Art and environmental activism

Various Media Outlets worldwide have reported on the most recent actions in different British art institutions by the environmental activist group “Just Stop Oil” (JSO)(e.g. BBC, The Guardian). Museums For Future is compelled to reflect on these events and suggest a way forward from here.

First of all, let’s try to understand the situation at hand:
By delaying emission reductions, Hans-Otto Pörtner (IPCC) states that we “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” The sixth IPCC assessment report (2022) “emphasizes the urgency of immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risk. Half measures are no longer an option.” (Source: IPCC, Feb 28, 2022). With these grim prospects in mind, the urge to bring as much attention to our rapidly changing climate is understandable.

What exactly happened during JSO’s action?
Over the last couple of days, small groups of JSO activists have glued their hands to painting frames at the following institutions:

  • London’s Royal Academy (Tue, July 5th; “The Last supper”,1515-20, Painting attributed to Giampietrino, Copy after Leonardo Da Vinci),
  • London’s National Gallery (Mon, July 4th; “The Hay Wain”, 1821, John Constable)
  • Manchester Art Gallery (Fri, July 1st; ”Thomson’s Aeolian Harp”, 1809, Joseph Mallord William Turner)
  • Courtauld Gallery (Thu, June 30th; “Peach Tree in Blossoms”, 1889, Vincent van Gogh)
  • Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow (Wed, June 29th; “My Heart’s in the Highlands”, 19th century Horatio McCulloch)

JSO activists appear to have chosen paintings with the capacity to transport specific messages. The Turner painting at the Manchester Art Gallery, for example, shows a view of London, which could be regularly flooded as early as 2030 as Climate Central has shown in recent flood risk mappings (Sources: Standard, Climate Central).
Besides gluing their hands to the frames, JSO activists have also either sprayed slogans to walls or floors (e.g. “No New Oil”) close to paintings or have - in the case of the Constable painting - covered the painting with strips of paper depicting an altered version of the painting. Presumably, the paintings themselves did not suffer permanent damage. A spokesman for the National Gallery said the conservation team identified minor damage to the frame of the Constable painting and disruption to the surface of the varnish on the painting, both of which have now been repaired (Sky news). With their recent actions in museums, JSO states that they want to “halt new oil and gas licenses in the UK and for the directors, employees and members of art institutions to join the Just Stop Oil coalition in peaceful civil resistance”. The British government is currently planning 40 new oil projects, despite its recurring international commitments to halt climate change.

Public responses have ranged from outrage and concern about vandalism of irreplaceable art to support for bringing attention to the urgency of climate action. Even museum professionals are torn. From what we can conclude from media reports, the activists have tried to keep any damage to the art objects minimal. Unfortunately, museums have seen various forms and intensities of vandalism throughout time; some which have done irreversible damage to art and objects. As museum professionals, we do our best to preserve culture for upcoming centuries and generations. And while we as Museums for Future understand that we can only achieve this goal by taking and demanding climate action, we also want to give space to professional worries that these actions may inspire further vandalism and potential harm.

So, how can we move forward from here?
At Museums For Future, we want to build on collaboration between scientists, the climate movement and the museum sector. We want to work together - demanding and taking climate action. We encourage climate activists who want to become active with, through or in museum spaces to consider getting in touch with museums and museum professionals to plan collaborative actions. There have been many successful groups and outspoken projects around museum activism, “BP or not BP?”, “Art not Oil” or “Culture declares” just to name a few. Museums are educational institutions and well-trusted communicators; let’s build on that public trust and make the most of its platform together, united by a common goal of a biodiverse and habitable planet where future generations can prosper and continue enjoying our shared cultural heritage.

Many museums are aware of the climate crisis and want to help preserve a stable environment and move towards more just societies. And while it can be difficult for museums to keep up with the pace of the climate movement, Museums For Future is convinced that if we trust, talk with and learn from each other, we are all better equipped to take action.

Furthermore, we do not only invite climate activists to reach out to museums, but also invite our colleagues around the globe to join us, to get involved and active around this urgent and important topic of climate action. Connecting climate facts and risk estimation (current and future-relevant topics) to the museum’s collections and museum work remains an opportunity to reinvent our professions, our collections and institutions. We hope that recent events do not make museums hesitant to engage with climate activists, but rather make them aware of their own platform and the agency they have in this fight for our shared future. While MFF can not tolerate the damage of cultural heritage, we have long acknowledged the powerful potential of addressing the climate crisis within museum spaces. We hope that this potential is harnessed by museum professionals in productive, collaborative ways… after all, in order to protect our cultural heritage, we must protect our planet. And that we can only do together.

Museums For Future

About us:
As Museums For Future, we support scientific institutions and the climate movement in their demands to take swift and meaningful action to remain below the +1.5°C (or well below +2°C) threshold of the Paris Climate Convention. We are an independent global network of museums, cultural organizations and professionals in fields related to cultural heritage demanding climate justice.