Issue Nine

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April 2023[edit | edit source]

What role do we as cultural heritage professionals play in climate activism?

As cultural heritage professionals it can be jarring to see activists gluing themselves to precious artworks and throwing soup at museum objects. Many of us will instantly recoil and join the chorus of voices condemning these actions. But already this issue has proven to be complex within the minds of cultural heritage professionals and warrants a much more nuanced conversation. Take a listen to BCMA Panel: Soup-Slinging Syrup Showdowns by three members of the cultural heritage field.

Indeed, many in the field, including members of AIC’s leadership and ICOM, have recognized this complexity in their public statements following the protests. The reality is that the climate crisis is calling our past practices into question, and we must adapt to meet the needs of the day and our future goals. The human impact of the climate crisis requires us to reassess our perceptions of risk and question what responsible stewardship of collections today looks like. In many ways, these protests achieve exactly what they set out to do: challenge us to reassess our preconceived notions and reimagine our future.

"How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless apparently being destroyed before your eyes? Do you feel outraged? Good. Where is that feeling when you see the planet being destroyed?"

— Just Stop Oil Activist in The Hague

As preservation specialists tasked with protecting our cultural property and its irreplaceable legacy for future generations, the climate crisis should be on all of our minds and help inform us for future actions. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report emphasizes the devastating toll climate change will inevitably wreak on the planet, human life, and consequently, cultural heritage, if we continue on the current trajectory. While needless damage is always problematic, the untold devastation of the climate crisis far outweighs the relatively minor material damage incurred by climate protesters.

Studies have found the impact of the current climate actions in museums has had a negative impact on public perception. Much of the media coverage further sensationalizes the actions of these protests instead of highlighting the message of these protest groups, whose advocacy work often goes beyond fleeting moments in famous museums around the globe. But their actions have undoubtedly raised awareness of the issues: The video of protesters throwing soup at the Van Gogh in London has been viewed almost 50 million times on Twitter alone.

"Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness."

Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations

It is important, of course, to remember that there are many forms of advocative action and people can disagree on what is the most powerful and effective statement, balancing the risk and reward. What we should certainly agree on, as cultural heritage professionals, is that the planet being in peril is an enormous threat to the preservation of cultural heritage all around the world. This is particularly true for countries and communities that do not have the resources to protect their land, people, and resources let alone their cultural heritage and history. So how can we begin to thread the needle of supporting climate activists without encouraging the destruction of cultural heritage? How do we ally ourselves with activists to work for a better future?

Problematic terminology such as vandalism and terrorism pits museums and cultural heritage professionals against activists, who might otherwise be prioritizing the same goals but in different ways. Many of us in the field have begun to challenge this dichotomy and embrace the role of climate activist alongside our “professional” titles. In fact, many of our skills lend themselves to combating the climate crisis. Our work puts us into direct contact with all that could be lost if we fail to act on this issue, but also all that can be saved with our intentions placed appropriately. We are good at communicating about complex topics, and we are trained to think long term when we care for collections, and therefore are not inclined to brush off such threats as far in the future. Members of AIC’s National Heritage Responders program often play a direct role in disaster response efforts around the US, and as more climate-based disasters occur, the need will only grow for our skills, perceptions, and advocacy in our local communities.

While there are many, many ways one can join the fight against the climate crisis—a really simple and effective one is just talking about it, and how it impacts you—for those of us who feel inclined to take to the streets, we will be in good company: Museums for Future and The Climate Museum in NYC have been engaging in this work for some time. If you haven’t seen it already, watch our Ask an Expert: Climate Activism on this topic. Just last week, our friends at the ICON Sustainability Network joined "The Big One," a four day action organized by Extinction Rebellion, where people gathered throughout Westminster and at the Houses of Parliament in London. The Gallery Climate Coalition and Whitechapel Gallery recently took a different form of activism, hosting a discussion on "Climate Activism in Art Spaces."

Extinction Rebellion.png

Have you ever joined a climate march or joined in with climate activism? Are you an activist for social or racial justice or another aspect of sustainability? How do you envision your professional role changing to embrace the challenges we face? Tell us about it at

News (and Resources) from the AIC Sustainability Committee

Are you attending the Annual Meeting this year?

Take the Green Attendee Pledge when you register. If you are coming in person consider attending the Applying Sustainability Principles Cross-departmentally at Collecting Institutions Workshop. Also, come check out the Breath of Fresh Air Room (and event) where we will be processing our climate anxiety and imagining how we can build a better future.

Have you ever considered making a sustainable change but didn’t know where to start?

If you missed our live event in this April, you can now view the recording of our April conversation with Karen Zukor about sustainable practices in private practice.

And check out our other "Conversations with Changemakers: Strategies for Reducing the Energy Consumption of Buildings" recordings, where we speak to people in the field who have taken the step to implement changes:

Nancie Ravenel, Director of Conservation at the Shelburne Museum, and Patricia Silence, Director of Conservation Operations at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Robert Pearce, Principal Preventive Conservator at Amgueddfa Cymru, Museum Wales

Mark your calendar for the June event on small museums hosted by the ICON Sustainability Network. Tuesday, June 13 at 4:00 p.m. BST (11:00 EDT, 8:00 PT)

The Sustainability Committee will be participating in a Twitter conference on April 25 at noon EDT. Follow the ICON sustainability network (@icon_sn).

Looking for even more resources?

Check out the Sustainable Practices Wiki where you can find all of the previous Sustainability Now eblasts and much, much more. And, did you know the AIC Sustainability Committee has a Zotero account? The “Sustainability in Cultural Heritage Preservation & Conservation Resource Bank” has almost 100 resources, mostly scholarly articles, all arranged and tagged by topic. It’s public, no need to create an account, unless you want to. Please be in touch at if anything is missing!

You can also join the Sustainability Forum on the AIC Member Community. It's an easy and effective way to stay informed on sustainability events throughout the field, learn about valuable resources, and share questions and ideas! To join, login to the member community, browse "all communities" and request to join the "Sustainability Forum."