Think global, act local: a museum context

December 3, 2019

Copyright V&A Museum

One of our key principles of designerly learning at the V&A is to be outward-facing in our approach to audiences and to programming.

At its most expansive this means framing our work in a global context, and then changing focus to the local to ensure that our work is relevant, and meets the expectations, needs and motivations of our learners.

V&A Learning is part of a collective story of change for the 21st century, in a context of environmental challenge, tech innovation and demographic shifts – all factors that urgently compel public institutions to rethink their work against a background of challenge and change.

I’m writing this post from the vibrant city of Tartu in Estonia, specifically, from the Estonian National Museum, host to this year’s NEMO conference. NEMO is the Network of European Museum Organisations, and this year over 200 delegates have convened from 44 countries. The conference theme is ‘Museums 2030 – sharing recipes for a better future’. The framing is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a focus on Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, and Goal 16, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

There are overall 17 SDGs with 169 targets, so it’s pragmatic to hone our focus on to just a couple, and explore why, how and what museums are doing to contribute, through culture, to delivering the SDGs. That said, were I to add a third key goal it would be 17, Partnerships for the Goals, as impact is more readily sustained through deep cross-sector collaboration.

If you’re not familiar with the SDGs, all are underpinned by three common threads: People, Planet and Prosperity.  Henry McGhie of Curating Tomorrow has written a how-to guide that maps the SDGs to the cultural sector and partners – well worth a look if you are interested in a local framing for your work. McGhie’s key message is the imperative to narrow from the universal to the local context within the SDGs: think global, act local.

Conference keynote Molly Fannon, CEO of the independent start up UN Live Museum, addressed the theme of global to local in her opening talk. This museum was co-founded in 2016 by Jan Mattsson, formerly second in command at the UN, Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and Henrik Skovby. Its mission is to ‘connect people everywhere to the work and values of the UN and catalyse global effort towards achieving its goals’ – to be part of a global effort to mobilise active citizenship through culture to make a difference to issues that really matter today, working with global changemakers.

Museums are a critical part of an institutional ecosystem for change through culture. Fannon set out a couple of resonant examples of locally contextualised projects initiated by UN Live through the My Mark My City project. Ranging from a biodiverse soundscape project in Bogata, to helping city people reconnect to nature, and a project in Amman to green a dry and dusty city where water is scarce and set to become more so, the projects work to localise the effects of people on their ecosystem. All the projects are participatory, with the museum acting as catalyst, facilitator,  and host –including  the Anchorage Museum where the slogan ‘No time to waste, dream big now’ was emblazoned on the entrance, a call to creative collaboration for all visitors to act on climate change, urgently given the Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth.

This resonates with our plans for participatory engagement with communities at the new Museum of Childhood, designed to be a space for communities to step into the shoes of designers and become proactive problem solvers for issues that matter to them.

In this guise, the museum we’re creating becomes host – sharing its tangible resources and intangible expertise, to help create a more just and sustainable world. We have to ask our communities, how can we best support you to take action? How can we meet your needs?

If you are doing work framed loosely by the SDGs, I’d love to hear more. Please post below.

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