Is it time for Transition Museums?

The development of the Transition movement should be very instructive to UK museums. Faced with climate change, Peak Oil and gas and a dependency on state aid for funding either at local or national level, museums might look to Transition as a means to encourage environmental, economic and social resilience.

 The Transition movement in the UK is probably best known in the town of Totnes in Devon. Here activists and local people created Britain’s first Transition Town and have collaborated to design an Energy Descent Action Plan which will see the community less reliant on energy and fossil fuels so that its citizens might lead happy lives. By 2030 the town plans to be self sufficient in energy use. A commitment to energy sustainability has impacted on other aspects of life in the locality. Other initiatives include the emergence of a local currency – the Totnes pound, the growth of a slow food movement and emphasis on genuine community well-being through arts programmes, and food projects.

 I think the transition movement offers a guide to museums so that they become more attuned to the rhythm of their environments and communities.

 A starting point for transitions museums is to transition primer a wiki created by communities who have lived the transition process.

 There are 12 steps to transition and I’ve picked out the most salient ones

 Lay the Foundations – use the Transition Initiative to act as a catalyst for getting the community to explore solutions to Peak Oil and to begin thinking about grassroots mitigation strategies.

Use Open Space  – use Open Space Technology to engage a large group of people to explore a particular topic or issue, with no agenda, no timetable, no obvious coordinator and no minute takers. Whilst this process shouldn’t work, the methodology has been largely responsible for the richness of Totnes’ Energy Descent Action Plan. 

Develop visible practical manifestations of the project – ensure the project is not a talking shop where people sit around and draw up wish lists. In Transition Town Totnes, the Food group launched a project called ‘Totnes – the Nut Tree Capital of Britain’ which aims to get as much infrastructure of edible nut bearing trees into the town as possible.

Facilitate the Great Re-skilling – in moving to a lower energy future and relocalising communities, many of the skills that previous generations took for granted will be needed. One of the most useful things a Transition Initiative can do is to reverse the “great deskilling” of the last 40 years by offering training in a range of some of these skills. Re-skilling programme will give people a powerful realisation of their own ability to solve problems, to achieve practical results and to work cooperatively alongside other people.

Honour the elders – in order to make real a lower energy society, we have to engage with those who directly remember the transition to the age of Cheap Oil, especially the period between 1930 and 1960.  There is much to be learnt from how things were done, what the invisible connections between the different elements of society were and how daily life was supported.

Create an Energy Descent Plan – this is the ultimate goal of the Transition movement, to reduce the carbon footprint and increase community resilience.

 

So what would need to happen to create a new generation of Transition Museums? Here are a few   thoughts

  •  Collective action is crucial. No museum could make the transition alone. Federations or clusters of organisations should asses their energy use as a whole and examine the collective capacity to both reduce and generate energy. Imagine an open air museum generating energy which could be used by museum in an urban area (or any business for that matter) in exchange for resources such as learning or design services.
  •  Other resources might be exchanged depending on the distinctive assets of that organisation. Large organisations should recognise that they might draw on expertise from staff or volunteers from small museums rather than sourcing expensive products on the open market. Museums have spent 20 years working in one-off partnership projects but few have developed long-term ‘asymetrical’ collaborations which exchange knowledge and services in non-related areas.
  •  We should re-skill museum people. Since the early 1990s a profusion of postgraduate courses have produced thousands of bright people with a general understanding of the power and purpose of museums but few with practical skills to exchange. I suspect there are few curators or educators who might be able to turn their hand to graphic design or build exhibitions or do basic woodwork, or lay a hedge. The notion of being multi skilled should not be restricted to the possession of multiple layers of knowledge.
  •  Museums should ensure that ‘elders’ are genuine associates. Frequently, older people are subjects or objects of a museum’s work, rather than collaborators. At MEAL we are fortunate to have a large number of older people who volunteer, who share and pass on their skills and knowledge. Our oldest member of staff is 81. Our training programmes especially in areas of horticulture have been enriched by people who worked the land in the 1950s and 1960s and understood the need for co-operation. This knowledge used effectively will make museums mainstream skills centres of the future.

 There are signs that the transition movement is already having an influence. M-Shed, the new corporate identity for Bristol Museums have engaged the Transition Network in their future planning. At a Mission Money Models seminar in April – Thriving on Less Lucy Neal from the Tooting Transition network will be talking about her experiences.

 Museums are recognised as unwieldy beasts, occupying large energy inefficient buildings and constantly competing with neighbours for relatively small amounts of funding. Understanding how to harness collectively the resources  and skills of their distinctive assets and those of their communities, should a first step in that descent to a low energy future.

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6 Responses to Is it time for Transition Museums?

  1. lucy says:

    Great stuff Tony!!! transitioning is an innately creative process – how couldn’t it be? We have to re-imagine our world and invent it anew. The arts and cultural sector were born to play a key role in the Great Imagining now needed.
    X

  2. Great post Tony – nice to see this linkage of ideas
    Cathy

  3. unconventionalideas says:

    Any specific information about museums closing down other than serious financial woes across the board?

    I’ll be very interested in watching this as I’m an enthusiastic docent at a museum in Oregon, and dread the day when I lose my favorite role.

  4. I love the ideas of a skills swap shop Tony, and would like to see other material resources swapped and recycled too – by museums, galleries and any cultural organisations that make exhibitions and sets. We could set up a website to facilitate this kind of activity: an online social network that works like freecycle/gumtree ?

  5. Henry says:

    the possibilities of museums as transition resources are exciting!

    transition and museums seem a natural fit–my earliest museum practice involved participatory re-skilling–yet museums, in some approaches to conservation and pushes into an entrepreneurial operating system, also face a number of great challenges on the path to ecological resiliency.

    it is quite possible to overcome these challenges, but for some it is a different way of thinking and might need a bit of coaching.

    i would be delighted to hear from museum and heritage professionals in the US and Canada who are eager to apply the ti model to our work.

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