Museum of Rapid Transition: museums in a world facing existential crisis

By Andrew Simms on 30 April 2019

What is the public role for museums in a world where civilisation faces an existential crisis and the need to make a rapid transition?

History teaches us nothing,’ wrote the Russian medievalist Vasily Klyuchesvsky, ‘but only punishes [us] for not learning its lessons’. Somewhere in this paradox lies an important truth about the point of struggling to understand what has come before us and what it can teach us about how to live, whilst knowing at the same time that the past is never simply replayed.

In his work Orientalism, which has had a profound impact on our reading of history, including especially the medieval period, the intellectual, Edward Said, quotes Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, to elaborate why a study of history is a necessary precondition to understanding the present and our potential for action within it.

‘The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical processes to date, that has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.’

Said then makes this critical observation: “The only available translation inexplicably leaves Gramsci’s comment at that, whereas in fact Gramsci’s text concludes by saying, ‘therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.’”

So, to understand what we are, and what we are capable of, and to avoid the punishment of history for not learning its lessons we need, as a starting point, to compile an inventory of its traces left within us.

Museums are many things: important public spaces, focal points for community, some at least are purveyors of fine tea and cake and last minute gifts. But, vitally, they are physical manifestations of civilisations’ collective memories, inventories of the traces left in us by the past.

These are more important than ever now that we face a challenge unprecedented in scale and speed to change how we live and work on our planet, in order to prevent the loss of the climate and biosphere which give civilisation a home.

An inventory of how societies have achieved rapid transitions in the past may begin to codify for us the ingredients, or broad design criteria, for successful future rapid transitions.

Yet, to many, we appear to live in a time in which fundamental change seems impossible. Many commentators have said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than a change to our current economic system.

Museums matter because they challenge our lack of belief in the possibility of change. In fact, they graphically demonstrate its inevitability. Museums give the lie to the myth of permanence. They are filled with objects and documents that show how change happens, including the possibility of rapid transitions, whether in response to cultural, political or environmental factors, or war, technology or demography.

One hope as a result of this discussion is that we might somehow establish a Museum of Rapid Transition.

Institutions may have roles thrust upon them by circumstances or may consciously design their own. What should be the public role for museums in a world where civilisation faces existential environmental crisis, corrosive inequality and flux following the evacuation of confidence in a dominant economic philosophy? The very existence of museums, how they are owned and run, what they do and don’t exhibit is entwined in this debate. They are not objective observers and passive victims of their times, but active agents in them. Even to appear to avoid taking a stance, often, in practice, means taking sides.

Tate Modern, in London, for example, is itself an example of transition. Once a power station burning fossil fuels, it has been re imagined as a museum of modern art. But its choice to accept sponsorship from controversial oil companies, providing those companies with, argue campaigners, a cultural licence to operate, turned the Tate inadvertently into a site of protest.

The arts and activist collective, Liberate Tate, turned the public institution into a platform to challenge the incumbent energy giants whose products fuel climatic upheaval. It isn’t an isolated example.

As a child I wrote a story in my English class about visiting museum far into the future (in the year 2000). The one exhibit I remember writing most about, was a car in a glass case, the internal combustion engine had passed into the past.

History, an infinity of traces and ironies, how should museums configure and display its inventory of civilisation, in a moment when civilisation is burning away the oddly conducive climate and bankrupting the biosphere it emerged in?

The British Museum staged at least two major exhibitions recently, which I suspect will be viewed in the near future with open mouthed astonishment at the irony of their sponsorship. Sunken Cities, and Scythians – Warriors of Ancient Siberia were both sponsored by the oil company BP. The latter exhibition was made possible because of new finds emerging in Siberia discovered due to melting permafrost. Sunken Cities describes not just the past for some major human settlements, but the future for many of the world’s coastal mega centres of population.

Perhaps, rather than the sponsors of exhibitions, it is time for industries such as the fossil energy companies, who have done so much in the recent past to shape the modern world, to become the subject of exhibitions, examples of things which have served their time, left their traces, and whose time now has passed.

