ICOM 2021 Working Internationally Conference Day 2: Museums & Sustainability

Each year ICOM UK organises a one-day Working Internationally Conference. This year, ICOM are hosting a three-day online event. Each day will focus on a major global issue.

The ITP team will be sharing daily blogs to round-up each day of the conference.  We hope to share some useful and insightful information we learnt at the conference, along with any resources.

Day two is Museums and Sustainability: Challenges of working in and responding to a changing climate

See our round-up from day one the conference here.

In Conversation

Written by Anna Cottle

Dr Christian Baars, Head of Collections Care, National Museums Liverpool
Nick Merriman, Director, Horniman Museum & Gardens, London
Baroness Natalie Bennett, Green Party Peer
Mary Robinson, Adjunct Professor for Climate Justice in Trinity College Dublin, Chair of The Elders.

Dr. Christian Baars, Head of Collections at the National Museums Liverpool and ICOM UK Committee Member introduced this In Conversation session about the role of museums and zero emissions. This was a conversation about the role of museums in reaching net zero emissions and increasing biodiversity. It is mentioned how much plastic is in the deepest parts of the oceans and the threat of climate change and the question is asked of what museums have to do with climate change.  ICOM UK joined other cultural organisations in declaring a climate ecological emergency;  The Culture Declares Emergency campaign launched in 2019 aimed at working with community and local government in tackling this emergency. 

  • Denial is not helpful as citizens around the world awake to climate change.
  • The role of mitigation is no longer about science or ideology or politics, it’s about social justice. 
  • Museums are not expected to fix climate change but ‘they are a bridge between science and the humanities.’ 

Nick Merriman, Director of the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London is up next – Nick was also chair of ICOM UK for three years. The Horniman has been planning a micro-forest to create a barrier between the gardens and the road since 2018 and is the convenor of the environment and ecology working group of the National Museum Directors’ Council, which organised its own conference last year on galleries and museums responding to the climate and ecological crisis. Here with two leading international figures on issues around climate and the ecological crisis and sustainability, Mary Robinson and Natalie Bennett, Nick discussed the role that museums can play in reaching net zero emissions and biodiversity.

Mary Robinson, is Adjunct Professor for Climate Justice in Trinity College, Dublin, and chair of the global leadership grouping, The Elders. Amongst many other achievements, she served as president of Ireland and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Baroness Natalie Bennett was leader of the Green Party of England and Wales from 2012 to 2016 and was appointed to the House of Lords to be the second green peer in September 2019. She has a strong passion for culture and is a volunteer at the British Museum.

Nick begins by placing a bit more context on the potential role of museums in the whole issue of mitigating the climate and ecological crisis, stating, ‘Museums are amongst the small group of institutions that are really focused on the long term.  Many museums have collections that go right back to the origins of the earth and can document the five previous mass extinctions on earth before the Anthropocene. They also collect and preserve material for the long-term, for the future, for posterity.  So, they take a long-term view beyond that of the cycle, the short-term cycles of politics and economics, which I think puts them in a very interesting position in relation to this.’

‘They’re also very large-scale institutions. We think there is about 55,000 museums worldwide, visited by probably billions of people.  We don’t have an exact figure. What we do know in the UK, in pre-COVID times, museums had about 80 million visitors each year. So, museums are perhaps underrepresented as kind of mass media institutions. Also, museums remain highly trusted. There’s a thing called the veracity index, which looks at trust in different types of professions, which is a fantastic, positive feature in our favour.’

Nick asks Mary and Natalie to set out what they see as the key steps to keeping global heating below the 1.5C increase on pre-industrial levels before 2050 and what we might do to halt the biodiversity crisis. 

Mary Robinson:

  • Every country, every corporation, every city, every community, every museum, basically, must commit to be zero emissions by 2050.
  • We really need this to be an urgent movement led by children and young people as it has been, telling us to listen to the science. 
  • On the biodiversity side we also had a very important report in May 2019 on loss of biodiversity in extinction of species, and we have a Convention on Biological Diversity in May in Kunming, China. We have a high authority coalition working towards that, with its 30/30 initiative, to protect 30% of global land and 30% of oceans by 2030, and again, that will need a big lift, and many countries joining the high-ambition coalition.

Natalie Bennett:

  • The first thing we need is social innovation – we can lower our own emissions by shifting to a 4-day work week without change in standards of pay, and that gives people a better life.  One of the biggest social innovations we need is to turn around, so we have a society working for people, instead of people working for the economy – we need a universal basic income.
  • The second thing we need is imagination and empowerment. Things change but people forget how fast, so we need to paint pictures of how society looks different. We need to show people how their actions can make a difference. I’m interested in people getting together, working together, building new structures and new things in society. 
  • The third thing we need is young people and hope – fear can be a dangerous emotion. So, I think museums can do a great deal toward building this understanding about social innovation. Life has not always been like it is now.  Think about imagination and empowerment: giving people different pictures, ideas, and telling them they can do things for themselves. And delivering hope. That’s perhaps the easiest one because museums are full of beautiful, wonderful things created from human innovation.  

