In the past few months I’ve helped the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions design a global conversation about how libraries can tackle the challenges of the future by working together. In the process, I’ve had the honour to work with inspirational librarians, and talk with library professionals from around the world.
What stood out for me in the conversations and the workshops I facilitated, is how committed the participating librarians are to their mission and vision of a better world. I am pleasantly surprised by their awareness of, and focus on large societal issues, and their willingness to work together to address these issues.
Many of the challenges the world faces are too large for any one organisation alone to tackle. Whether it is climate change, human rights or international migration and security, these topics go beyond the sphere of one organisation, even if that organisation is a large country.
I am also involved in an environmental scan about the big stories for museums in the coming decade. I’ve spoken with influential thinkers and leaders about 21st century approaches to 21st century challenges, and the role museums and their collections play. Almost in one voice, they ask for more collaboration. Between museums, between museums and other organisations, and between museum and their audiences.
The biggest stories of our time are truly big. One organisation alone can never give the full picture, and should not try to either. Every single institution is also indispensable in telling these stories, from the largest tourist destination to the smallest neighbourhood museum. We need all institutions to reach the world’s seven billion people, and we need their different viewpoints and ideas to tackle the complex, wicked problems.
Consider climate change. As recent events show, we need strong and trusted institutional voices to protect its premise: it is a fact. Some institutions, primarily those in communities that are most affected by rising sea levels, desertification or mass loss of biodiversity, are better suited to be this voice than others. At the same time, climate change affects everyone, regardless of where you live. I used to only suffer from hay fever in the Mediterranean countries, but now I’m sneezing six months out of twelve when I’m in my Amsterdam apartment. My local museum or library needs to help me understand why, and how this ties into the larger story of climate change, and to answer the all-important What can I do?
Yesterday, someone suggested to me the idea of a world museum. Not in the sense of a museum that connects people to the world, but in the sense that it connects the world and all its people with each other, and makes sure the large ideas, challenges and stories find the right communities.
There is no other institution in the world that fulfils this full responsibility. Given the challenges we face, that is an opportunity for all cultural institutions to claim a place, be meaningful, and work together.