I spent a few days last week in Stavanger, to teach on a Masterclass in Museums and Environmental Humanities organised by Profs. Dolly Jørgensen and Finn Arne Jørgensen, Directors of the Green House, an interdisciplinary research centre for humans and the environment in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Stavanger.
The masterclass was aimed at PhDs and Post-Docs, who, over five days, grappled with how we can tell meaningful narratives of human-nature relationships in a rapidly changing world. Museums are sites of storytelling and can thus be a vehicle for engaging the public with complex environmental challenges. Environmental humanities insights through foundational concepts such as care, entanglement, hybridity, and multispecies worlds can play a vital role for museums trying to tell these stories.
The teaching group consisted of Dolly Jørgensen, Brita Brenna (Prof in Cultural History and Director of the Museum Studies Programme at the University of Oslo), Karen Rader (Prof of Science and Technology Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University) and Libby Robin (Prof Emeritus of History at the Australian National University), and myself.
The teaching methods were diverse and very interesting. At the start of each day there was a lecture from one of the teaching group. Then four students each gave a short presentation on an object of the Anthropocene, and how they might interpret that, and for whom, in a museum exhibit. The lecturer then gave some comments on the students’ proposals, in the style of supervision.
One of the most interesting aspects, for me, was that the days of teaching were spent in different museums. The museums were the ‘world we inhabited’. The day I was involved in teaching on was on museums and climate change. In my talk, I talked about global risks and how museums can support the Sustainable Development Goals, about how museums round the world have been exhibiting climate change, the agreement of science networks to amplify activity for the Sustainable Development Goals (the Tokyo Protocol, agreed in 2017), work as part of the International Council of Museums Sustainability Working Group, and policy work I’ve been involved in around the workplan for the Paris Agreement and museums’ (and other educational centres’) roles in that.
The museums and climate change day was held at the Stavanger Petroleum Museum, which is very fascinating as it is built in the shape of an oil rig. The museum is a very physical, visceral experience, as you move from the ‘on land’ part to another part built over the water of Stavanger Harbour. You go through a tunnel complete with helicopter sounds to this ‘off shore’ part (that is how it is referred to in the museum), and you can see down to the water through the metal grill floor (and slither down an escape scute, maybe meant more for children but it is rather good fun for adults too).
The exhibits are very mixed: a lot of models of ships and oil rigs, as you would expect in a science/technology museum, but also an escape capsule you can climb into (it still smells of oil). There is excellent information on the history of discovery and exploitation of oil in the Norwegian North Sea, and a famous film on the impact of oil on the development of Stavanger called ‘Oil Kid’ (although rather sentimental for me).
The main part of our visit was to the new climate change exhibit, which only opened recently. This replaced an exhibit which I thought was already rather good, but the new one is much better. The exhibition room is circular (it is built in one of the drum-shaped ‘oil tanks’ over the water). The focus is on energy and how it is used, and about the impacts of fossil fuels on the climate. The exhibition does a very good job of showing how society, environment and economy are entangled with each other, and there is a lot of emphasis on asking visitors what they think we should do (each and all of us) to tackle climate change.
One of the most interesting interactives was based on the Sustainable Development Goals. It asked visitors to choose which three goals mattered most to them. This generated a lot of discussion, and if anything showed that the goals are interconnected and it’s not really possible to pick them apart. At the same time, it emphasised that the goals needs lots of us, with our personal concerns and focus, to collaborate to achieve them.