The Museum of London caused a stir when it announced it would be making part of giant ‘fatberg’ from London’s sewers into an exhibit – the consequence of by-products from fast food culture and disposable products poured and flushed into the city’s sanitation system. The oil and gas company Shell has built a giant drill ship called Prelude. Reportedly it is made of enough steel for 36 Eiffel Towers, is 488m long and set to extract millions of tonnes of fossil fuels from the sea floor off Australia. Now that London’s Science Museum has ended its sponsorship from Shell following public pressure, it could instead exhibit part of the ship, Prelude, as an example of a once popular form of energy exploration and production which we now understand to be incompatible with the need for humanity to live within planetary ecological boundaries. It could be joined by examples of short haul aircraft, outdoor restaurant gas heaters and other examples of societies’ brief carbon intensive age.

Perhaps another curious exhibit would be the Bank of Scotland’s Oil & Gas Report which was produced in both large print and braille versions so that it could be read by the physically blind, but in no version that mentioned climate change – an artefact of a culture that was tenaciously in denial and climate blind.

What else might we curate to enlighten and inform our era of necessary, rapid transition?

In February 2017, the UK received a ‘final warning’ to comply with EU air quality regulations or face being taken to the European Court of Justice and face fines of up to £300 million. Most surprising is that the problem still persists, because as countries get richer environmental problems are supposed almost to solve themselves.

London’s fight against pollution began as early as the 13th century when laws were passed to protect citizens. It reached a climax with the smogs of the 1950s and the passage of the 1956 Clean Air Act. Now dirty diesel is the problem, contributing to nearly 10,000 premature deaths a year, more than one person per hour in the capital city alone. What has and hasn’t been achieved in terms of great leaps forward in public health is our common story.

Shifting to 100% renewable energy by 2050 would prevent 90 million premature deaths between now and then according to work by Mark Jacobson at Stanford University. So, let us look at the history of great shifts in energy systems and infrastructure and remind ourselves of our powers for innovation, adaptation and rapid deployment, problems encountered and overcome. These may help melt excuses for inaction and realise our potential in collective action.

Much of human society is locked into a high-consumption culture, energy-intensive infrastructure, unequal power relations, and an economic system dominated by finance that fails the poorest and takes infinite growth for granted.

Other barriers are more in the mind-sets and attitudes towards change. Opponents of radical change argue that it is impossible because of powerful incumbent interests, high costs, the lack of a detailed blueprint, or the unwillingness of governments or citizens to act. Others pin their hopes on a smart, technological fix to environmental problems.

History is full of examples of rapid transition in the face of new challenges. Society shows a brilliantly adaptive ability to change and still meet its needs, yet we’re constantly told that we have no alternative to a failed economic system. In fact, the past suggests we have an opportunity to innovate and reveal our inner climate chameleons, changing our economy and habits to halt environmental collapse and thrive differently.

Examples suggest that these barriers can be, and have been, overcome in the past through the action of grassroots movements, community mobilisation, charismatic leadership, state action and combinations of them all. Often though, even in the face of threats which seem obvious when viewed with the benefit of hindsight, mobilisation to achieve change has required extraordinary agitation.

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences,”

…said Winston Churchill in the House of Commons in 1936 as he struggled to shake the complacency of the British establishment in the face of the threat he saw from a re-arming Germany,

“Two things, have staggered me…The first has been the dangers that have so swiftly come upon us in a few years, and have been transforming our position and the whole outlook of the world. Secondly, I have been staggered by the failure of the House of Commons to react effectively against those dangers… unless the House resolves to find out the truth for itself it will have committed an act of abdication of duty without parallel”

In How to Pay for the War, Keynes set out to ‘bring home the true nature of the war-time problems’ and pointed out that even a ‘moderate development of the war effort necessitated a very large cut in general consumption’, and proposed a plan of compulsory saving, because taxes rationing and mere scarcity were inadequate, backed with the promise of a payback at the end of the war. Yet, even with the spectre of Nazism looming, Keynes’s medicine was thought too strong. Opinion was not ready. Keynes lamented: ‘My discomfort comes from the fact, now made obvious, that the general public are not in favour of any plan.’

The Economist wrote in 1939, ‘(Keynes) great service has been to impel the so-called “leaders of opinion” to reveal the state of their ignorance on the central economic problem of the war.’

But then, extraordinary things were achieved.

The Shadow Factory Plan: 
• Nine new, covert factories commissioned in 1936, with other factories especially for vehicle manufacture repurposed.

