A toddler’s bath water, tears of joy from a newly ordained priest, condensed sweat from a nightclub – British artist Amy Sharrocks collects all kinds of water.
In 2013 she set up the Museum of Water, a live piece of artwork that travels around the world and invites people to donate water – from spit to melted snow – in a bottle and discuss what it means to them.
The initiative aims to understand why people treasure water and help prepare them for a drier future and climate, Sharrocks told an audience of climate experts, activists and museum curators.
“For example, we show them how to have three-minute showers to better cope with water shortages,” she said at the International Symposium on Climate Change and Museums in Manchester, Britain.
Sharrocks is not alone. As world leaders increasingly face up to the fallout of climate change, curators are planning a new wave of museums, devoted to what many consider a defining issue of the times.
From Germany to Denmark, Hong Kong to Canada, talk of climate museums is on the rise.
In 2015 former civil rights lawyer Miranda Massie created the first U.S. museum entirely dedicated to climate change in New York City, which so far has featured footage of ancient ice cores and live painting of melting Antarctic ice.
“Climate change is affecting virtually every aspect of our lives,” Massie told the conference on Wednesday.
“But we can’t fight the problem with top-down policies alone, we need an engaged public and museums are a way to open people’s minds to what matters,” she said.
City planners and experts should use museums to foster empathy in citizens on climate issues, according to Emlyn Koster, director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.
“Museums tend to measure their success on whether visitors have had a good time, but they should make you sad, disappointed, angry – make you want to take action,” he said.
Bridget McKenzie, director of Flow Associates, a London-based consultancy working with arts and science organisations, wanted to raise awareness of the plight of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, which is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.
So with her team she set up a “ghost boat” made of old fish nets at the University of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and asked visitors what they would take with them if they were suddenly forced to leave their homes.
“It was fascinating,” she said. “People are starting to understand that business as usual on climate means ‘thermogeddon’ (when the Earth becomes too hot to live on).”
Museums are not only a way to spark climate action, they can also help scientists make their voices heard, said Jonathan Lynn, head of communications at the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“Scientists enjoy huge credibility but if they don’t speak publicly about their work they give space to non-scientific groups like climate deniers to fill the debate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, has questioned the scientific consensus that global warming is dangerous and driven by human consumption of fossil fuels, and decided to pull his country out of the Paris climate deal.
Robert Janes, founder of the Canadian Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice, said many museums choose not to call for climate action for fear of alienating visitors and donors.
“But that’s nonsense – the science on climate change is unequivocal,” he said.
While museums can be a powerful way of communicating the impacts of climate change, they should also practice what they preach and curb their own emissions, say experts.
Elliot Goodger, a museums’ association representative for the West Midlands in Britain, said that “roughly half of cities’ emissions come from energy use in buildings”.
“Museums have a duty to be energy efficient, for example by using laser lighting for displays or improving their building insulation,” he added.
New York’s Massie thinks every museum has the potential to become a climate museum, whether it is entirely dedicated to the issue or just integrates some climate content into its programming.
“There is no limit to how you can represent climate issues,” she said.
By Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Alex Whiting.