If Not Artists, Will Museums Save the World?

I’m going to be honest with you: artists can’t save the world.

Though I’m a tireless optimist and probably a slightly naive idealist, even I know: it’s not going to happen. Artists may make the most amazing tapestry out of carrots or powerful and politically charged paintings, on an institutional level, very little changes. What we really need is systems change.

Diana Scherer. Rug made out of roots. The Regeneration Exhibition, Transnatural Arts & Design, Amsterdam. 190 cm x 100 cm.

Luckily, the world doesn’t need to be saved. It will be just fine. Those who could do with a bit of help are human beings. If we want our societies and natural environments to (still) be pleasant/liveable in the future, our economic, political, and societal structures need to be re-invented now.

Our crashing economies, fossil fuel-based energy over-consumption, and deregulated climate are just a few examples that prove that our current systems are broken in many ways. And lone wolves – whether they’re artists or not – are generally not well-positioned to instigate systems change.

Better able to make that kind of large-scale change from within the realm of the arts, are the museums. An institution (just like a business) can be a key interface between government and the public, and a museum is traditionally a place for ideas, dialogue, knowledge, and fresh perspectives. However, many major European museums grew out of the colonial regime of the 19th century. Natural History Museums in particular – where you can see stuffed animals through the lens of colonialism and exoticism – feel painfully and embarrassingly outdated in the 21st century. This makes them institutions par excellence to take the lead on the discourse around post-colonialism, mass extinction, and climate change.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was a British naturalist regarded as a pre-eminent collector and field biologist of tropical regions in the 19th century.  He was an explorer, geographer, anthropologist, biologist and writer.

Independent curators Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turper have come to the rescue. They work with Natural History Museums worldwide to help them “re-purpose themselves as relevant agents for change in the Anthropocene.” The duo works with permanent collections to change the role of the curator from a caretaker of objects to a producer of knowledge. According to Turper, museums needs to respectfully respond to science but also connect to the outside world. Through their project “Reassembling the Natural,” and specifically the exhibition cycle “Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest,” Anna-Sophie and Etienne work directly with scientists and propose new takes on specimens in existing collections. They suggest a different response in order to create a new understanding of the present through history.

A Taxonomy of Palm Oil, installation by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin, as part of the exhibition “Emergent Ecologies: NYC Edition.

In a Skype interview in February 2017, Etienne remarked: “It’s shocking how conservative the institutions are. The scientists are really smart, the activists are really smart, the artists are really smart – everyone is smart and still it’s so challenging to get this moving forward. What I find most challenging is to realize that this attempt is just a drop in the bucket. The urgency and complexity of this global challenge requires so much more (…) and yet it’s still challenging for the institutions to overcome their hurdles to get on with their job. That’s shocking to see; in 2017, we’re still slowing down our work on this. What we want to communicate is the scope in terms of the size of our problems as well as the speed of the transformation, and how that connects to us.”

Institutional responsibility includes practicing what you preach; a museum exhibition is per definition a wasteful practice. Toxic materials are used for painting and photography, huge installations are built and flown all over the world, and venues (often big and monumental) spend precious energy keeping temperatures and humidity levels within a narrow range, and lighting spaces to make the work as aesthetically enticing as possible. The business of showing art doesn’t allow for easy compromises. However, there has been significant improvements. Since 2012, all Major Partner Museums (as well as National Portfolio Organizations) of Arts Council England are required to report on their environmental impacts, using Julie’s Bicycle advanced carbon calculators which were designed specifically for the cultural sector. Museums, as well as other cultural institutions, are starting to understand their environmental impact. New tools help to measure and reduce energy, water, waste, recycling, travel (audience, business touring) and production materials. With arts funding continuously drying out in Europe, more and more arts funding bodies are looking at this pioneering collaboration, if not for the planet, for their pockets. In 2013-2014, Julie’s Bicycle’s identified savings of 7,063 tons of CO2 or £1.25 million compared to the previous year.

The Happy Museum Project  looks at how the museum sector can respond to the challenge of creating a more sustainable future.

Furthermore, museums are becoming increasingly aware that they will lose credibility with their audiences if they keep on accepting funding from Big Oil. How can a climate change exhibition in the Science Museum be sponsored by Shell? The organization Platform has been questioning these partnerships and pioneering a divesting movement through their Art Not Oil campaigns, targeting major museums such as the British Museum, Science Museum London, and Tate.

Artisits and faith groups protest BP sponsorship of the Arts in the British Musuem.
Performers from the Art not Oil coalition calling for an end to BP sponsorship at the British Museum September 2016. Photo by Anna Branthwaite, image courtesy of Art Not Oil.

These are just a few examples showcasing what institutional transformation in the arts could look like. But it is painfully apparent that this movement is spearheaded by people outside of museums; independent curators, activists, and charities. Museum staff, it’s your call now! Putting up exhibitions about climate change and mass extinctions was step one, but after talking the talk, it’s now time to walk the walk….


Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues.

5 thoughts on “If Not Artists, Will Museums Save the World?

  1. Maybe I am an even bigger optimist and idealist…I believe artists can change the world, change views and opinions, cause action and reaction. Especially when combining art with science, politics and education!
    But I totally agree with talking the talk, walking the walk…. Museums and artists!

  2. Will the planet be just fine & humans are the ones in need of help? We are living through the 6th great extinction which will eliminate 90% of all species like the 1st five did. How can that be OK?

    • The point is that the ‘planet’ does not need saving; it has survived those past mass extinctions. The Earth (and life) will survive the next one. The more important point is that many current species will be be lost, and that is tragic for us, and those communities. The real risks are for us and other species that depend on a stable climate. And for the profound suffering of individual members of our species (especially future generations). I think the message is more powerful and convincing if we focus on our fate and the fate of other sentient beings at risk. That engages most people more that the less convincing notion that the earth will die. It will not die. Though we may well do so if we don’t seek a safer future urgently.

      • Neither the article or my post says anything about saving the planet, a strawman response. The planet will not be just fine for 100,000s of years. people need to ponder that & not be soft sold on what is in store for us & the planet.

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