Taking it Outside: Biodiversity education beyond museum walls

Taking it Outside: Biodiversity education beyond museum walls

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

Taking it Outside: Biodiversity education beyond museum walls

From the Making Biodiversity Count Series

By Madeline Smolarz, Museum Assistant, City of Kingston, and Emerging Museum Professional Leader

Biodiversity Action Agenda Item 2.1

CURATE EXHIBITS IN COMMUNITIES THAT PROMOTE BIODIVERSITY EDUCATION: Curate museum and art gallery collections outside of museum walls, inclusive of Indigenous projects that promote and educate about biodiversity. Share the challenges biodiversity conservation is facing and the opportunities to protect it through public art and community engagement events.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM)’s most recent definition of a museum is as follows: “A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” (2007)

Take a moment to think about museums. What first comes to mind?

I imagine many readers’ picture museums as having some amount of physical place. Perhaps you thought about an imposing stone building battered with age, or a modern glass structure shining in the sun. Most museums do exist as some physical expression within walls; artifacts need somewhere to be housed, staff need somewhere to do their research, visitors need a destination to capture on their smartphone. But what if I told you that it is without walls that museum and gallery collections can best promote and educate communities about biodiversity?

The Field Museum with T Rex
The Field Museum. Photo by Chris Nguyen on Unsplash

A disclaimer: I’m quite Ontario-centric in terms of my experience of the Canadian culture, arts, and museum landscape even though I have spent limited time out East and in British Columbia (regrettably, I haven’t made my way to the Northern territories – yet!). I feel it’s also in the spirit of the present pandemic to train my eye closer to home. All the same, I welcome any and all comments and emails from museum workers across our country who want to add their voice to this topic.

One of my favourite books on the topic of biodiversity is “Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species are Being Rescued from the Brink” by Jane Goodall with Thane Maynard and Gail Hudson (2009). To take Goodall’s lead, I will share positive, hopeful stories of museums, galleries, historic sites, and related arts and culture organizations that are showing us a way forward with respect to biodiversity promotion and education beyond the metaphorical and physical walls presented by most museological institutions.

Next Door: A Skeleton Park Neighbourhood Art Project

I live in Kingston, Ontario, a city of about 125,000 people on the shore of Lake Ontario. My apartment overlooks McBurney Park, a former cemetery that dark-witted Kingstonians have nicknamed Skeleton Park (tombstones and bones still pop up once in a while through the lush grass after a torrential rain). My artistically talented neighbours created the Skeleton Park Arts Festival (SPAF) long before I moved here in 2018. Their work has taken on many expressions under the SPAF banner. And without missing a beat, they pivoted their festival in 2020 to make the arts more accessible to everyone, even if we couldn’t gather in person due to COVID-19.

Woman chalk drawing on window
Flora & Fauna #2 by Marney McDiarmid and Grace MacDonald. Photo by Chris Miner (he/him).

They partnered with Kingston’s Union Gallery to present 16 outdoor installations for “Next Door: A Skeleton Park Neighbourhood Art Project.” The aim of this project was to support locals’ mental health and sense of community in response to the current public health moment. A number of the unforgettable artworks addressed humans’ relationship with nature, such as Marney McDiarmid and Grace MacDonald’s “Flora & Fauna #2.” Using window chalk, they drew Ontario plant and animal species in the windows of a house. Their intention was to illustrate the reciprocal relationships of species that are the backbones of ecosystem health. “Next Door” was even extended to last all summer due to its popularity. It was a celebration of the hyper-local and a testament to the resilience of people and of the symphony of species that surround us. I feel it is the perfect case study that demonstrates that the best museum-without-walls community interventions are small, local, intersectional, and partnership-based.

Museums and related organizations have made a good deal of progress when it comes to literally stepping outside of themselves. And even these early stages brim with promise. Three that immediately come to mind for me include developments at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the emergence of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice in Canada, and the possibilities for public engagement through the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

Royal Ontario Museum Climate Change Curatorship

During the first days of autumn last year, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) “announced the establishment of the inaugural Allan and Helaine Shiff Curatorship of Climate Change. This critical and timely role, the first of its kind at a major Canadian museum, reflects the ROM’s commitment to ground-breaking research and innovative public engagement on one of the most relevant topics of our day.” I volunteered at the ROM from 2015-2016 in the Patrick and Barbara Keenan Family Gallery of Hands-On Biodiversity, and so I was a first-hand facilitator of and witness to the Museum’s longstanding work to promote and educate patrons about the natural world around them. I can only hope that the individual who takes on this new Curatorship of Climate Change carefully considers taking NET’s advice to expand the ROM’s reach physically and intellectually in order to meet and educate Torontonians and Ontarians where they are at.

