Museums, decolonisation, sustainable development

Museums in an unequal world: Leave no-one, and no museum, behind

This article is based on a talk I gave for a seminar called Decolonizing the Curriculum, at the University of St. Andrews, in April 2021.


In 2019, at the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) triennial conference in Kyoto, the membership of ICOM adopted two resolutions, ‘On Sustainability and The Implementation of Agenda 2030 ‘Transforming Our World’’, and ‘Museums, Communities and Sustainability’. Both resolutions, which were overwhelmingly adopted, highlight the importance of addressing contemporary social, economic and environmental challenges, and the latter resolution highlights the importance of museums in non-traditional forms in these activities.

The plenary on Sustainable Development at ICOM Kyoto in 2019

‘On Sustainability and The Implementation of Agenda 2030 Transforming Our World’ emphasizes that museums take up Agenda 2030 and its accompanying 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a blueprint for ICOM – its members and committees – to use, to focus and accelerate activity for sustainable development in their contexts. The purpose of this article is to outline the relationships between decolonization, human rights, Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. The aim is to encourage readers to consider how museums relate to decolonization, in its original sense, and how they can connect their efforts to ‘decolonize the institution’ with decolonization in this original sense.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals that are the framework for action for Agenda 2030

Climate change is presented as an example of a contemporary challenge rooted in colonialism and imperialism (in historic and contemporary forms), that requires action in all countries, respecting both the unequal contributions of countries, towns (and museums), and the unfair imbalance between those who have benefited most from unsustainable development/exploitation and those most impacted by climate change.

Sustainable development

The concept of sustainable development largely grew from the work of the Brundtland Commission, which is the source of the ubiquitous definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland Commission 1987, Brundtland Report/Our Common Future). A further passage, less well-known, will serve as a point of departure for us to consider:

“The integrated and interdependent nature of the new challenges and issues contrasts sharply with the nature of institutions that exist today. These institutions tend to be independent, fragmented and working to relatively narrow mandates with closed decision processes… The real world of interlocked economic and ecological systems will not change, the policies and institutions concerned must”

Sustainable development has come to mean focussed activity that seeks to achieve a more harmonious balance of considerations of people, planet and prosperity (typically regarded as three pillars or dimensions of sustainability). UNDRR, the agency responsible for managing and reducing the likelihood and impact of disasters, has identified five drivers that undermine sustainable development, namely climate change; globalized economic development; poverty and inequality; poorly planned urban development; and weak governance. The last of these can be singled out for attention: weak governance occurs in situations “in which public sector actors are unable or unwilling to assume their roles and responsibilities in protecting rights, providing basic services, public services, and ensuring that public sector management is efficient and effective.” This article aims to highlight the roles and responsibilities of museums and museum workers regarding rights linked to decolonization, with the intention of encouraging museums to be more attentive to global development agendas in pursuit of a better, fairer future.

Decolonization and sustainable development

In its original meaning, decolonization referred to the process by which a country that was previously a colony of another becomes politically independent, or the action or process of a state withdrawing from a former colony (see, e.g. Cambridge Dictionary, Collin’s Dictionary or Oxford English Dictionary). Decolonization of thought or decolonial practice does not necessarily have the same intentions. Tuck and Yang have emphatically emphasized the distinction between the two concepts, in ‘Decolonization is Not a Metaphor’, writing “decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools” (Tuck and Yang 2012). This article is concerned with decolonization in this original sense. Why does this matter? Decolonization, as widely discussed in museums, is not always connecting with initiatives or programmes that support decolonization in this original sense. To provide an example, the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism ran from 2011-20, yet museums appear to have been largely unaware of this initiative, or did not connect their activities with it; the Fourth International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism (2021-30) is currently underway. Similarly, we are drawing to the end of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-24), yet there has been little activity in Global North museums for this. If museums are unaware of these activities and opportunities, which are clearly linked to decolonization, in its original sense, then we have a situation of ‘weak governance’ as outlined above, where institutions – museums – are unaware or unwilling to accept a role in these activities, and people are consequently denied an opportunity to know about them or participate in them, which we shall discuss later.

