Western’s new Centre for Sustainable Curating looks to shed light on ecological issues and share them through stories grounded in environmental awareness.
Located in the department of visual arts, the centre is a hub for teaching, learning, and sharing information focused on environmental and social justice. It supports research into issues including waste, pollution, and the climate crisis, and serves as a training ground for the next generation of curators and museum workers learning to develop exhibitions and artworks with low carbon footprints.
“We are excited to make an impact,” said centre director Kirsty Robertson, an associate professor and director of museum and curatorial studies. “We’re thinking about how museums, as places that encourage different ways of thinking and learning, can come together with these programs of environmental justice through storytelling.”
The idea for the centre grew out of a series of projects by the Synthetic Collective, an interdisciplinary collaboration in which Robertson and a core group of visual artists, cultural workers and earth scientists from Western sample, map and visualize the complexities of plastics pollution in the Great Lakes Region.
“We use visual culture and science to tell a story about plastics pollution in ways that don’t cause harm in and of themselves,” Robertson said.
The centre has adopted that purpose in its teaching goals, putting social and environmental justice at the foundation of one of the only undergraduate museum and curatorial studies programs in Canada.
Lessening the carbon footprint of museums
Museums have long been important venues for education and learning. Many have presented exhibitions fostering discourse about changing environments, loss of biodiversity, the climate crisis and how to mitigate environmental damage.
However, museums often have large carbon footprints and create extensive waste.
Robertson is hopeful work in the centre will help drive change, with students learning and sharing their knowledge of best practices of sustainability in the field.
“Maybe not every exhibition can have a zero-carbon footprint,” Robertson said. “But if we can develop solutions and teach students ways of lessening the carbon impact, then hopefully they’ll move into the museums that are eager to do so.”
Robertson, along with the centre’s inaugural postdoctoral students, Zoë Heyn-Jones and Amanda White, is currently creating a resource guide of eco-friendly tips, products and suppliers for curatorial students.
By 2023, the museum and curatorial studies curriculum will include a Curating with Environmental Awareness course, modelled after the Making Art with Environmental Awareness course, currently taught by visual arts associate professor Kelly Wood.
“Using environmental justice to frame our thinking and projects means understanding that the burdens of environmental injustice are often unevenly distributed,” Robertson said. “We are interested in how our work can prevent and mitigate, rather than add to, the harm.”
Launch discussion and a DIY guide for reducing environmental impact
The May 27 launch event will feature a panel discussion on the expansive forms of teaching and learning that can take place in museum and exhibition spaces, and a presentation by the Synthetic Collective entitled, Plastic Heart: A DIY Field guide for Reducing the Environmental Impact of Art Exhibitions.
Heyn-Jones and White will share aspects of their research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and supported through the centre. Heyn-Jones is exploring the urgent worldwide problem of food insecurity – and how the arts can help solve it.
White is working on how, amid the current ecological crisis, the future of our relationship with edible plants might be interrogated and reimagined through artist and curatorial interventions, scholarly writing and teaching.
Seeking input to set the vision
Following the launch event, Robertson, Heyn-Jones and White are undertaking a year-long visioning exercise working with students, environmental NGOs, scientists, curators, museum professionals and artists to consider what the centre could be; what the sector needs; and how future generations might see and understand museums.
“We want to find out what will be most useful for our students in sewing together the goals of the centre to be environmentally responsible with the goals of artists, curators and museums,” Robertson said.
“Our students already go out to graduate programs and to work in museums around the world, taking what they’ve learned at Western. We hope those learnings will now also have social and environmental justice as a core value.”
The Centre for Sustainable Curating officially launches at a virtual event on May 27 at 1 p.m. Attendees are asked to register in advance.