From Critique to Inspiration
Before the advent of the modern museum, Europeans collected objects in “Cabinets of Curiosities,” eclectic display rooms designed to provoke awe and wonder in God’s creation. Interest in Cabinets of Curiosities has resurged in recent decades, in no small part because the Cabinets paid less heed to rigid distinctions between nature and culture. Today, in the face of ecological disaster, we need more stories that inspire and provoke wonder in the world. That’s part of what motivated myself and Tiffany Jin to start the Houston Climate Justice Museum and Cultural Center (HCJM) in February of this year, a museum dedicated to environmental justice and climate change in Houston, Texas. We understand climate justice broadly as a focus on the ethical, unequal social dimensions of climate warming and ecological disaster. Alongside New York’s Climate Museum, HCJM is the second museum in the United States dedicated to climate change. Located in Houston’s Greater East End neighborhood, HCJM occupies part of a warehouse formerly used to manufacture valves for oil and gas pipes.
This article explores the founding and first exhibit of HCJM, In Relation to Landscape: Sustaining Life in the Anthropocene. It will highlight aspects of the exhibit, as well as position HCJM within the larger network of cultural production that is challenging the climate crisis. That network includes a charged local context, where the battle over a live-able future is being played out from the entrance of Chase Bank to the hallowed halls of the Houston Natural History Museum. What’s at stake is precisely the question of what progressive action looks like today within museums. If the “Anthropocene” as an idea has the potential to remake disciplinary practice, does it also have the power to completely reshape our museums?
My own professional and personal experience is within art museums, so in this article I’ll speak more to the art side of things. Much of our conceptual technology at the Climate Justice Museum is borrowed from the history of institutional critique, that nexus of artists working roughly during the 1980s and 90s dealing with the discourse of race, sex, and class within the museum. Like those artists, our working thesis in creating the museum was that it is precisely in the supposedly neutral spaces of art and science museums that the politics and ideology of domination get played out. Trying to reveal the layers of these force fields has led us down paths of museum history as much as histories of nature.
Where Do You Think From?
Houston is the belly of the oil industry beast, the “energy capital” of the world. The city is also a node within the larger Gulf South, a geographical area of dense networks of pipelines, shipping channels, refineries, and chemical plants. If Houston is home to the shiny, grid-like lattices of oil company high-rises, it also bears witness to the slimy night side of extractivism: creosote plums, pollution, and toxic waste. Frontline communities, those communities of color who often bear the brunt of environmental destruction, have historically led the way in calling out industry practices that treat the livelihood of some as expendable. Someone’s experience living next to a refinery, waste incinerator, or chemical plant influences – but doesn’t determine – knowledge in significant ways. It matters where one thinks from.
Beneficiaries of industry wealth, substantial engagement with ecological crisis within Houston’s major museums is often lacking. At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, you’ll be hard pressed to find mention of climate change. The expansive fourth floor of the museum, the “Energy Pavilion,” is an ode to the history of the oil industry. There, visitors can find reproductions of the high technology of oil, and learn about engineers completing impressive feats of technological innovation. The narrative proudly proclaims the rise in standard of living that oil has fueled, without taking responsibility for the existential threat of climate disaster it has caused. But there are a host of smaller, more experimental institutions and art spaces within the city, where other voices are allowed to speak. At Project Row Houses, for example, “Gulf Coast Anthropocene” starts from the point of the inequality of pollution and the destruction of fragile ecological relationships. It often feels that in Houston, simply talking about climate change in a museum context is making progress.
What, then, does a climate justice museum focus on? What kinds of stories does it tell, and with whom? It is difficult to avoid the broadly encompassing “Anthropocene” as a way to grapple with our present crisis. First introduced in the early 2000s by scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer to name a new geological epoch, the “Anthropocene” designates a world in which the human species has become the primary geological force. Since then, the Anthropocene has been uniquely effective in drawing together disparate groups and disciplines, bridging the gaps between the work of artists, scientists, historians, and geologists.