It is also important to note here that colonialism is fundamentally not a thing of the past, with many aspects falling into the following broad categories:

  1. Contemporary legacies of colonialism and empire, in terms of inequality within and between countries built over centuries of historic imperialism and colonialism. For example, people belonging to diaspora communities often experience marginalization/are under-served, perpetuating cycles of inequality and lack of opportunity.
  2. There are many neocolonialist programmes, in the Global South, in the Arctic and on the sea floor, whether organized by states, through state debt, by attaching strings to development assistance that benefit the country providing funding, or by multinational organizations rooted in the Global North.
  3. Internal colonialism, with the subjugation of particular minorities and nationalities, ethnic cleansing and ‘re-education’ in a number of countries.
  4. Ongoing, flagrant assaults on the rights of Indigenous peoples and other minorities, including in wealthy Global North countries.
  5. The continuing existence of a number of overseas territories which are legacies of empires and colonies, some of which impede sustainable development by acting as tax havens.
  6. Re-energized colonialism and empire-building, with expansionist programmes as seen in Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

All of these maintain and drive inequality, within and between countries, and undermine sustainable development.

SDG 10 ‘Reduce inequality within and among countries’

The Sustainable Development Goals, and ICOM’s adoption of them, can be thought of as the latest in a series of developments that stretch back over eighty years, to the time of the second world war. In the Atlantic Charter of 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt outlined their goals and vision of a world order, which included the “wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.” Churchill argued that this was intended to refer to countries occupied by Germany, and not to British colonies (e.g. Crawford 2002: 297, Elkins 2022: 257).  Self-determination was included in the Charter of the United Nations, in 1945, but self-determination was not included among the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Since its founding, supporting decolonization has been a focus of keen attention by the United Nations. More than 80 former colonies comprising 750 million people have gained independence. As the United Nations now notes “At present, 17 Non-Self-Governing Territories (NSGTs) across the globe remain on the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, home to nearly 2 million people. Thus, the process of decolonization is not complete.”[1] Of these non-self governing territories recognized by the United Nations, ten are administered by the UK, three by the US, two by France, one by New Zealand, and one (Western Sahara) is in the process of decolonization.

Notwithstanding Churchill’s stance that self-determination in the Atlantic Charter was not intended to apply to Britain’s own colonies, others did not share this view: Elkins writes “the independence genie was out of her bottle, and it was the Atlantic Charter that had set her free” (Elkins 2022: 257). The Atlantic Charter, and its reference to self-determination, was taken up by Nnamdi Azikiwe (who became first president of independent Nigeria), who called for self-determination to be considered as a right (e.g. Reeves 2018). This call came to fruition in 1960, when the members of the United Nations – which had been expanding beyond a European–North American power base – adopted a Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. The preamble of the Declaration notes how members were “Convinced that the continued existence of colonialism prevents the development of international economic co-operation, impedes the social, cultural and economic development of dependent peoples and militates against the United Nations ideal of universal peace”, and “Convinced that all peoples have an inalienable right to complete freedom, the exercise of their sovereignty and the integrity of their national territory, Solemnly proclaims the necessity of bringing to a speedy and unconditional end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations.” The Declaration itself states that “The subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights, is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations and is an impediment to the promotion of world peace and co-operation” and that “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”[2] It is worth noting that, by 1960, decolonization activity was progressing at an extremely rapid pace: 17 African nations gained independence from their occupiers in 1960, the ‘Year of Africa’, often accompanied by violence and unrest.

In 1965, the International Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was adopted by the United Nations and entered into force in 1969. This is important for museums as it contains aspects that clearly relate to their work. Among these are that the Convention seeks “to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms” and “the right [of all people irrespective of race or ethnicity] to equal participation in cultural activities”. Its signatories committed to “adopt immediate and effective measures, particularly in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information, with a view to combating prejudices which lead to racial discrimination…” Again, we find a situation of weak governance, where, by and large, activity to support the Convention has been insufficient, both from governments and in museums.

The right to self-determination was further embedded into both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which codified the rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a more legal form; the Covenants were developed in the 1960s and came into force in 1976. These are part of international law, as ‘hard law’ (meaning they are legally binding); together with the UDHR, they make up the International Bill of Rights. The two Covenants incorporate the right to self-determination, exactly as first set out in the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

Building on the right of self-determination, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, or Banjul Charter, is a legal instrument for promoting and protecting human rights and freedoms on the continent of Africa, comparable to the European Convention on Human Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights. It was unanimously adopted at the Organization of African Unity in 1981. The Charter includes some notable developments. Among these are the recognition of group rights, that is, rights that belong to people in groups rather than as individuals. The Charter introduces the concept of the right to development, stating that “all peoples shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind.” This innovation was later adopted by all member of the United Nations, in 1986, in the Declaration on the Right to Development. The Declaration states that “development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom.”

