Five pointers to put your institution at the heart of community sustainability

Many culture and heritage organisations are looking to move along the spectrum of engagement, away from voices of authority and towards a model of co-creation, embedded in their respective communities, with a remit for social good. 

Yet environmental issues have in the past been considered in isolation to other aspects of sustainability. The words ‘green energy’ or ‘climate change’ are rarely uttered in the same breath as ‘community’, ‘outreach’ or ‘participation’. 

But, we are noticing a sea change with our clients, often powered by insight on what their audiences want. Many are increasingly interested in a participatory way of working, and consider themselves to be part of the local ‘eco-system’, embedded in the community, sharing an identity. 

If cultural organisations properly understand the space where culture, community and environmental issues collide, they have the opportunity to embed themselves fully, creating a sense of ‘place’ that embodies all aspects of where they are. 

The ecomuseums movement demonstrates this aptly: ‘Ecomuseums are focused on the identity of a place, based on participation, and strive to better the involved community and its heritage via an agreement.’ 

The ecomuseums list displays a range of incredible organisations – all fully rooted in and shared by their communities. 

This philosophy may seem difficult to emulate if you’re a museum or cultural organisation that isn’t specific to your geographical community, and standalone environmental initiatives are to be applauded. 

There are, however, some steps that can be taken to start to consider sustainability in a more rounded way. 

1. Believe yourself to be an activist organisation

Preservation is an increasingly radical act – no longer about artefacts, detached from their roots and displayed in glass cabinets. 

Preservation, whether it’s around the environment, indigenous heritage, untold stories, is more radical and defiant than it used to be. 

Anacostia Community Museum’s 
exhibition Food for the People: Eating and Activism in Greater Washington, looks at food justice, an issue of particular importance in DC. The exhibition has been taken out into the community and includes a partnership with a local food non-profit, and a local restaurant donating free meals for people to take as needed. 

2. Empower your young people with skills for a sustainable future

The National Trust’s pilot Green Academies Project engaged with over 10,000 young people to develop their connection to nature and provide them with skills to protect their natural environment. Developing these programmes in tandem with participants is a crucial part of creating long-term positive impact.

3. Curate around issues where community meets environment

Artist LaToya Ruby Frazier produced a photography series on the issue of the Flint Water Crisis, and her work was displayed at SFMOMA as part of its Soft Power exhibition. Frazier spent five months with three generations of Flint women, centring the experiences of those involved. 

4. Ask people to think critically about the future

The most successful exhibitions aren’t lecturing, they’re starting conversations. The Futures exhibition currently on at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building is asking people to think about a multiplicity of possibilities for the future, to dream big and bold, and crucially reinforcing the control that we have over which direction things go. 

5. Reinforce indigenous communities’ connection to land

Te Papa in Auckland, New Zealand, considers its role ‘to be a forum for the nation to present, explore, and preserve the heritage of its cultures and knowledge of the natural environment.’ A recent exhibition, Faka-Tokelau: Living with Change, showed environmental changes to tropical coral atolls and the resilience of the people who live there. 

The climate emergency isn’t happening elsewhere but is a growing part of the lives of people around the world. 

Considering environmental issues as part of moving towards co-ownership with communities might not feel immediately obvious, but is a natural fit.

What is Food Justice? courtesy of Anacostia Community Museum
Green Academies Pilot courtesy of the National Trust