Art stimulates discussion on climate change in museums here and across the United States


“Art connects with us on an emotional and human level and touches that empathy that is within all of us.”

Detail of “The Seas Are Rising, So Are We” by Anjali Mitra, 2020

Earlier this year, when volunteers painted trees in downtown Salem bright blue for a new installation at the Peabody Essex Museum, a passerby remarked that the trees hadn’t always been there.

“He walked up and asked what we were doing, as many have,” recalls Jane Winchell, director of PEM’s Center for Art and Nature and curator of natural history. “And he said, ‘These trees weren’t there before, were they?’ But the trees had been there for years, unnoticed by many, until they were painted blue for Konstantin Dimopoulos’ “Blue Trees” installation.

Using a non-toxic chalk-based pigment, Dimopoulos draws attention to local trees to highlight the global problem of deforestation, a major contributor to climate change and biodiversity decline. His PEM installation is his 27th worldwide.

“The Blue Trees” is one of the many environmental exhibits on-going at the PEM. Winchell is spearheading PEM’s new work on climate and the environment, and so far, she says, it’s been “a really rewarding, inspiring and challenging process to take part in.”

Other exhibitions in the initiative include “Down to the Bone”, a collection of works by wildlife photographer Stephen Gorman and New Yorker illustrator Edward Koren, showing photos of polar bears struggling to survive in the Arctic alongside Koren’s furry, anthropomorphic cartoon animals at the mercy of a man-made climate catastrophe. “Climate Change: Inspiring Action” shines a light on climate solutions through the work of a range of contemporary artists.

Connecting art to action

As news about the climate crisis continues to unfold around us, the conversations surrounding it tend to seep into more and more facets of everyday life. Recently, police arrested 15 protesters blocking Boston’s central thoroughfare, disrupting daily commutes to draw attention to new fossil fuel infrastructure in Massachusetts.

“There has been a real obstacle for people who speak [about the climate crisis]said Winchell, adding that art can initiate conversations, bring climate statistics into understandable terms, and break through that barrier. “Art connects with us on an emotional and human level and touches on that empathy that is within all of us,” she said.

EMP collaborated with the Climate Museum of New York, the nation’s first museum dedicated to the climate crisis, on “Climate Change: Inspiring Action”.

“Art allows visitors to explore the impacts of climate change in community with others,” said Miranda Massie, Director of the Climate Museum, “and to resolve to take collective action against the climate crisis.”

Art stimulates discussion on climate change in museums here and across the United States
Anjali Mitra, The Seas Rise, So Do We, 2020 (Courtesy of PEM)

From devastation to inspiration

Winchell notes that sometimes artwork about the climate crisis can seem devastating, and sometimes inspiring, and both types of art play a role in the climate conversation.

“Down to the Bone,” for example, she puts on the most devastating ending – muddy polar bears stare at the camera with hollow eyes, alongside naive cartoon animals amid the bones of their kind. But the exhibition “Climate Change: Inspiring Action” is in the adjacent room, offering viewers the opportunity to embrace a brighter future.

“We can’t have the devastating art without the balance of works that show where we can go forward, how we can go forward,” Winchell said. Art plays a stark role in exhibits like “Down to the Bone,” but a visionary role in “Inspiring Action.”

“Where people can come out of ‘Down to the Bone’ somewhat emotionally exposed, we offer there: that’s what you can do,” Winchell said. “This is our opportunity.”

One of Winchell’s favorite environmental exhibits, “Where the Questions Live: An Exploration of Humans in Nature” by Wes Bruce, was shown just before “Inspiring Action.” Bruce’s immersive multimedia exhibit examined humans’ relationship with the natural world – and visitors loved it.

“There were so many beautiful messages left by people about…how they felt understood,” Winchell said, “and how they see their own relationship with nature in a new and powerful way.”

The exhibition created moments of connecting with nature from inside a building – it wasn’t a walk in the woods, but it could have been even more inspiring for some visitors.

The Peabody Essex Museum is also looking at its own carbon footprint. From December, they begin a three-year contract with ENGIE to obtain 100% of their electricity from sustainable sources such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy.

With all of his climate initiatives at PEM, Winchell’s goal is to meet viewers where they are. “PEM is really an accessible museum that focuses on being relevant to people’s lives,” Winchell said, “and I hope that every time people walk into these exhibits, they leave having experienced something that has touched them. spoken personally.”

Art stimulates discussion on climate change in museums here and across the United States
Naima Penniman, “Foresight”, 2018, acrylic on wood (courtesy PEM)

More museums exploring climate change

Across the country, museums are using art to help people engage with and better understand the natural world. At the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, director Julie Decker has made climate change one of the central themes of the museum, appearing in multiple exhibits.

“It’s important for museums not to be episodic in how they talk about climate change,” Decker said. The New York Times. “We have to integrate it into our programs every day.” She also echoes Winchell’s notion that climate exhibits shouldn’t be catastrophic, but rather inspire change.

Last summer, the Museum of Fine Arts held an outdoor environmental exhibit – “Garden for Boston”, at the Huntington Avenue entrance, featuring a garden of sunflowers and a field of corn, beans and sedges grown using the traditional Native American method of the Woodlands.

Massie calls the change in more art exhibitions about the “critical” environment to inspire action.

“Art reaches diverse communities and creates a sense of agency and connection, shifting our shared culture toward climate action,” said the director of the Climate Museum.


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