It is worth noting here that a number of the most transformative, and emergent, developments regarding human rights and development have originated in formerly colonized countries and settings, and have helped shaped rights as applied globally and in the Global North.

The right to development has been repeatedly misunderstood, as an excuse for exploitative over-development or neocolonialism. This is to profoundly misinterpret its aims. The right to development has the following characteristics:

  • People-centred development. The Declaration identifies “the human person” as the central subject, participant and beneficiary of development
  • A human rights-based approach. The Declaration specifically requires that development be carried out in a manner “in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized”
  • Participation. The Declaration calls for the “active, free and meaningful participation” of people in development
  • Equity. The Declaration underlines the need for “the fair distribution of the benefits” of development
  • Non-discrimination. The Declaration permits “no distinction as to race, sex, language or religion”
  • Self-determination. The Declaration integrates self-determination, including full sovereignty over natural resources, as a constituent element of the right to development.

The principles of the right to development can be usefully applied to museum work and services of all kinds, from management and decision-making, to development of exhibitions and programmes, and as a basic foundation for how the museum seeks to interact with members of the public, as individuals with their own aspirations, ideas and concerns, rather than as groups or audiences, unless people self-define as belonging to those groups (as in group rights).

The OHCHR encourages people entering into discussions on the right to development to consider the following questions:

“Is this the ‘right to development’ codified in the United Nations Declaration? Is the analysis grounded in the recognition of the right to development as a universal human right, with human beings as the right holders, Governments as the duty bearers, and an entitlement to participate in, contribute to and enjoy development at its centre? Where you are unable to answer these questions in the affirmative, you will know that you have left the realm of human rights analysis, and entered into a geopolitical boxing match that uses the right to development as a proxy for other issues that have long complicated relations between North and South.” (OHCHR 2013)

The right to development influenced the Rio Declaration from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which stated that the right to development must by fulfilled “so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.” It also influenced the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), that “Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their ‘right to development’…”.[3] The UNDRIP Is clearly related to museums, notably on their continued role in dispossessing people of their cultural heritage, and the need for mechanisms to enable Indigenous groups to access and reclaim their heritage (see Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2015).

Time and again, the impact of colonialism on countries’ and peoples’ social, economic and environmental conditions has been drawn to attention. For example, at the UN General Assembly in 2019, it was noted that “the legacies of slavery, slave trade, colonialism, foreign occupation, alien domination, genocide and other forms of servitude have manifested themselves in poverty, underdevelopment, marginalization, social exclusion and economic disparities for the developing world.”

Numerous initiatives exist that aim to further the work of the international agreements, that museums could connect with. For example, the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-24) is a decade dedicated to promoting three goals: recognition, through the right to equality and non-discrimination; justice; and the right to development and measures against poverty[4]. All sectors – which could include museums – are encouraged to promote the Decade and empower people to participate in it, and with its goals.

The year 2020 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. This Declaration was a landmark in building a fairer world system, influencing many subsequent developments, yet it passed largely unnoticed. That year also marked the end of the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism; the Fourth International Decade is currently live, and will run from 2021-30. Organizations of all kinds – again, this could easily include museums – are invited to support the Decade.[5]

The innovation of goal-based approaches and multisector governance: the MDGs and SDGs

For decades, we have had a situation where governments sign up to treaties, but people have very limited access to them, as they may be more-or-less hidden away in deep diplomatic processes, and public institutions, including museums, have not interested themselves in achieving their goals, however relevant. The eight Millennium Development Goals, which ran from 2000-2015, changed that, as they had much greater public visibility, and they used a goal-based approach that enabled more stakeholders to participate in activity aimed at achieving a set of common objectives.

The eight Millennium Development Goals, 2000-2015

Nevertheless, they maintained the ‘traditional’ model of wealthy countries providing financial support in the shape of aid to Global South countries, and they were primarily concerned with health and poverty. As the MDGs were drawing to a close, a successor programme was developed. A Colombian diplomat, Paula Cabellaro, led the concept of an expanded and globalized set of goals. These would cover all three aspects of sustainable development (people, planet and prosperity) and, crucially, would apply to all countries. This was important not only because inequality, social and environmental problems are to be found in all countries, but because many of the structural problems in the Global South are due to structures largely set and controlled in the Global North. Caballero has written how this approach “upended the traditional division of countries into those who need to act and those called primarily to provide development assistance” (Caballero 2019: 138, see also Dodds et al. 2017, Kanie and Biermann 2017).

