including those active in climate and pollution issues, show the interrelationship between people and planet over the centuries and the effects of this, and – crucially – adopt an outcomes-based approach which will see visitors encouraged to take actions in their own lives.
Leading this will be our Environmental Champions scheme, which is being developed with the assistance of the Accelerator programme run by Julie’s Bicycle, a charity that supports the creative community to act on climate change and environmental sustainability.
The scheme will recruit families and individuals to commit to undertaking actions to reduce their environmental footprint and encourage biodiversity, and supporting each other to do so. They will benefit from a programme of inspirational speakers and activities, and will be able to track their progress over time, facilitated by our Climate and Ecology Action Officer, Carole Destre.
A crucial driver of all of this is the idea that we should be empowering our visitors to be active citizens and not passive consumers.
One of the daunting aspects of engaging with the climate and ecological emergency is that it can seem that, even if we encourage more people to live sustainably, the real changes have to come at the level of government, large corporations and financial institutions.
We think that part of our role is to encourage people not only to make changes in their own lives, but to use their power as citizens to lobby for change at these larger scales.
If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that actions – rather than just manifestos – are even more urgent than ever. In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fact that the Horniman’s history and collections are rooted in the British Empire, we will be linking environmental and social justice even more closely and redoubling our efforts on both.
Nick Merriman is chief executive of Horniman Museum and Gardens.