How Museums Are Engaging Their Audiences on Climate Change

On March 10th, 2023, the Yale Center for Environmental Communication hosted a panel which was moderated by Miranda Massie, Director and Founder of the Climate Museum and included Jen Kretser, Director of Climate Initiatives at the Wild Center and Nan Renner, Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships at Birch Aquarium at Scripps. The discussion centered on the ways in which museums, through their exhibits and shared spaces, can educate on and draw attention to the interdisciplinary topic of climate change.

Key Takeaways include:

  • Museums, as centers of art and art-based education, can uniquely serve in motivating people to action in the fight against climate change.
    • The arts elicit feelings of community and commonality in ways that are conducive to building a group sense of actionability.
    • Cultural institutions are deeply trusted by the public, and this trust has only increased since the pandemic.
    • Seeing the amount of people who are also engaged in these topics helps fight the assumption that a minority of people are concerned about climate change.
    • Including justice and equity themes throughout these exhibits is critical, such as information on the disproportionate impacts of climate change on frontline communities.
    • Incorporating climate science and storytelling creates more complete and holistic experiences for audiences.
  • Centering your audience is key for any climate communication. By utilizing survey tools such as SASSY, museums can achieve a fuller understanding of their audiences and what climate messaging might be the best to motivate people to action. 
    • These tools can help debunk the myth that most people are not alarmed about climate change (e.g. at the Wild Center, the staff was extremely surprised at how concerned their visitors were about the climate crisis). 
    • Audiences want to find ways to act. Museums can present concrete calls to action, removing barriers to entry for climate action; in fact, it has been found that presenting recommendations to the audience is widely welcomed and increases trust in these institutions.
  • Through engaging visitors’ emotions and desire to learn, museums and aquariums hold a special avenue towards climate education.
    • Mapping an emotional experience that includes climate messaging draws visitors in (e.g. Birch Aquarium at Scripps’s usage of little blue penguins to first spur joy, then care, and then a desire to act).
    • Aquariums can combine people’s love for animals and an action-based orientation to engage people in the fight against climate change. 
  • Young audiences respond extremely well to this form of education and engagement, and they themselves teach museums different ways of thinking about the climate crisis.
  • Museums should prioritize making these spaces welcoming to underrepresented audiences and to collaboratively creating content with their communities (and fully reimbursing them for this work).
    • It is crucial that museums really listen to the communities they serve and think deeply about how to include concerns around racial and social injustices in their work.  
    • Making these spaces available to groups who are engaged with justice work is one of the ways to advance this mission.
    • In creating these exhibits, ensuring accessibility for differently abled people is vital.
    • It is incredibly important for institutions to center environmental racism and climate injustices throughout this work, so that these topics become common sense issues. Including information on meaningful pathways to action motivates people to fight these injustices.