But the Anthropocene also risks interpreting the ecological crisis as an act of the human species, the “anthropos.” In this way, the Anthropocene obfuscates the role of capitalist logic in the destruction of the web of life. As Jason Moore has described, capitalism has been a system for making the destruction of nature cheap, for putting investors in charge of the ecologies of distant places. In fact, it was the amassing of wealth through Caribbean plantations that formed the necessary capital for the development of the steam engine, that archetypal figure of the carbon age.
In Relation to Landscape: Sustaining Life in the Anthropocene displays the Anthropocene as an open question: Do we really live in this “epoch” called “Anthropocene”? On the wall is painted an overlay of graphs depicting the “Great Acceleration,” the name of a sudden, sharp spike in earth and human systems beginning around 1945. The graphs of the Great Acceleration show that human caused change at the planetary scale has not been linear. Instead, there has been a rapid change in the rate of change to global natural systems since the Second World War. Above the graph, displayed against a rectangular mirror, are piles of three commodities: poppy seed, sugar, and rubber.
Commodities such as these trace the global connections between capital, climate pressures, and consumption. They pay tribute to the ability of global capital to compress space and time, and bear witness to what has come to be called the “Plantantionocene”: the radical human and non-human simplifications, such as mono-cropping, that characterizes the proliferation of capitalist production.
The pile of rubber is accompanied by a photo of “Fordlandia,” Henry Ford’s 1920s rubber plantation in Brazil that failed in part because of greater susceptibility to pests by monocropped rubber trees. Poppy seeds, on the other hand, signify present climate pressures on farmers in Afghanistan where growing poppy for illegal opium production becomes more practical and profitable in the face of long term climate change fueled drought. Following the stories of such commodities takes us down paths that complicate any narrative of a human-species act Anthropocene – rather, casting the very notion of Anthropocene as far too human-centered, ignoring the messy practices of capital and the proliferation of ecological simplifications.
“Nature” as Politics
Changing how we think about nature has profound consequences on changing how we act towards nature. American relations with nature have been long formed through the discourse of transcendentalism: finding the religious in wilderness. For people like John Muir and other transcendentalists, nature was a way to speak to the divine. But only specific kinds of nature: it was the sublime vistas of mountain peaks, waterfalls, and valleys where the transcendentalists found God. These vistas became the first national parks in the United States. They were captured by a group of Eastern painters – the Hudson River School – who put into material, visual form what Muir had written about. From his studio in Newark, Thomas Moran’s 1872 composite painting of Yellowstone traveled to Congress where it helped convince Senators to make Yellowstone the first national park. And yet their ability to consider that landscape as “wilderness” directly depended on ignoring the presence of Native inhabitants: Moran’s painting showed an empty landscape. In the 1870s, the Yellowstone valley was the home of the Nez Perce, Bannock, and Shoshone tribes, some of whom had themselves been pushed there via forced relocation. During the first 15 years of Yellowstone’s existence as a national park, it was a military garrison, forcefully clearing the park to make way for wilderness.
What are the ramifications of ideas of “wilderness” and “nature” which are predicated on the invisibility of Native peoples? Today, the battle lines over indigenous rights in America are drawn differently. The proliferation of mines, pollution, and pipelines disproportionately affect Native American lands. Indigenous led protests over the construction of Line 3 in Minnesota’s Fond du Lac reservation highlight important aspects of contemporary Native struggle. Enbridge’s Line 3 - designed to replace an older pipeline carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to a Wisconsin terminal, would double the amount of oil previously carried by the old line, with emissions equivalent of 16-18 million cars every year. Moreover, the pipeline would run through a variety of important waterways, including the Mississippi and freshwater lakes used to grow an important Ojibwe crop “manoomin,” or wild rice. Not only does potential leaks from the pipeline threaten these waters, but the pumping out of massive amounts of groundwater needed to install the line has the potential to severely hurt wild rice growth.