Some Key Points:

  • Build forward with equality, justice, and sustainability.
  • The first lesson of COVID is that collective human behaviour matters.
  • COVID has exacerbated all of the inequalities and brought out the intersectionality, gender inequality, poverty inequality, being marginalized, having a disability, being a migrant, etc.
  • Another lesson from COVID – government matters. We need good government policy. 
  • Science matters. 
  • Compassion matters – we’re seeing people actually caring more about those who are worse off, which is helpful going forward, because we need more solidarity, particularly with developing countries, in enabling them to have the technology to move in the direction of renewable energy and address biodiversity appropriately.
  • COVID has broken things open, and created opportunities, alongside the tremendous suffering and difficulty we’ve been through, but COVID is showing how fast things can change; when there’s an emergency, we can change our society enormously fast. 

What might the contribution of museums be to these vital issues of climate change? 

Natalie feels that to empower people and set their imaginations on fire, to give them hope, museums have to reach vastly more people, and that means going out of your bubbles and going into different places. She says that there will be lots of empty shops post-COVID, why not set Pop-up shops in malls and in high streets or mobile libraries and mobile museums, touring round into children’s playgrounds, for instance and sharing knowledge on important subjects?

Mary has been more engaged with universities than museums and has been encouraging them to be thought leaders in the change that needs to take place in our society, and to do it in two different ways:

1. Be very open, transparent, and visible about the steps your institution is taking themselves to be sustainable. Spell it out. Be very vocal about it.

2. Through thought leadership; think about the outreach, the way in which exhibitions can take on much more of a kind of action-oriented sustainability focus.


  • How active or activist can museums be, as publicly-funded organisations? 
  • Is it possible to be neutral and apolitical on these issues?


  • The invisible mending has to become visible, be very much talked about, and written up and be part of the story. 
  • Museums should not be at all neutral!  Climate change isn’t political in the divisive sense.
  • The world urgently needs to commit, and we need thought leaders to lead it – museums should examine how they can be part of the solution because they are trusted. 
  • Museums could do something with their collections; museums can highlight how the world was different and why we have a climate emergency. 

Sponsorship of museums by fossil fuel companies

This has been controversial and most museums who had sponsorship have dropped it in some way. But given that most fossil fuel companies are now moving into renewables (to preserve their business), is it time to revisit our attitudes?  

Natalie calls this ‘green washing’ claiming that what is a tiny amount of money to the oil giants, buys them a huge amount of goodwill and greenwashing, and being able to say they are good, corporate citizens. She feels that a museum can’t possibly be claiming to do the right things for society and accept fossil fuel sponsorship or plastic company sponsorship.

Mary adds, ‘I do think we need to be very careful about the commitment to fossil fuel companies,…….because I think the gain for the fossil fuel companies far outweighs the reputational damage, potentially, for museums.’

So how can a big museum use their brand power in a positive way around the climate and ecological crises?  Thoughts:

It is relevant for UK museums that the UK has the presidency of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow – museum leadership could take an initiative, even globally, on this link, to encourage museums worldwide to become more engaged in the urgency of getting on course for a safe world.

Museums can speak to the moral authority of a COP presidency very well and do it in a non-political, but moral authority way.

It is so important that messages reach right through communities and it is crucially important in order to deliver the kinds of changes needed. 

Museums, as leaders can be at the forefront of leading the way to something different. 

How can museums give visitors a sense that what we do in our individual lives really does matter? Thoughts:

Use reusable cutlery and crockery, and recycle carefully.

Showing people how they can live without plastics.

Be brave! Do things in the cafes such as ‘meat free Mondays’.

It can be good for your’ climate anxiety’ to be part of the way forward.

Get angry with those who have more responsibility and aren’t living up to it. Corporations, governments, investment, cities that aren’t doing enough. 

Get active. Use your vote, use your voice. Join organisations – and there are plenty of them.

We need to imagine this world – we need to be hurrying towards it, because if we don’t imagine it, we’re not going to get to that healthier world, to different kinds of jobs. We want to be able to breathe in our cities and see nature the way we should be able to see it.

Some interesting links:

ICOM video series on taking action on climate change https://icom.museum/en/news/videos-taking-action-on-climate-change/









Live from Beirut

Written by Claire Messenger

Today, at the ICOM UK Working Internationally Conference 2021, I hosted a session with the wonderful Dr Nadine Panayot, the Curator of the American University of Beirut Archaeological Museum and an Associate Professor of Practice at the Department of History and Archaeology. 

In 2020 we heard much about the devastation caused by the explosion in the city of Beirut.  In this session Nadine shared an up-date on the work currently taking place to deal with the aftermath of the explosion alongside the ongoing global pandemic and the resulting financial crisis.

Nadine kindly shared two films to introduce the audience to the AUB Archaeological Museum, the third oldest museum in the Near East, after Cairo and Constantinople and then to look at the damage caused by the August 4 explosion.  Nadine then shared the challenges and opportunities of moving their projects and programmes online and looked at how both local and international networks have supporting the Museum through this crisis.

