Museums and other cultural heritage organisations have a pivotal role to play in the SDGs, not in the least by using their expertise to make global challenges locally relevant.
Over the summer, I explored the relationship between museums and the SDGs, and where they can make a difference. The posts and ensuing social media conversations have connected me with a budding network of museums professionals passionate about sustainable development and brought me in touch with inspirational projects around the world.
As the SDGs tackle enormous challenges (zero hunger, gender equality, climate action), they may seem daunting to many museum professionals. After all, how can a museum contribute to achieving zero hunger? How can a cultural heritage site reduce inequality? This ‘how’ is the topic of this third post in the series.
Advance warning: the answer may be underwhelming. There are no clear-cut recipes for programmes or exhibitions that will help you address the SDGs in your organisation. With 169 targets and at least five principal museum functions, the opportunities are endless.
Instead, a better guideline for taking action may be to consider what values a good project or initiative may have, and under what conditions a museum can take action on the SDGs. I believe these include the following:
- Make a choice. Commit to one (or at most a few) SDGs and make this choice known. Henry McGhie suggests selecting those issues where you have influence. For a natural history museum this may be SDG 16 (Life on land) and for a city museum SDG 11 (Sustainable cities and communities), but of course all combination are possible.
- Make it local. The way the SDGs are set up and adopted around the world
is that they are global goals that demand local action. Tackling climate change may be a worldwide concern, yet not all initiatives have to span the globe. Define what success on your chosen SDG looks like in your community, and work towards that goal.
- Collaborate. Another characteristic of the SDGs is that they require collaborative action. If you spend some time studying the 17 goals and 169 targets, you will notice many relationships between them. Climate action demands affordable and clean energy, which in turn asks for innovative industries, which are fuelled by quality education that is only accessible for all if there is no poverty, etcetera. In your community, find partners that can help you achieve your local goal and work with them.
- Focus on impact, not commitments. The SDGs are a funding and PR opportunity for museums. However, we should be rigid in only being proud of the impact we achieve, not the commitments we make. The SDGs should not be a box to tick unless we promise we will only tick the box once we’ve achieved the impact we set out to achieve.
- Spread the message. A global challenge with nearly endless variations requires many case studies to inspire action. A steady trickle of projects, mostly focused on climate action, is being shared on social media, but we could do with a global mapping of projects in all culture on all SDGs. A source of inspiration may be IFLA’s Library Map of the World (although it desperately needs more stories!)
Following the guidelines above, the SDGs may turn out not only to be a tremendous opportunity for the world but also for museums themselves. Frequent readers of the blog will know that I believe that the future for museums (and all other institutions) is to be committed, community-driven, collaborative organisations that have real impact and share their story widely. As such, action on the SDGs may be an opportunity for a museum to transform itself.
I started this series because I felt there is not enough focus within the museum sector on the SDGs. The comments and feedback I received over summer, have shown me that a small, committed, and growing group of museum professionals is working tirelessly on the topic. They are building momentum (after all, there are still 12 years left to achieve the SDGs).
What do you think? How can we build on that momentum to move forward? Do you feel a world map of museums and the SDGs makes sense? Will you create it (with help)?