Professionally, I am a ‘culture and sustainability specialist’, combining over 35 years of working within the museum world and over 20 years of grappling with the personal/local/global challenges of sustainability. In May of 2013, I became an Associate of The AtKisson Group, which is a global network committed to sustainability planning, training and consulting.
In 2008, I left my position at an ‘interpretive planner’ at the Art Gallery of Ontario – which ended a 25 year employment. There were many amazing times at the AGO – full of interesting research, discovery and experimentation with museum practices. Adventures in audience research, exhibit development, teaching, technology-based communication strategies (both stand-alone and online), video production and more kept me very engaged at the Gallery. I also have enjoyed a long and ongoing association with the University of Toronto ‘Master of Museum Studies Program’, from which I graduated in 1982, and then have taught many classes and courses during the intervening years.
One of the most significant experiences I have had, both professionally and personally, was becoming involved with the complex domain of global/local sustainability. In 1997 I was invited to join Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD Canada). This cross-disciplinary, global network of professionals was initiated in the early 1990s, in response to “Our Common Future: the Report of the World Commission on the Environment and Development” and to the 1992 “Earth Summit”. The Rockefeller Foundation wanted to fund an initiative that would make a significant contribution to global sustainability. LEAD became that initiative. Currently, the global LEAD network has over 2100 Fellows, from a broad array of professions, representing 90 countries. All Fellows have completed a leadership training program designed to build both national/regional cohesion, as well as a global contacts that are available for any number of sustainability initiatives.
My personal focus within LEAD has been the link between culture and sustainability (or more accurately, our global and local UNsustainability). Through my research, public speaking and publishing initiatives, I have come to see culture, at least in part, as the values-based foundation of our unsustainable human communities and lifestyles – especially in the West, but that is changing. I saw that the system of cultural organizations, (including museums, galleries, science centres, arts funding and so on) provided a significant infrastructure that could become directed towards the cultural dimensions of sustainability. This would necessitate a review of the current orientation of cultural organizations as instruments of the leisure-time economy, the tourism economy, informal education and entertainment. A recognition that culture is how we live our lives, and not simply what we do in our leisure time, offers a huge array of opportunities for working with business, government, NGOs and more. With a re-newed mandate, cultural organizations could help to develop greater public consciousness of the nature of our unsustainable lifestyles, while developing personal and public strategies that could shift our communities towards a more sustainable future. But all of this would require these organizations to revise the basis of expertise, decision-making and the measurement of success that currently controls these organizations. ‘Change’ is not an easy process for anyone or any organization to initiate – in fact, it often requires a crisis to produce the motivation to start such a transformation. But this is going to be required of all sectors of society.
Today’s world is characterized by many globalizing forces – in economics, communication, transportation, manufacturing, urbanization and more. There is an important question to be addressed – what is culture in a world being reshaped by transformational forces? What is the ‘culture of pluralism’ that is becoming the norm in our cities around the world? How can societies create effective instruments of reflection and action that can mobilize people within and across traditional ethno-cultural boundaries? Since humanity has never before met or exceeded the limitations of the Earths biological capacity to renew itself, how can this significant societal constraint become fully woven into all human activity? The changes that are required are unlike any that humanity has faced before, and will require major shifts in our energy systems, economy, and systems of civil society. All the while, the cultural identities that have defined groups for centuries must be acknowledged, engaged and integrated into our evolving globalized culture.
Big challenges… there is no question. But I do feel that now is the time to re-assess how ‘culture’ fits into the societal sea-change that is waiting down the path. By proactively thinking about the cultural sector’s assets, skill-sets and capacities it is possible to create valuable instruments of fostering public consciousness about our globalized world and to develop strategies for navigating these tricky waters. Along the way, it is necessary to examine how culture has become marginalized into either niche markets in the leisure-time economy, or narrowly aligned with romanticized notions of the past.