Decolonizing the Museum
Radical projects carry on the legacy of institutional critique today. Strike MoMA, for example, calls for the radical re-appraisal of MoMA in light of the deep connections between MoMA’s board and oligarchy, predatory lending, and arms dealers. Strike MoMA is planning for a future of the museum not controlled by a billionaire board. At the Brooklyn Museum, protests calling for the decolonization of the collection were sparked by the hiring of a white curator of African Art, but reach so much further into issues of collection and repatriation. “Decolonization” offers the opportunity to bring together a variety of important issues, a fruitful container for radical museum discourse.
HCJM recognizes the important work being done by projects like Strike MoMA, and acknowledges that we don’t necessarily have the answers to some of the tough questions reflection on contemporary museums pose. At HCJM, we try to practice fundamental aspects of museum work differently, and reveal the history of museums themselves as artifacts on display. For example, In Relation to Landscape uses dual labels to highlight how labels serve as focal lenses in museum display. Despite the effect of simple designations that they may invoke, every label is an interpretive decision. In the dual labels that accompany a reproduction of Thomas Moran’s The Canyon of Yellowstone, one label gives standard name, title, medium information, while the other says “Colonial American, View of land formerly occupied by the Nez Perce, Bannock, and Shoshone tribes.” What we see depends on the text we read. Elsewhere, a large “Art and Industry” genealogical chart maps relationships between monopoly capitalists like John Rockefeller and the formation of the first major municipal museums in the United States. At the bottom of the chart we can find contemporary events that point the way to new opportunities, such as the removal of the Teddy Roosevelt statue at the American Museum of Natural History.
At HCJM we also try to reimagine the role of community, collection, and preservation. James Clifford first proposed the idea of the museum as a contact zone: a space of power laden interaction between different communities in which everyone comes away altered. Clifford proposed thinking about the travels of museum artifacts, their roots, routes, and returns. HCJM’s “Living Library” is an open call project that invites the community to submit objects related to climate justice. Pipes burst during the February 2021 winter storm, a purse that survived Hurricane Harvey, a comic book about living with microplastics; these are some of the objects donated by activists and others that comprise the library. Objects in the library can be “checked out,” finding a use and meaning outside the museum. For example, a “Green Jobs for All” banner from the Houston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America is on display, but also has been returned and used in a recent protest. Objects that can gain significance outside of museum spaces, traveling in and out of a collection, can de-center museum’s implicit claims to authorial knowledge.
As I’m writing this, world leaders are meeting in Glasgow for COP26, the United Nations 26th annual climate conference. While they talk, current global policies have us on a trajectory towards nearly 3 degrees Celsius of climate warming. Instead of drastically cutting production, many of the world’s major oil and gas companies are planning to expand fossil fuel production through 2030 and 2040. If those major corporations are banking on us to continue sleepwalking towards earth’s tipping points, a lot of social noise is pushing in the other direction.
Just outside the global summit in Glasgow, “Reimagining Museum for Climate Action” has installed exhibit proposals for what a museum dedicated to taking climate change seriously might look like. It’s difficult to summarize the productive and diverse directions that the various proposals take here, from the museum as a giant etching device to the reclamation of the British Museum by nature. In Canada, the Royal Ontario Museum has hired a curator of climate change. Museums – both art and science – have begun to explore the Anthropocene, that rich container for a multiplicity of discourse. They seem to face some of the same pressures that have typically plagued them: can they truly be democratic institutions with privately run board of directors? Or will they be dependent on wealthy donations and remain reflections of class conflict? Can we breakdown the concept of the Anthropocene to include more complex narratives and multispecies stories? How we answer these questions and how we decide to create common worlds matters a great deal for the climate and for culture. And if culture is what reproduces the social logic of things, how we practice it are matters of reproductive life and death.