Nadine started the session talking about her feelings, in the days after the explosion, walking back into the museum.  She spoke about the variety of emotions,walking through the huge, 100-year-old door which had been blown off its hinges, expecting the worst.  The windows had shattered but thankfully so many of the showcases and objects they contained were safe. However, a large case, containing 74 glass artifacts had smashed down on to the floor, which was a huge, priceless loss.  But Nadine acknowledged that at the time, when everyone was still receiving news from friends and family members who had either lost their lives or had been so badly injured that they did not make it few days after the blast, it was a relative loss.

Facing the utter devastation and loss of life and property, Nadine then spoke about how she and her colleagues dealt with that – emotionally – how they had supported each other.  She noted how, when she was offered the position of curator, she never imaged that within months she and her colleagues would face three huge challenges – the third most powerful explosion in the history of the world; a global pandemic and the worst, financial economic crisis ever.  To get through this difficult time needed a clear mind, to never give into fear, despair or doubt and to always look for the positives in any situation.  ‘You have to pick-up the pieces and move forward’.

Nadine and her colleagues have maintained a busy programme of virtual events, lectures, tours, children’s programme, and gallery talks over this period and she talked about the opportunities that technology have brought and how a new communication strategy was essential.

They moved immediately to digital programming and acknowledged the huge support they received from the Society of the Friends of the AUB Archaeology Museum.  Bravely, the museum even went LIVE during the recovery mission which meant they were able to share the experience with both the local and international community.  Nadine acknowledged that ‘going digital’ had been a learning experience but a great one that has opened new horizons, endless possibilities to diversify and has been a low-cost way of running public programmes.  Additionally, the Museum has been able to open-up to a world-wide audience.

Nadine talked about the ‘digital divide’ and how she worked to ensure no-one was excluded.  Making sure that accessing their site and their programmes was as simple as possible – no need to register – just a very simple ‘one click’.

With the focus of the day on sustainability, Nadine spoke about how their local audiences and local communities supported them – particularly though a rescue team of her former students.  The rescue team volunteered to help all the damaged museums in Beirut, a total of eight museums, and focus on the rescue of the collections.  NGOs and other local groups worked to deal with clearing the building and architectural debris.  More widely the Museum received specialist help from Nadine’s colleagues and friends around the world.

Nadine then focussed on the future of museum and how cultural influences are increasingly being recognised as important factors in long term sustainability.  Reminding the audience that natural and cultural heritage preservation is inherent to the 17 sustainable development goals set by the United Nations for 2030, she highlighted how important a goal that is.


For the future of museums Nadine highlighted three pillars:

  • Education as an important civic role.
  • Operations where museums need to be sure they serve as sustainable role models.
  • Collections and being aware of the museum’s role in the sustainable development and management of heritage collections.

And finally, Nadine shared her hopes for the future of her Museum which focussed on inclusion andopening up, not just physically, on-site to their local audience, but also taking the Museum’s collecting out to the community.  To deliver the museum experience to young people who do not have opportunity to visit museums in person.

If you would like to know you can follow the links here:

University Maingate magazine


AUB Archaeological Museum


Barker Langham: Testaments from the Age of Humans

For the final segment of today’s conference round-up we were taking on a journey across the globe to hear how objects, landscapes and institutions can be reimagined to tell stores about humanity’s impact on our planet.

Key Points

  • With such varied and diverse visitor-ships museums are able to have conversations and impact change at many different levels. They have the tools to communicate to the general public and let them about the underlying issues.
  • Goal should be to assure and coordinate accurate scientific information.
  • Museums can visualise scientific data and make it easy to understand, using exhibits, digital and in-person programming.
  • Especially important to engage young people to alert them to the need for climate action.
  • Museums have a great opportunity to be advocates for climate action, but just like any other change it will not happen overnight.
  • We need to get beyond the museum much more effectively. The people museums tend to connect with are people are already on board with climate change – we need to find ways to connect beyond our usual audiences.
  • Museums need to ‘walk the talk’ in how they run their operations when it comes to sustainability. Stay abreast of advances in technology too, to allow us to be more energy efficient.
  • Climate change really is a global issue that needs to be addressed now and cannot be put off. Highly trusted institutions within communities, museum workers, no matter what their role is in a museum can really do a lot to help people understand the urgency of climate change.
  • There is a need for people to start talking about it and feel comfortable talking about it. Museums are really well placed to get that message across.
  • Museums are ‘trusted’ and they have a strong voice. Some are already in a position to be able foster community dialogue about sustainability and climate change.
  • The best way to take action is to realise the urgency of the situation.

Explore some of the museums that featured in this film:

District Six Museum, South Africa

Beaty Biodiversity Museum, Canada

National Building Museum, USA

Qatar National Museum, Qatar

Table Mountain, South Africa

Royal Academy of Arts, UK

Brooklyn Museum, USA

Horniman Museum and Gardens, UK

National Museum of Singapore

Natural History Museum, Panama

Michaelis School of Fine Art, South Africa

Australian Museum, Australia

Anchorage Museum, USA

Miraikan, Japan