The Sustainable Development Goals are the delivery mechanism for achieving the vision contained in Agenda 2030, Transforming Our World.  This explicitly refers to the right to development and other human rights as a foundation for peaceful, just and inclusive societies, and to “remove the obstacles to the full realization of the right of self-determination of peoples living under colonial and foreign occupation, which continue to adversely affect their economic and social development as well as their environment.” Agenda 2030 also acknowledges that all cultures and civilizations can contribute to, and are crucial enablers of, sustainable development, and aims to foster tolerance, mutual respect and an ethic of global citizenship and shared responsibility.

In ‘Museums and the Sustainable Development Goals’ (2019), I outlined a framework of seven activities that museums can use to align with the SDGs and their targets. These seven key activities can be implemented in ways that acknowledge and seek to address contemporary inequalities, arising from colonial histories and contemporary challenges.

First, ‘strengthening efforts to protect and safeguard cultural and natural heritage, both in museums and more generally’, is written in such a way as to encourage museums to ask whose heritage they are talking about, how people are able to access and develop it, and how do they impede people’s access to their heritage, linked to the aims of the UNDRIP (related to SDGs 11.4 and 16.4).

Second ‘support and provide learning in support of the SDGs’ can ask how people are empowered to understand the history and development of their own countries, and in relation to others, and to empower people to value and participate in a culture of peace, global citizenship and to appreciate cultural diversity (SDGs 4.7, 16.3).

Third, ‘enable cultural participation for all’ underpins a wide range of SDG targets, linked to access to heritage (SDG 1.4), eliminating educational disparities (SDG 4.5), empowering social, economic and political inclusion of all (SDG 10.2) and equal opportunity (SDG 10.3).

Fourth, ‘promote sustainable tourism’ seeks to remove the negative impacts of tourism (notably carbon emissions), support economic development and foster intercultural understanding (SDG 8.9).

Fifth, ‘enable research in support of the SDGs’ can support a range of research-related activities and support research in developing countries and research partnerships (SDGs 9.1, 9.5, 9.A, 17.6).

Sixth, ‘direct internal leadership, management and operations towards the SDGs’ can combat exploitation through the value chain, including producers, employees and those involved in distribution (SDGs 8.7) and support equal opportunity (SDG 10.3); using resources sustainably (SDG 9.4); and supporting non-discriminatory policies (16.B). Museums could do worse than to support the ten principles of the Global Compact on business and human rights as a framework to support this activity.

Seventh, ‘direct external leadership, collaboration and partnerships towards the SDGs’ can be used to focus efforts to foster stronger relationships between developed and developing countries (SDGs 16.8 and 17.16), and to develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions (SDG 16.6).

Building on ‘Museums and the Sustainable Development Goals’, ‘Mainstreaming the SDGs’ is a guide for museums and other cultural institutions to make concrete goals, commitments and plans to strengthen their activity. ‘Understanding the Sustainable Development Goals’ helps explain the context and key concepts for each of the SDGs, and explains how they relate to widely recognized human rights.

Climate change as an example

Climate change can serve as an example of the importance of acknowledging both colonial legacies and current structures, and addressing these through museums. Taking a rights-based approach, people are entitled to know about climate change and to participate in environmental decision-making through the provisions of the Aarhus Convention and the right to take part in public affairs in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has a right to health, life, liberty and security of person, all of which are deeply threatened by climate change.

An examination of who (or at least which countries) has contributed to climate change reveals a close link between the development of national wealth and greenhouse gas emissions, notably by the burning of fossil fuels. Europe, North America and Asia are responsible for approximately 17%, 18% and 53% of global CO2 emissions respectively; the whole of Africa is responsible for only 3.7% of global emissions (2017 figures, see Looking at cumulative emissions, the USA emerges as the largest emitter, adding 400 billion tonnes of C02 to the atmosphere ( Wealthy countries have ‘eaten more than their fair share’ of the global carbon budget, and continue to do so, leaving developing and least developed countries with less carbon budget to consume for themselves, and so effectively limiting their future development and ‘locking in’ inequality. The Paris Agreement recognizes this disparity in the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ meaning that wealthy countries should support lower income countries to develop in ways that use green energy, and to support them to adapt to climate change. Apart from this imbalance of responsibility, the causes and impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed. For example, countries with the highest per capita emissions are typically in the Global North, while countries with highest mortality linked to weather-induced disasters are mainly in the Global South, and marginalized/under-served communities also suffer worse in Global North countries; this is just fundamentally unfair.