Land use: 
• Allotment numbers grew from 850,000 in 1939 to 1,750,000 in 1943
• More land was brought into production – 10,000 sq miles.

• Dependence on food imports halved between 1939 and 1945
• By 1943 there were 3000 rabbit clubs and 4000 pig clubs, the latter producing enough bacon for 150 million breakfasts
• Consumption down 11% by 1944
• By 1944 10% of all food was being eaten in works and school canteens, cafes, and restaurants.

• Rationing came in under a ‘scientific diet’ with positive consequences for the nation’s health as well as significant resource conservation
• As a strong indicator of broader health improvements, between 1937 and 1944 infant mortality (up to age one) fell from 58 per 1000, to 45 per 1000. After being relatively high during the 1930s, suicide rates also fell during the war.

Household/ Energy:
• Domestic coal use was cut by 25% between 1938 and 1944
• Electrical appliance use cut 82% between 1938 and 1944
• There was a 95% cut in private vehicle use – petrol for private cars withdrawn in 1942
• Public transport rose 13%
• Spending on amusements rose 10%.

• Scrap metal was being saved at the rate of 110,000 tonnes per week.
• 31,000 tonnes of kitchen waste saved weekly by 1943 – enough to feed 210,000 pigs.

Taxation and rationing:
• Where changing behaviour with regard to consumption was concerned, generally, the government deliberately chose rationing over taxation for reasons that were rational and progressive. Taxation alone, it concluded, apart from disproportionately and unfairly placing a burden on the poor, would be too slow to change behaviour. Rationing was considered quicker and more equitable. Tradable rations were rejected through fear of encouraging fraud and inflation and ‘undermining the moral basis of rationing’
• Taxes on luxury goods were phased in and the allocation of other goods was done on the basis of professional need, for example alarm clocks were made available for people whose jobs required early rising.

The historian Mark Roodhouse derives specific lessons for modern policy-makers. If transferred to now, government, he writes, would need to:

. . . ‘convince the public that rationing levels are fair; that the system is administered transparently and fairly; and that evaders are few in number, likely to be detected and liable to stiff penalties if found guilty’.

People weren’t motivated by Britain’s interests alone, but: ‘for a community of interest for the people of Europe’. The effect of ‘national unity’ was to open up the political agenda through the experience of collective endeavour.

In terms of social change, the experience of collective action laid foundations for the post war social contract of the creation of the NHS and the widespread provision of social housing. There were public housebuilding programmes under both Labour and Conservative governments which saw between 200-250,000 homes built each year at times during the 1950s and 1960s. Strikingly, at a time of national housing crisis once again, that had dropped to just over 1,000 homes built by local authorities in 2014-15. From the perspective of museum curation, comparisons such as this represent a different kind of buried, or forgotten, treasure comparable to a Saxon gold hoard, and one with the potential to raise important, relevant contemporary questions whose answers will directly touch many lives.

But do examples like this just represent a few historically isolated and very specific cases? Is such resource mobilisation on this scale only possible during war time and to clear up from its damage?

‘The amount of state intervention (in the banking system) in the US and UK at this moment is at a level comparable to that of wartime,’ wrote John Lanchester in his book, Whoops! (2010), “We have in effect had to declare war to get us out of the hole created by our economic system.”

And indeed our very recent history shows just how quickly and dramatically normal behaviour and expectations can change when circumstances demand it. As a result of poorly regulated financial markets, in response to the financial crisis of 2007-08, banks were nationalised in an ideological back flip, and huge sums of public money were created by government to inject into the economy and quell turbulent financial markets under so-called quantitative easing. In the UK it was £375 billion, plus £75 billion post Brexit (coupled with bank nationalisations). In the US between 2008-2015 it amounted to $3.7 trillion. The European Central Bank has injected $90 (€80) billion per month, dipping to €60 in 2017, and still tens of billions in 2018.

In this light, we can ask interesting questions such as.

• How might museums curate the experience of rapid transitions during and after the great wars?
• How might they curate the experience of the 2007-08 financial crisis
• How might they illuminate the experience of the many periods of rapid change in response to sudden technological, demographic or cultural shifts?
• How do museums communicate an inventory of the traces these events leave within us?