Royal Ontario Museum Exterior
Royal Ontario Museum Exterior. Photo by Luqman Yasin on Unsplash

The Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice

The Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice (CMCJ) was founded in 2017. Ever since, the CMCJ has continuously kept up its commitment to action. Its mission is to “…[mobilize] and [support] Canadian museum workers and their organizations in building public awareness, mitigation and resilience in the face of climate change” and it uses several largely digital and online methods of achieving its goals. The CMCJ website itself acts as an informative hub for interested parties and members of the collective; it has a Case Studies page, an extensive blog archive, a burgeoning resources list, and profiles of the excellent call-to-action partnerships CMCJ has established with Museum Studies programs across Canada.

CMCJ representatives have also attended various conferences, participated in various engagement opportunities, and collaborated with other groups to harness each other’s expertise. As an example of the latter, the collective created an educational video series with the Alberta Museum Association in 2018. The agility, flexibility, and responsiveness of grassroots-type organizations like CMCJ highlight just how much they can achieve in only a few years. I’m led to wonder what results this organization or similar groups could achieve if they focus even for a limited period of time on elevating specific topics such as biodiversity. Even if the CMCJ put a concerted effort towards calling individual museums themselves to action, they could expand their already considerable network of supporters and lead a national institutional movement. I honestly can’t wait to see what this group does next.

Canadian Museum of Nature Public Outreach

For more traditional brick and mortar national institutions, a possible leader in biodiversity promotion and education would certainly be the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN). It has significant scientific research and engagement resources and is beginning to use its capabilities in bigger and better ways to reach people online. For example, the CMN ran an incredibly fun and educational online contest during Spring 2020 called “Vote for a National Lichen!”. The vote saw passionate scientists pitch their preferred lichen to the public that raised critical awareness of the importance of these unique organisms in ecosystems across the country. This year on April 22, 2021, the Museum will host a free, day-long virtual symposium called “The Biodiversity Crisis”. Building on the success of programs like the two I’ve mentioned will allow the CMN to pick up momentum and continue to extend its presence outside of its stoic stone walls in Ottawa and into the homes of Canadians across the country.

The exciting examples I’ve touched upon are inspiring and hopeful; even the fact that this handful was relatively easy for me to find is very encouraging. Even so, I have not encountered an overwhelming number of examples of museums promoting biodiversity beyond their institutional walls. There must be more out there, and there must be more that emerge from the woodwork in the near future. Fortunately, I do feel the winds of change stirring in my field when it comes to taking on transformational change.

Star-tipped Reindeer lichen
Star-tipped Reindeer lichen. Photo by leskas from Getty Images/Canva.

Museum Institutions Facing Change

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that in recent years, Canadian museums have been pressed by internal and external forces to face change from several different fronts: the Black Lives Matter movement; Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation efforts; Equality, Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility concerns; major workplace violence and harassment controversies; wage/salary transparency issues; ethical crises of all kinds; and much more. The progress that has been made on most of these fronts has been slow but in the right direction.

I urge museum workers everywhere: all of the important work to address each of these critical issues should and must take place simultaneously along a concerted effort to promote biodiversity. Why? We as humans do not have a future without it. Sure, this fact is dire, but it’s true, and in my opinion, museums ought to be non-neutral repositories of and channels for communicating the truth.

Now, take a moment to think about museums. What comes to mind first? Perhaps you now imagine museums that exist outside in communities, beyond institutional walls.

About Making Biodiversity Count Series

In February 2019, the Biodiversity Action Agenda, authored by Women for Nature was published. It asks all Canadians to take immediate action on biodiversity loss as there is no recovery from extinction. As a 24-point action agenda, it offers a combination of actions, including low-hanging fruit as well as long-term systemic changes. Follow our blog for regular posts exploring each action.