Culture reframing climate

At a recent Museums Association seminar on how museums could respond to the climate emergency, Miranda Massie, of The Climate Museum (New York), talked about how if we fully processed the realities of the emergency we would be so adrenalised all the time that we wouldn’t be able to communicate without aggression. She believes that in order to carry out evidence-based hope, or truth-telling for change, we have to build community. Bonds, rituals and beneficial processes are vital between people to allow us to process what is unfolding.

I found this really helpful. It raises questions for museums and other cultural providers about how we engage with our audiences. If we have to build community first, then perhaps the typical format of exhibitions and publications is already redundant.

I wanted to think about how museums & other cultural organisations can work on this shift.

How can cultural organisations rethink their publics?

One aspect is to rethink how publics, or audiences, are segmented by cultural organisations. Typically publics are segmented only as audiences, occasionally also as users of services, more rarely as communities of interest, and extremely rarely as communities of bioregions (or ecosystem inhabitants, including more-than-humans).

What if cultural organisations stopped mainly categorising people in relation to how they consume cultural offers, and more profoundly in terms of what they need and care about? And, increasingly public attitude surveys are showing that many people are significantly concerned about the climate and ecological emergency. In addition, the physical evidence tells us that people need urgent action by governments, businesses and institutions to mitigate and adapt to this emergency, whether they express a wish for it or not.

Climate Outreach has just published new research (March 2021) which breaks down the UK public into seven segments.

They find that all segments are concerned about climate change to a greater or lesser extent, that the majority agree climate change is caused by human activities, and there is agreement that impacts are being felt in the UK. At least 60% in each segment agrees that the situation demands a global response.

How might these public segments overlap with cultural audience segments? Do these influence what people want cultural organisations to be doing? Does the Backbone Conservative correlate with those who expect the National Trust not to explore colonial extractive histories? Does the Disengaged Battler correlate with younger cultural audiences who want more politically radical offers, but who struggle with various barriers to participation?

How can cultural organisations work to shift mindsets?

While the worsening situation is disheartening, growing concern about it is somewhat encouraging. However, there are still problems with dominant mindsets being too influential, contributing to less effective or slow action. It’s good that more people are concerned, but this can turn into anxiety without outlet. There is a wealth of research internationally that shows people struggle to jump the gap from valuing the environment to proactively protecting it.

Two big barriers to this jump from values to action are systemic (e.g. the food system is largely out of consumer control) and cultural (e.g. dominant frames are promoted in the media that discourages people from imagining alternatives). What is the role of cultural organisations in shifting these dominant cultural frames, to enable systemic barriers to change to be lifted?

I’ve been looking at Renee Lertzman’s work on the Golden Trine of behaviour change.

I’ve taken a screenshot from this article to show how Lertzman describes it.

I added to this creating my own diagram to show what is in each corner as well as what is at the sides.

I’ve also suggested the kind of work that cultural organisations might do to support more beneficial responses, to allow people to move productively from one desire state to another.

My interpretation of these responses is:

These conflicting desires are states that many of us cycle through in a chaotic way, or perhaps get unhealthily stuck in. Denial is the most outright distancing response, disavowal is seeing the problem but turning from it, and rationalising is engaging with the problem but in limited ways.

  • The response of being in denial is about refusing to explore truths or being misinformed, and then not being able to internalise and make authentic meaning from these truths. This stops people from even considering effective action.

How might we flip the response frames to the emergency?

I’ve come up with this set of positions or frames, expanding from the basic Golden Trine to reflect subtle differences of attitude, for example, whether people (and the groups that influence them) are optimistic or sceptical. The column on the left is unhelpful framing — or the negative expression of those positions. The column on the right is more positive expressions. How can cultural organisations flip these frames in people to more helpful expressions? If people express these ideas more, they can spread and become more acceptable, and therefore more internalised. They can be translated into behaviours. I’m suggesting that cultural organisations could embody these flipped frames in their own language and programming. I’d be interested to hear if you are already doing work around this.

Flipping doesn’t happen in an instant but needs practice and modelling of creative and ecocentric capacities, including:

  • Being imaginative: To imagine how other people and beings feel about and experience a changing planet, and to imagine alternatives.

For resources on shifting mindsets and ways culture can take action, see:

Renee Lertzman’s Project Inside Out with five guiding principles for engaging people with climate: Attune, Reveal, Convene, Equip, Sustain

The Culture Takes Action framework I’ve developed for cultural practitioners & organisations that have declared climate & ecological emergency, and want to follow this up with action.

About Climate Coping Strategies — on Climate Museum UK

The Happy Museum Project is a community of cultural organisations working around principles & practices for wellbeing of people, place and planet.

Director of Flow & Climate Museum UK: cultural consultant, researcher, creative curator, educator. Green, European, Climate activist, Eco-feminist, Anti-racist.

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