Once you begin to look for circumstances of flux which might instruct our understanding of how to manage and create transitions they begin appearing all over. The Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in Iceland in 2010, halting northern European air travel overnight. Despite losing a transport link thought indispensable, businesses and individuals adapted almost immediately. People travelled differently, sharing vehicles, using social media which came into its own as an organiser. The Norwegian head of state, stuck at the UN in New York, ran the country from his ipad. There were overnight shifts from face-to-face business meetings to video conferencing.

In response to an earlier failure of private banks, the New Deal in 1930s America, invested an amount similar to that thought needed for low carbon transition today to public relief and federal works programmes. The New Deal saw a general drop in income inequality, an improvement in gender equality, a major programme of new public housing and significant environmental works. Interestingly these figures are close to what was spent by Roosevelt’s New Deal. It has been estimated that between January 1933 and December 1940 $21.1 billion was spent on public relief and federal works programmes. This amounted to about 3.5% of total GDP over the same period, and today would be equivalent to £50 billion a year in the UK (roughly $500 billion in the USA).

Taking a lesson from the carbon dark side, creating our initial system-wide addiction to fossil fuels was a rapid affair. Starting in 1956 the US Interstate Highway System, for example, managed to build 47,000 miles of highway in just over three decades, ‘changing commerce and society.’

A century earlier Britain demonstrated the capacity for the rapid roll-out of a more benign transport system when just between the years of 1845 and 1852 there were 4,400 miles of railway track laid. A single weekend in 1892 saw the upgrading of 177 miles of track on the Great Western route by 4,200 well-coordinated workers.

Or, we could look to rapid changes at the end of the Cold War such as industrial conversion. From 1985 the number of jobs in the UK’s military and defence sector fell from around 625,000 to 410,000, workers who were generally reabsorbed into the wider economy.

Shockwaves from that geopolitical event went much wider. Cuba’s economy, transport system and agriculture was hooked on cheap Soviet oil. But oil imports dropped by around half at the Cold War’s end. The average Cuban’s calorie intake fell by over one third in the course of around five years. People took to walking and cycling, consumption fell and there was a rapid increase in urban organic agriculture. Half the food consumed in the capital, Havana, is grown in the city’s own gardens and, overall, urban gardens provide 60% of the salad vegetables eaten in Cuba. Havana alone ended up with more than 26,000 food gardens. The Cuban experience both echoes and – statistically at least – surpasses what America achieved in its lauded push for ‘Victory Gardening’ during the Second World War. As calorie intake fell by over one third, the share of physically active adults more than doubled while obesity halved. In just five years between 1997 and 2002, according to the American Journal of Epidemiology, deaths due to diabetes fell by half, coronary heart disease by over one third, stroke by one in five, and all causes by just under one fifth. A Revolución Energética moved the country to a more efficient, decentralised system with smaller generator stations and shorter distances to transmit energy. Old, inefficient incandescent light bulbs were removed almost entirely, by mandate, in just six months.

Exhibitions could look at the comparative international experience of different rapid phases of change and adaptation in everything from urban and garden farming to shifting energy generation and use, and at how different societies respond and adapt to a wide range of shocks whether financial, environmental or geopolitical.

If society is to survive and move to operate within planetary boundaries the greatest shift, apart from attitudes will be in the very ‘stuff’ of life. It is our over-stressing of ecosystems and consumption of non-renewable resources in our homes and wider economies which threatens our natural life support systems. Our relationship to the world of materials – stuff – is fundamental and set to change.

Museums are already custodians of our past relationship to the material world and how it has changed. They hold vital knowledge about how our interaction with the world has evolved and, as such, can change again. But given our current ecological predicament the vital focus is not just about the inevitability of change – what we are charged to understand and encourage is rapid change, or transition, in the direction of dramatically reducing our ecological footprints, in order to avoid triggering irreversible and worsening damage.

Museums hold civilisation’s stories of how we have found and made a home in our world. Now that we are wrecking that home, all museums have a unique role to play in helping us understand the dynamics of change and, I believe, there is a case that we should create a dedicated Museum of Rapid Transition.

This blog was originally published here with the Happy Museum in Museum iD.


Andrew Simms

Andrew Simms is Coordinator of the Rapid Transition Alliance, an author, political economist and activist. He is co-director of the NewWeather Institute, Assistant Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, a Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation (NEF). His books include The New Economics, Cancel the Apocalypse: the New Path to Prosperity, Ecological Debt and Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? He tweets from @andrewsimms_uk