Last year I sent out a survey to evaluate the nature conservation mission of UK museums: how they aim to support nature conservation, and manage their environmental impacts – both positive and negative. This was based on an expansion of a set of eight questions posed by Brian Miller and colleagues in an article published in 2004. The final report is available at this link:
Evaluating the nature conservation mission of museums FINAL
The report outlines what has been done – and what could be done – to contribute towards a future where people and nature flourish together. It aims to support a number of the Sustainable Development Goals. Anyone interested in this should get in touch with me at email@example.com.
The report is intended to be useful for museum workers of all kinds, museum funders, policy makers, researchers and practitioners in related fields. As the report says, we need to ask the right questions in search of the solutions, and we need to work together to make them happen. The report is part of a suite of initiatives intended to help museums connect their work with constructive action towards environmental sustainability and climate action, called ‘Museum Partnerships for Future Earth’.
What could be done …. and what has been done
The museum sector could support nature conservation and environmental sustainability by connecting with related policies and strategies at a sectoral and individual museum level, writing them into museum policy and strategy, and by championing this work from the top.
There is a strong feeling among museum workers that funders and the sector should incorporate nature conservation and environmental sustainability into the work of museums, but a similarly strong feeling that funders and the wider sector don’t currently recognise this role or its importance. Nevertheless, many museums, and many museum workers, connect their work with these subjects, and care strongly that they do so, promoting species conservation, climate change action and protecting endangered habitats. Museums with natural heritage collections play a particularly clear role in this area of work.
Realising the potential of museums requires a commitment of resources – financial and people – to engaging people with issues and action relating to nature conservation and environmental sustainability (for example through staffing, exhibitions, events for the public, activities for schools and community engagement) and to realise the potential of these collections for researchers.
More national and university museums commit funding dedicated to engaging people with nature conservation and environmental sustainability, when compared to local authority and trust/independent museums. Museums with natural heritage collections play a particularly key role in providing people with such opportunities, with opportunities to do more.
Collections relating to the natural world and people’s use of it are a key resource for museums, and for society. They not only document natural diversity, but are a creative tool for exploring ideas for a positive and sustainable future. They are an invaluable tool for public groups, policy makers and researchers seeking to understand natural diversity and the ways it is impacted by environmental change.
Huge numbers of preserved animals, plants, rocks, minerals and fossils are to be found in UK museums, amounting to something like 137 million individual specimens/objects. Most are to be found in national museums and the larger university museums. These are unique and irreplaceable, although they no doubt include some low quality material. These collections can support nature conservation and environmental sustainability, as can objects revealing people’s diverse relationships and interactions with nature, and the changing natural environment.
In order to be able to use collections effectively, museums need to have people skilled in environmental issues, who care about nature conservation, and who can communicate effectively with members of the public on such topics.
People trained and skilled in nature conservation and environmental sustainability are mostly to be found in museums with natural heritage collections. However, many such collections are looked after by people not confident in nature conservation or environmental sustainability, and few museums (including those with natural heritage collections) specify an interest in these topics when recruiting.
Museums can support education around nature conservation and environmental sustainability at all levels, and for a wide range of interests.
Many museums, notably those with natural heritage collections, support college and university education. Many natural heritage museums also deliver such teaching.
Museums form the basis for a great deal of research that supports nature conservation and environmental sustainability, mostly undertaken by external researchers, nationally and worldwide.
UK museums, notably those with natural history collections, probably contribute to 1,000s of research publications each year. These are largely based on explorations of specimens preserved in their collections, exploring natural diversity and environmental change.
Museums use large amounts of resources and there are opportunities to contribute positively to nature conservation and environmental sustainability in the ways these are used, and in terms of how they use their green spaces (where they have any).
Many museums use their green spaces to provide space for nature, encouraging wildlife, and providing opportunities for the public to experience nature directly. Many museums have sought to reduce their environmental impacts, notably their water use, use of electricity and use of paper. Some other impacts, notably those relating to food and their impacts on habitats, remain to be reduced widely.
By working in partnership museums can create opportunities to engage the public with nature conservation research and action.
Museums have a wide range of partnerships with nature conservation organisations and researchers, supporting research, and providing opportunities to communicate research.
Museums exhibitions can connect large numbers of people with nature conservation and environmental sustainability.
Many museums exhibit nature conservation and environmental sustainability, but often as a relatively small part of their exhibition programme. Museums with natural heritage collections often have ongoing support for nature conservation as a key outcome of such exhibitions.
By modelling and communicating support for nature conservation and environmental sustainability, museums can help promote and support the wider adoption of such activities.
Few museums aim to model good behaviour in terms of nature conservation or environmental sustainability; even fewer aim to be leaders in this area.
The need for effective nature conservation, and to engage people effectively with nature conservation and environmental sustainability, is growing ever more important. Conservation efforts are not making sufficient headway to halt the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Climate action will need to accelerate in order to reduce the impacts of climate change, and to help people, species and habitats adapt to change where possible.
Much remains to be done to connect museums with nature conservation and environmental sustainability, in order to support these areas more effectively. This will require funding, expertise and, most importantly, the will to make this happen.
I hope you find the report useful.