South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries

How can we use collections to talk about the climate emergency?

The SWFed 2020 conference was inspiring and engaging; the conference was also a useful way for
me, a student new to the South West region, to develop my knowledge of the museums and
heritage landscape of the area. The theme - ‘Interpreting, Curating and Combatting the Climate
Emergency’ – was a relevant topic and the range of talks showed how different organisations have
engaged with it.
Although the climate emergency can often seem like a daunting and depressing topic, the heritage
sector needs to adapt and respond to it, by being involved in organisational change and increasing
public awareness of the challenges we face globally. Climate change is happening now and its effects
are increasingly part of our everyday life: this conference offered many practical and thought-
provoking ways in which the sector has and can continue to engage with public discussion,
awareness and action on the climate emergency.
I particularly enjoyed Jess Collins’ talk, ‘Communicating climate change using museum archaeology’.
It chimed with my own interest in and prior experience of working in archaeology, particularly
community archaeology. Jess’ talk enabled me to understand how museums and other heritage
organisations can use their collections creatively to tell stories that engage people in the climate
emergency. These stories help to connect and engage the public to understand some of the
challenges our ancestors faced in the past, some of which are similar to the ones we are currently
facing today.
I was inspired to think about how this could be applied to site work through community archaeology.
How can we engage people in the climate emergency at an excavation open day? Seeing an object
found on site and in context can often have a more profound impact on the visitor. Being able to
draw on stories from the past using such objects would be a very powerful way of engaging people
in the issues around climate change. This could be woven into the engagement offered at excavation
open days and to other forms of outreach in archaeology.
Many of the sites I have worked on were already beginning to see the impact of the climate
emergency. Some objects found on site may have been affected by climate change, and the societies
that produced these objects were often ruled by changing weather patterns. This gives us an insight
into how communities in the past responded and adapted to environmental changes, which in turn
could offer the modern visitor a fuller context for the current crisis and even a sense of hope in
response to what can be an overwhelming and gloomy reality.