Can museums inspire innovators into the transition to low carbon living?

Last week saw a concerted effort to promote engineering in the UK. The Queen Elizabeth Prize was launched as an award for outstanding innovation in engineering. The government wishes to ‘re-balance’ the economy, in favour of manufacturing so that it becomes less dependent on financial services.

There is a regular refrain that the UK lacks the engineers who would be in the vanguard of any ‘re-balancing’. The country has a a good number of top range engineers who are experts in research and development, but it desperately needs people to fill the middle ranks of the profession.

It’s often said that British engineering has a low status. This seems hard to reconcile with the way that industrial heritage is venerated. Abraham Darby’s 1703 blast furnace at Coalbrookdale is a world heritage site and a hagiography has been built around characters like Brunel. Ironbridge and the SS Great Britain in Bristol are two of the most iconic and most visited monuments to Britain’s industrial past.

These places are also a reminder of the of an economic system utterly dependency upon fossil fuels . Ironbridge’s Chief Executive Steve Miller has called his museums “The Birthplace of Global warming”.

To face the challenge of climate change, resource depletion and growing levels of inequality, we should recognise the need for a more equitable and sustainable society. In addition we’ll need technological innovation to better use the dwindling resources and to wean the world off fossil fuels. Much as they remind us of achievements of the past, museums could inspire tomorrow’s engineers in a quest for a transition to a low carbon and high well-being economy. The 6th Manifesto Point of the Happy Museum calls for “Museums to lead on innovation into Transition” to a low carbon economy. They might:

Test ways that assets like your collections, staff and communities canbe imaginatively applied to current problems. For example, could you work with corporate sponsors to develop products and services that are highwell-being, low-carbon?

At the Museum of East Anglian Life the story is told of the self-sharpening chilled cast-iron plough share invented by Robert Ransome in 1808. This vastly improved crop yields, which helped feed growing populations across the world. Could Ransome’s ingenuity arouse thoughts of how developments in agriculture or hydroponics might feed 7 billion people today?  For the 60m people in the UK, allotments alone will not be the answer. In recent years the National Trust has led the way in designing renewable enegy solutions for its historic buildings.

We’d love to hear from museums who are already ‘leading on transition’. Museums should prompt people think about real-time  problems  and in future perhaps they will low carbon the low-carbon innovators.

A Ransomes Plough

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