What does this mean for museums? We can consider these inequalities at a micro, institutional scale. Museums in Global North countries should accept their responsibility for educating people about how climate change has developed, as a consequence of political and economic decisions, of the risks it poses to them and to others, and the need for deep, transformative action across society. It is not enough for a museum only to concern itself with its local or national circumstances, as people in each country should have knowledge of how their country has gained or been exploited in the course of environmental degradation. Museums, which often developed with economic capital built through exploitation of other countries, people and the environment (including in their own country), often have massive carbon footprints. Those with the largest footprints, or which have been around for longer, also could be considered as having a ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ to make more serious efforts to reduce their negative environmental impact.

As noted earlier, some of the most interesting innovations regarding climate action have come from Global South countries. For example, the Maldives government held a cabinet meeting underwater in 2009, to highlight the highly urgent need for more ambitious climate action worldwide. This visualization of the effects of climate change on people and whole countries gained worldwide press coverage, helping to raise awareness of the need for greater climate action, notably in the rich countries of the Global North. The Maldives, along with Costa Rica and a rather small number of other countries, has played a leading important role in driving forward interest and support for the right to a healthy environment, also called the R2E. International support for the recognition of this right, which is so obvious that it should not need recognizing, but nonetheless does in the face of ongoing assaults on the climate, biodiversity, land and ocean, is growing rapidly (Boyd, Knox and Limon 2021). The Right to a Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment was adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2022, and is a profound development, bringing together environmental considerations and human rights in a clear articulation, and fulfilling the objective of the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment fully fifty years earlier.

The new Glasgow Work Programme, adopted at COP26, to run till 2031, gives museums a framework to contribute to the public-facing and all-of-society aspects of the Paris Agreement

Similarly, some of the most transformative developments in museums regarding sustainability and sustainable development have been born in Global South contexts. The Round Table of Santiago de Chile, in 1972, was organized by UNESCO and ICOM to examine whether museums as constituted were fit for purpose to meet the social, political and economic realities of Latin America. The Round Table brought in contributions from both museologists and people working with sustainable development challenges. As Mario Teruggi noted, after the first speaker had made their presentation (on agricultural development), it was “like a bombshell… we museologists looked at one another confounded not so much by what had been said… but because it had been made obvious to us at one stroke that the existence, sorrows, longings and hopes of mankind were not getting into the museums.” Teruggi notes that the participants realized “that museums were doing very little, and sometimes virtually nothing, on behalf of the underprivileged Latin America—and it brought immediate reflection on the ultimate purpose of museums.” The Declaration from the Round Table adopted the recognition that the museum exists to operate “in the service of society”, a phrase that was incorporated by ICOM’s members into the museum definition, and which has been retained unchanged for almost fifty years. We may consider the ICOM membership’s support for the two resolutions on sustainability in 2019 as evidence that museums and museum workers continue to want to do more to address sustainable development, but we may also consider the rampant poverty that exists today, in the Global North as well as the Global South, and ask how hard, really, are museums even trying to address this and other sustainable development challenges.[6] We have the blueprint in the shape of the SDGs and their targets, combined with rights-based approaches and attention to the right to development: all innovations that have found at least some of their current form in the Global South. We also have a global network in the shape of 100,000 museums worldwide, that can work towards global goals tailored to local contexts and circumstances, and to provide people with opportunities to exercise their right to development through their institutions.


Through the course of this article, I have attempted to highlight how human rights relate to decolonization, and how people and countries in the Global South undergoing decolonization have shaped both human rights and sustainable development agendas, and how their hard-fought efforts have subsequently been adopted internationally.

To conclude I would like to note the following points. First colonialism, in many forms, has played a major part in establishing the inequality that we see today between, and within, countries. Second, that inequality is not simply a historical artefact: it is maintained by decisions taken now, with the balance of power lying in Global North countries. Climate change can serve as an illustration of this situation, being both a symptom of inequality, and a driver of further inequality, with those least responsible on course to suffer the most serious effects. The imbalance between an over-consuming Global North and a constrained Global South requires addressing in both regions, as noted in Agenda 2030. Reducing over-consumption and acting on climate change by the Global North is really critical for the future of the Global South. Action should take the form of seriously acting to address climate change, taking a rights-based approach.

