The tide turns against culture

Why are museums and heritage groups rebranding themselves as apparently brave warriors against the gods of Global Warming?

Josie Appleton

Topics Culture

The National Trust, guardian of the UK’s historic buildings and areas of natural beauty, is launching two campaigns this summer. The first is about the importance of history (leading with the slogan ‘History Matters’). The second is less obvious: a campaign against global warming.

Apparently, global warming is a looming threat to the trust’s work, which means that it ‘can’t always conserve things exactly as we once have’ (1). It paints a dramatic picture: coastal properties washed away and flooded; pests destroying houses and munching their way through ancient tapestries; algal blooms invading ornamental ponds; rampant lawns requiring mowing all year round.

As part of its campaign, the trust will be cutting its energy consumption by 10 per cent and introducing green technologies such as water turbines and solar panels to its properties – as well as encouraging the public to do their bit, by leaving their cars at home when they visit National Trust sites.

Other cultural institutions are also taking up the mantle against global warming. On 3 June, the UK Natural History Museum will open an exhibition entitled ‘The art of climate change’, featuring work by specially commissioned artists who made a trip to the warming-affected Arctic.

Meanwhile, the London Science Museum rallies its visitors to ‘help save the world from climate change with a lifestyle choice’, and calls on them to ‘put your money where your mouth is and buy clean power’ (2). The global warming section of the Science Museum website has the flavour of the Blitz: ‘What can YOU do?’ The museum lists its own contributions to the war effort: ‘we’ve got several projects on the go that aim to assess our impact on the environment.’ Its galleries are going green, with a planned roof for its East Hall bearing wind turbines and solar panels; a fuel efficient ‘mini power station’ for its Wellcome Wing; and new plans are afoot for recycling waste heat.

Of course, global warming is an area of interest for science, and historic properties may be affected by climate change. But these campaigns aren’t about that. Rather, cultural institutions are latching on to the issue of global warming to provide a focus and urgency to their work. At a time when museums and heritage organisations feel somewhat outdated and directionless, global warming provides a quick-fix rallying point. Rather than talking about history or science, they find it easier to roll up their sleeves and give lists of ‘What YOU can do’.

Institutions are keen to imagine a multitude of ways in which they will be affected by global warming. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) held a seminar on climate change a few years ago, at which different departmental areas competed to show how climate change would affect their work. ‘Global warming’ is presented as an angry sky god, responsible for everything from tree blight to dry grass to social unrest.

The representative for the Royal Parks was ‘concerned about the effect on veteran trees in UK, and the effect on roadside trees as well’; the sport official worried that ‘dry summers may kill grass’, and that ‘drainage, irrigation, mowing, choice of species: all may have to change’. Architecture and built environment officials mused that ‘climate change could…have contrasting implications for social cohesion: warmer weather could make social unrest more likely, but wetter conditions could reduce crime and dampen down civil disturbances’; and tourism representatives were concerned that ‘plagues of mosquitoes might stop people holidaying’ (3).

As with the National Trust’s vision of castles washed away and tapestries falling apart, there is a notion that global warming will change everything. Institutions’ everyday challenges – the National Trust has always had to deal with eroding coastlines, surely? – are re-presented as a visitation from the forces of Global Warming. This serves to give their work a dramatic flavour. No longer just run-of-the-mill coast erosion, tree blight or silver fish, these are all Signs of Warming. The National Trust is not just a conservation organisation, but a brave battler for the future of humanity, reading the threats ‘about what is going on before anyone else realises it’ (4).

This is an almighty cop-out. Institutions are avoiding the challenge of making history and science attractive to the public. Instead of inspiring visitors, institutions end up hectoring and lecturing them. As part of ‘sustainability week’, the National Botanic Gardens displayed its efforts at environmental care and recycling – and also removed all its litter bins, ‘encouraging you to bring your rubbish home for recycling!’ (5).

The implication is that there is no time for science or art while the waters are lapping at the doors. Everything is subsumed to the need for cultural institutions and their visitors to ‘do their bit’ against global warming. Rather than inspiring visitors through its collections and research, the Science Museum now apparently justifies itself by building wind turbines and introducing innovative heat-recycling systems. The National Trust finds its role in encouraging visitors to introduce energy-saving measures. ‘It is more about encouraging people in the challenge and saying what they can do in their lives through some of the examples we are showing them’, said one Trust representative.

It’s simply not the case that the waters are lapping at the doors: most of the postulated effects of global warming on the tapestries and fields of England are pure fantasy. In any case, science, art and history are about freedom from the pressures of survival – and these goals have been pursued in far more arduous circumstances than our own. While museums are now focusing their efforts on fighting an imaginary Blitz, in the real Blitz the National Gallery made a point of holding exhibitions as the bombs fell on London.

Museums’ new survivalism provides no way ahead. If the Science Museum justifies itself by being energy efficient, it would be far more efficient for it not to be there at all. Far better that museums sought to bring nature and history to life for visitors now. They should stop arm-twisting, and start inspiring.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today