In 2022, Leeds Museums and Galleries set about changing the look, and some of the messaging, of the large natural science gallery at Leeds City Museum. It had been installed in 2008 and, whilst the climate crisis and what visitors could do about it was mentioned, things have moved on a bit.
I remember an (external) education advisor telling me not to be ‘shrill’ about environmental messaging when we were designing the museum back in 2006. I was young and passionate about the problem – seeing a real role for museums in speaking loudly about it. He advised paired-back wisdom, there was no urgency. One of the interpretation signs we had up – and I wish I had taken a picture – read, “Are we warming up the planet?”.
However, I was proud of an audio piece we’d commissioned for the gallery in 2008. We asked a researcher to interview people who were physically experiencing climate change. We had recordings from around the world (these were the days when we had lots of Heritage Lottery Fund money, it was wonderful). The one I remember was a ski instructor talking about how the bottom of their ski runs were lifting every year – you could literally track the progress each winter. I’ve tried to track down that audio file but we don’t seem to still have it. The headsets were bashed out of existence a long time ago.
We had other pieces of interpretation but it was quite out of date – something on using low energy lightbulbs for example.
So, how do you think about what stories to tell, and how do you address every visitor who comes through the door – from the dedicated vegan to the family who came by gas-guzzler?
One of my favourite guides for this was Communicating the Climate Crisis, a report by Maria Virginia Olano, Communications Director at Climate XChange, and in particular Per Espen Stoknes’s TED talk within it. His salient (and proven) points are:
- You can make the climate emergency feel near-personal and urgent by bringing it home. i.e. spread social norms like solar panels, smaller cars and carbon literacy
- Re-frame the climate crisis as being about human health and new tech opportunities, safety and new jobs. Try and provide three positive frames for each climate problem you mention.
- Nudge people: make climate-friendly behaviours default and convenient.
- Visualise progress – provide evidence of improvement (although this wasn’t necessarily useful for what we were doing at the museum).
- Tell better stories – we love stories – more stories of heroes that are making real change happen.
The other useful resource we used was Leeds University’s ‘Take the Jump’ idea. Here, researchers have worked out a few impactful changes people can make that are relatively easy. The idea being that they seem achievable, and even if you only do one or two of them, you will make a difference.
The pandemic has obviously been a most unwelcome visitor but it has changed everyone’s attitude to QR codes. In 2019 they were almost passe but now we are not only allowed to use them, we are allowed to embrace them. We’ve scattered them around the gallery, and have the opportunity to do more. Many are embedded within the interpretation on what a visitor could potentially do to save the planet (links to beach cleans, Leeds City Councillors’ profiles etc.).
For our exact content and layout, you would have to visit the gallery but please get in touch if you have any questions about what we did.
I’ll leave you with my favourite interactive of all time, we installed it in 2008. It’s a piece of sandstone that we encourage visitors to run their fingers over. It’s gradually being worn away, the message being: “if everyone does their bit, we can cut rock in half with our bare hands.”
By Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science