Natural history museums in the age of Extinction Rebellion

Dean Veall
6 min readOct 14, 2019

How can natural history museums respond to civic issues to make a positive social impact for people and the natural world?

Dean Veall here. Back in April this year a crowd of people quietly lay down in the central hall of London’s Natural History Museum staging a mass ‘die-in’ under one of the country’s most iconic specimens, Hope, the Blue Whale. Scrolling through my Twitter feed that day and witnessing the protest unfold live it struck me more than ever before the way natural history museums do public engagement in this new age of Extinction Rebellion needs to change.

Where are we now?

Since 2006 I have been part of the world of learning and engagement within natural history museums, first at the Natural History Museum, London then the Grant Museum of Zoology. Look around the sector and the focus of engagement is very much on two audience groups, schools and families. At the Grant Museum I was fortunate to have the opportunity to experiment with our public programmes, reaching a relatively new audience for natural history museums, young adults. I was able to test out new ideas of what public programming in natural history museums could do, turning the Museum into a theatre with MUSO and with Queer Zoo used the collection to provoke thinking around identity of LGBTQ+ people with artist interventions and much more….

But on the whole learning and engagement in natural history museums has been about reaching families and children. Pretty safe territory.

The way we do public engagement and learning is unsustainable

There will always be a place for this type of learning and public engagement programmes, but the practice is stagnating and not innovating in the way we have seen in social history and art museums. Here in the UK it’s fair to say we’ve been experiencing societal shifts and changes over the last decade, the pace and significance of which has increased over the last three to four years. With these often disruptive changes, new civic and environmental challenges have been emerging, and people have been increasingly demanding more of public institutions such as museums to help deal with the consequences of these changes to their lives and make sense of the complex challenges we are all facing.

Museums engaging with society

Socially or civically engaged practice refers to the work of museums that aim to make a positive social impact on their local communities by working with people and responding to their needs in the places they are based. This work engages people with a range of civic issues that are important to them individually as well as to society as a whole.

I first encountered this approach with the Social Inclusion programme at the Museum of London run by brilliant Lucie Fitton (now of the Audience Agency) which really pioneered the approach, delivering work for a range of groups such as prisoners, people experiencing homelessness and young people, groups traditionally neglected by museums’ engagement programmes.

This practice emerged with the policies and funding choices of the Labour government of 1997–2010 which aimed to address the inequality of access to cultural organisations such as museums. Sadly much of this work fell away across the sector with the imposition of public service funding cuts that put pressure of museum budgets.

However, there has been a resurgence of this work by museums recently, ironically responding to the fraying of the social contract that was brought about the damage of said funding cuts.

Leading the way

Dancing at the Fitzwilliam Museum, a co-produced programme exploring how moving improves wellbeing and helps people to engage with art. Image by KJ Martin, kandrphoto.com

There is some excellent socially engaged practice right across the UK, with museums innovating with programmes that:

These institutions are leading the way in creating programmes that address the needs of different groups to ensure they have access to and feel empowered to access culture in the same way as the traditional (white, middle class, middle aged) museum visitor.

But looking at this work across the sector and examples given by the Museums Association as part of their Museums Change Lives campaign, what is apparent is just how little natural history museums feature.

By not innovating in our engagement practice I think we have been caught flat footed as art and social history museum turn their attention to the climate crisis by utilising their significant experience in participatory practices and activating their collections responding to the needs of concerned citizens.

But now I think all that is about to change.

Natural history museums in the age of Extinction Rebellion

I can’t help but come back to the ‘mass die-in’ and think that this peaceful action is an important moment for us in natural history museums. We can carry on rolling out specimen handling trolleys with staff chatting to visitors inspiring a love of the natural world in the hope it might affect change or we can choose to engage people in what this movement represents in the widest sense.

Sh*t on a trolley ain’t going to cut it anymore.

Harsh and a little dismissive? Yes, possibly, and apologies to all my fine colleagues doing brilliant work in education.

But I really think we need to adapt and change how we do learning and engagement, lets give our work a social purpose and use participatory methods to collaborate with public groups with our collections and science at the heart of this work. Right now there are three civic agendas that are pressing and we should respond to:

  • health and wellbeing inequalities
  • social exclusion
  • climate and ecological crisis

The challenge is how, how do we do this?

We need to ‘activate’ our spaces, collections and people (scientists and curators) to be places that convene discussion and debate around how we respond to climate change and biodiversity loss. We need to create programmes with public groups that are outcome focused, responding to their individual needs such as improving individual health outcomes for people or programmes that respond to wider societal issues such as representation of marginalised voices.

There is an emerging practice in this field in natural history museums such as the programme for youth strikers as part of #FridaysforFuture at Berlin’s Museum für Naturkunde, but we need to do more, programmes that are authentic and are meaningful.

These are just a couple of thoughts I’ve been having over the last few months and really hope that this is the start of a conversation with my colleagues across the sector. I would love to hear your thoughts, please drop me a line over on the socials.

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Dean Veall

Dean Veall here. Working in natural history museums since 2006 I’m here to ponder on all things #PublicEngagement, learning and museums.