Can New York's Climate Museum save the planet?

It may well be able to – but it can’t do it alone. Museums around the world must stop dumbing down science and start putting education before entertainment

Can a museum help to save the planet? Is it possible to promote solutions to the human-caused warming of global climates through interactive displays, 3D movies, a gift shop and all the other methods of the modern museum?

That’s what the Climate Museum Launch Project hopes. This week, the Board of Regents of New York State gave it a five-year provisional charter to create a climate museum in New York City. Soon, tourists could be supplementing trips to Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum with a troubling, or perhaps inspiring, visit to a museum full of climate-related exhibits. The plan is to focus on “solutions”, reports the New York Times. A design for the building has even been proposed by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson.

It sounds like a welcome new way to look at the most pressing issue of our time – of any time? – but it is also an immense challenge. How can a museum deal with this topic in a way that is genuinely informative, intelligent, honest and accessible without being patronising? The Science Museum in London has notably failed to do so. Its Atmosphere gallery manages to patronise visitors of all ages. Poorly conceived interactive displays turn climate issues into a bad computer game.

Anyone who is still a sceptic about the overwhelming evidence of long-term damage to our climate is ignoring the facts and spurning reason. The problem for the majority, who do accept that dangerous climate change is happening, is to make us focus on this reality instead of trying to forget it. That means thinking about solutions, which the Climate Museum project rightly proposes to do.

Olafur Eliasson's sketch for a future Climate Museum in New York.
Blue-sky drawing … Olafur Eliasson’s sketch for a future Climate Museum in New York. Illustration: Studio Olafur Eliasson

To act, people need hope. The problem with apocalyptic scenarios or claims that capitalism itself must be destroyed in order to save the planet is that they produce, in most people, a paralysing despair instead of the strength to act or even think. But a visit to a museum can’t just be a motivational session; it needs to be genuinely educational. And this means that to really work, a museum about climate needs to reinvent the science museum itself.

In an episode of The Simpsons, the family visit a science museum in which the joke is that it’s just a giant playground. It is spot-on satire. All over the world, museums of science have abandoned “boring” displays of scientific instruments to entertain visitors with fun and games. In theory, the games are educational, but in practice the amount of scientific knowledge some museums share is incredibly slight.

It is no coincidence that the Science Museum in London deals badly with climate change. The sad truth is that the Science Museum contains very little science, and it projects deep confusion about its own purpose. It has several galleries that are effectively indoor playgrounds (including one for all ages). There are flight simulators, too. Do all these kinds of entertainment teach through play? A bit, perhaps. But there is not enough information to balance the fun.

I am convinced it is possible to spend a day at the Science Museum and leave still thinking the sun orbits the Earth. By contrast, it is impossible to spend much time in the superb Natural History Museum next door without being exposed to the theory of evolution. As for the realities of climate change, visit its current exhibition about coral reefs that shows how much will be lost if they disappear.

If we don’t grasp how nature works, how can we comprehend the challenges of climate change and the meaning of global warming? Before museums can teach people about the future of the polar ice caps they need to explain what a pole is, what water is and what a climate is.

New York’s Climate Museum is a commendable venture. But it’s a huge challenge and time is running out. Above all, science museums need to teach basic science better – for only a scientifically literate public will ever be ready to face the facts about climate change.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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