As an example, museums can support the necessary transformation to a sustainable future – fair and tolerant, and supporting people everywhere to enjoy their right to development – by reducing their carbon footprints, in line with Paris Agreement requirements (c.7% per year till 2030 at least). Museums could ensure that they are not financing activity that threatens people’s futures, through their pensions, banking, investments and sponsorships, or through human rights abuses across their value chain. Museums can help people access and participate in contemporary agendas, as is their right. Museums can empower people to understand global challenges, local responses, and countries’ broader responsibilities. They can give a platform to those building a sustainable future, and empower people to make use of their politicians and democratic rights.

As a last word, all that is required here is that museums support people to have what is already theirs by right: everyone’s, equally, everywhere, and without exception. The benefits of doing so are enormous, as we work to ensure that no-one, and no museum, is left behind.

The Mobilising Museums for Climate Action framework

‘Mobilising Museums for Climate Action’ was developed as a practical set of tools, frameworks and opportunities for museums to take climate action, in rights-respecting ways, as part of the project Reimagining Museums for Climate Action, for COP26.

It presents a simple framework for climate action in terms of:

  1. Mitigation through museums: Museums must support all of society to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, rapidly, in line with Paris Agreement commitments, by encouraging and empowering people to understand the part they have to play in climate action and have the skills to play it, and to use less, waste less, and make sure anything they do use is renewable. They can foster support, and sharing of resources, for nature conservation efforts that strengthen nature’s ability to absorb greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Mitigation in museums: Museums must aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all aspects of their activity, in line with Paris Agreement commitments. They can ensure all staff, and all people and organizations in the value chain understand the part they have to play in climate action, and are empowered to act through policies and resourcing so that every action is supporting climate action, in order to use less, waste less, and make sure anything that is used is renewable. They can direct financial and other resources towards nature conservation efforts that strengthen nature’s ability to absorb greenhouse gas emissions, through their everyday decisions and procurement practices.
  3. Adaptation through museums: Museums must support all of society, and nature, to face and cope with current and projected climate change impacts.
  4. Adaptation in museums: Museums must understand how they will be impacted by climate change, and adapt their practices, location, programmes and collections to be fit for the future.
  5. Climate action as part of sustainable development, climate justice and a just transition: Museums must ensure that all climate-change activity is undertaken in ways that do not themselves disenfranchize people or communities, locally or globally; and recognize that, in tackling climate change, other sustainable development challenges have to be addressed at the same time.


Boyd, D, Knox, J. and M. Limon (2021). #The Time is Now: The case for universal recognition of the right to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Universal Rights Group, Geneva, available at

Brundtland Commission (1987). Our Common Future. Available at

Caballero, Paula. “The SDGs: Changing how development is understood.” Global Policy 10 (2019): 138-140.

Crawford, N. C. (2002). Argument and Change in World Politics: Ethics, Decolonization, and Humanitarian Intervention. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Dodds, Felix, Ambassador David Donoghue, and Jimena Leiva Roesch. Negotiating the sustainable development goals: a transformational agenda for an insecure world. Taylor & Francis, 2016.

Elkins, C. (2022). Legacy of Violence: a history of the British Empire. Knopf Doubleday.

Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2015). Promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples with respect to their cultural heritage: report. United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, A/HRC/30/53, available at

Kanie, N. and F. Biermann, eds. (2017). Governing through goals: Sustainable development goals as governance innovation. MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.).

OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights) (2013). Realizing the Right to Development: Essays in Commemoration of 25 Years of the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development. OHCHR, available at

Reeves, M. (2018). ‘Free and Equal Partners in Your Commonwealth’: The Atlantic Charter and Anticolonial Delegations to London, 1941–3. Twentieth Century British History 29(2): 259–283.


[2] See

[3] See



[6] The papers from the Round Table of Santiago de Chile are available at

Published by Henry McGhie

I have set up Curating Tomorrow as a new business. I know that lots of people, organisations and networks care about the communities they are based in, broader social issues and the natural environment. Curating Tomorrow takes museum-based skills of curating, and applies them to the wider world. It is about helping people and organisations move farther, faster, together to build a better world.

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