A curator's story, Sydney

There's a point at which the hearing about the loss of things to come switches one from idling in neutral into gear. There is a point at which realising the people one is working with in Pacific atolls and islands are already losing so much - family, ancestors, things, all that is central to who they are - that one knows there can be no by-standing. One's work in a museum, those active, reaching out, horizon-broadening places, must be not just education and outreach but activism. Activism in a certain mode - provoking diverse publics to engage - but activism nonetheless.

And so we have been gathering together, drawing strength from each other, and though I have been helping to bring us into conversation, I haven't yet lost the anxious sense that I need to really start, really make some solid advances in enabling the institutions I work in to exhibit and engage on many more levels with global environmental change. There is so little - usually nothing at all - being said in any of the institutions I have worked in. 

The first meeting of interested people in 2013, at the American Museum of Natural History, where I was curator of the Pacific section, was heartening, and was the beginning of a sense that there was much that could usefully be done through museums. Those of us there; curators, historians, environmental humanities scholars, designers, artists, and biologists, all recognised what it was that museums provided. Authoritative information. A safe space for debate and reflection. A place to slow down and allow one's self to be affected, emotionally and conceptually, by things. 
Several years and two more workshops later, we are still trying to create more effective ways of reaching hearts and minds. We are doing this with more experience, more research behind us, and more colleagues who can help bounce around ideas and strategies, startling in their originality and promising in their capacity to connect people to the realisations and types of action that are needed most urgently.

I am about to go to the International Symposium of Climate Change and Museums at the Manchester Museum. It feels like a turning point. This is no longer a small group of interested people hoping to gather momentum. Those who are going to be there, those who are asking about it, wanting to be there, those who are writing in, every few days, wanting to join the Network, are all adding up. This is momentum!


Dr Jenny Newell, Manager, Pacific & International Collection, Australian Museum, 1 William St Sydney NSW 2010 Australia

Jenny Newell