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Museums and societal collapse: an interview with Robert R. Janes

Museums and Societal Collapse - an interview with Robert R. Janes

In his recent book, Museums and Societal Collapse: The Museum as Lifeboat, Robert R. Janes confronts the looming threat of societal collapse and urges museums to take action. He argues that museums can play a crucial role in fostering resilience and well-being in times of crisis. Janes emphasises the need for museums to redefine their purpose and values, advocates for practical preparation and the cultivation of ‘soft skills’ to support communities.

Throughout this interview with Claire Bown, Janes balances realism with a call to action, urging museums to embrace intention and courage rather than relying solely on hope. Can museums become agents of change in an uncertain and volatile world?

Claire Bown: I note with interest that you say you felt ‘obligated’ to write this book. What inspired you to address the theme of societal collapse in the context of museums? Was there a specific event or realisation that prompted you to explore this intersection?

Robert Janes: Our way of life is unsustainable and society is unravelling, along with the planet.  I want the global museum community to start telling the truth to themselves, their associations, their governments, supporters, and their communities. I also want all museum workers to use their personal and organisational agency, knowledge, and compassion to contribute to the well–being of their communities, as well as to inform their leaders that it is no longer business as usual. We must stop pretending and start considering what we are to do as individuals, museum workers, families, communities, and institutions as planetary problems intensify.

The purpose of my book is to introduce the museum community to the threat of societal collapse by initiating a frank and constructive conversation about the perils of such a future, as well as the roles and responsibilities of museums. There is a critical need for all museums (art, science, history, etc.) to rethink their visions, missions, and values in light of societal collapse. Social and environmental issues are intertwined, and it befits all museums, irrespective of their disciplinary focus, to bridge the divide between nature and culture. The book is also a call to step up and face up to a planetary mess that is devastatingly more challenging than what we are willing to concede or believe. 

Museums, too, can confront the risk of collapse and assist in providing what is needed for their communities and descendants to endure with love, compassion, and joy. Anything less is unthinkable if we are to fulfil our role as good ancestors. There is so much to be grateful for.

Claire Bown: Given the emphasis on a ‘call to action’ throughout the book, can you share how you envision museums actively contributing to societal resilience and well-being during times of crisis? Are there practical examples, mindsets, or strategies that you believe museums can adopt to fulfil this role effectively?

Robert Janes: As deeply trusted, social institutions, museums of all kinds are untapped and untested sources of ideas, knowledge, and memory. Museums are also well-positioned to mitigate and adapt to the disruptions of societal collapse because of various inherent strengths. They are grounded in their communities and are expressions of locality; they bear witness by assembling evidence and knowledge and making things known; and they are skilled at making learning accessible and engaging. Most importantly, museums can serve as a bridge between nature and culture. 

Who is telling the narrative of the twenty-first century? Corporations and governments are, but they are only concerned with ceaseless economic growth. Their rhetoric is destructive: consumption means happiness and environmental destruction is regrettable. This is the predominant narrative in our public lives and it defines our past, the present, and our future. This narrative remains largely unchallenged and our civilization is now in dire need of a new narrative.

Museums are positioned and able to provide cultural narratives that identify, explore, and challenge the myths, perceptions, and misperceptions that govern and imperil our daily lives. Museums have a central role to play as they are public storefronts – easily accessible, highly skilled storytellers, and blessed with exceptional public trust. When will museums, as historically conscious and knowledge-based institutions, acknowledge their civic responsibility and embark upon the creation of a new narrative? 

Although we have no idea when or how collapse will unfold, museums can make preparations now that will serve them and their communities well, irrespective of the threat of collapse. My interest is in the so-called ‘soft skills’, and museums have the knowledge and experience to position themselves as key sources of community support, assistance, and self-sufficiency. These skills include critical thinking, group facilitation, helping people cope with uncertainty, fear, and anger, and mentoring their communities and other museums in collaborating and advocating, as well as hosting conversations to clearly convey the issues and imperatives that are essential tools for adaptation. All of these soft-skills will contribute to community building.

At the same time, museums not only create social capital, but they are also seed banks and memory banks of material diversity, sustainable living practices, and knowledge that will become ever more valuable as industrial society becomes increasingly maladaptive. In addition, museums have a deeper sense of time than any other organisation, and celebrate and preserve both wonder and diversity. All museums must acknowledge their new roles; it is time for all  hands on deck. 

Claire Bown: How do you strike a balance between realistically addressing the challenges posed by societal collapse and instilling a sense of hopefulness in your readers, especially those working in the museum sector?

Robert Janes: In thinking about the uncertain future of museums in a world beset by unprecedented challenges, it is clear that hope is an essential ingredient in any successful outcome for museums, yet it is insufficient on its own. Holding on to hope can divert attention from what needs to be done.  My interest is in hope, intention, and action rather than in hoping that the challenges will resolve themselves. Joanna Macy calls this combination of hope and intention, active hope and it is something we do rather than have.

Hope will not resolve the many issues confronting us. It is hopeless to believe that we will limit global warming to 1.5º Celsius; it is hopeless to assume that big oil and small oil will stop fossil fuel production, and it may be hopeless to assume that the Global North will admit that the “green technology” transition means pillaging the environment and poor people in the Global South. Hopeless need not mean helpless, however. On the contrary, hopelessness is the springboard to helpfulness – supportive, effective, and useful. Over half of my book is devoted to demonstrating why museums as lifeboats are vital in addressing an unknown future and, further, how they are equipped and able to play this role. Relinquishing hope does not mean staring into a dark abyss. Herein lies the challenge and the opportunity.

Museums can choose to be hopeful, hopeless, helpless, or helpful in any combination, but none are preordained. All museums and museum workers have agency, real or potential. Hope is not required. Vision and courage are.

Robert R. Janes is an independent scholar/practitioner; editor-in-chief emeritus of the journal Museum Management and Curatorship; a visiting research fellow at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK, and the founder of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. His museum publications have been translated into ten languages and he has received six awards for his ten books. He lives in Canmore, Alberta, Canada. His new book Museums and Societal Collapse: The Museum as Lifeboat is out now.

Close-up of dried, cracked earth.

Robert R. Janes

Robert R. Janes is an independent scholar/practitioner; editor-in-chief emeritus of the journal Museum Management and Curatorship; a visiting research fellow at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK, and the founder of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. His museum publications have been translated into ten languages. He lives in Canmore, Alberta, Canada.