Ylva Hillström. Museums and Environmental Sustainability. Project Acclimatize

I would like to start my reflection with the following quote by environmental activist and lawyer Gus Speth:

“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science, we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy. And to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation—and we scientists don’t know how to do that.” 

A few years ago, I initiated project Acclimatize at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. I would like to provide more detailed information about this project, as well as about the current initiatives related to the sustainability issues at the Moderna Museet. 

Since I work for the Learning Department, I will focus on our public programmes, although we have other sustainability projects in the Museum, too. Currently we are rethinking how we work with couriers and transport companies and how we can increase our reuse of building materials in our temporary exhibitions. We are currently changing all our lights to the energy saving LED and our restaurant is serving a lot of locally produced, organic and vegetarian food. Exhibition leaflets are collected and reused, and we do a lot of recycling in our staff kitchens! There are so many ways to work with sustainability in the Museum in order reduce our ecological footprint, but I will focus on how we have addressed these issues in our public programming. 

Our basic assumption is that art can inspire change in a way that science and technology cannot. This assumption is in line with the abovementioned Gus Speth’s quote, and it was also the point of departure for the project Acclimatize – a participatory website targeting climate change through art and creativity. Between October 2016 and January 2017, anyone could participate and upload an entry to this digital platform. It could be an image, a film, a text, a song or even a dance that was related to climate change or how we can create a sustainable future. On the website, participants could be inspired by other people’s entries and interviews with the leading artists, designers and thinkers who shared their thoughts on climate change, sustainability and the power of creativity.  

The top section of the Acclimatize site presented six filmed interviews with artists Isaac Julien, Maria Friberg, Bigert & Bergström, Olafur Eliasson, design collective Random International, and designer Bea Szenfeld. They talked about their engagement in climate change and sustainability issues in relation to their artistic work. One of the things Olafur Eliasson addressed in his video was how the people in Paris who interacted with his installation Ice Watch during COP 25 actually got to ‘touch the climate’. Research suggests that this type of emotional engagement is what it takes for people to change their habits and start making more sustainable choices. 

With Acclimatize, we wanted to create a platform for the same kind of emotional engagement as Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch. A platform where people could get in touch with the climate crisis on an emotional, as well as an intellectual level. Over the course of three months, we received more than 250 submissions from people of all ages. Instagrammers, dancers, food bloggers, handcrafters, inventors, children in kindergarten, high school youth and established artists all shared their responses to the current climate crisis. To provide more in-depth perspectives in addition to the creative responses in the Entries section, there was also an editorial blog on the site. This blog, or the Acclimatize Journal as we called it, consisted of 15 texts written by professionals from different fields, one of them being Professor Johan Rockström, former director of the Stockholm Resilience Center. 

We saw a growing interest in the Acclimatize project over the course of the three months the site was open to new contributions. Since it was a digital project, we believe that it had the potential to grow almost exponentially with time. If we were to do it all over again today, we would allocate more resources for communicating the project, and to have it up and running for a longer period of time. A lot has happened in the few years that have passed since we launched the website. Awareness and engagement have grown enormously, not least because of Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement. We have seen quite a few exhibitions on sustainability and climate change in different kinds of museums and there are so many inspiring initiatives in museums all over the world. What if we could work together on Acclimatize 2.0?

Since Acclimatize ended in 2017, we have continued working with sustainability in different ways. For example, we offer workshops on art and ecology for teenagers, and philosophical guided tours focusing on nature and sustainability. In these guided tours, the students get to discuss questions such as what is nature and what happens if we see ourselves as an integral part of the climate instead of looking at the climate as something that is external to us. One year ago, we invited all the staff of the Moderna Museet to take part in one of these philosophical tours, to create engagement and awareness within the Museum itself. 

The Moderna Museet is a museum in two different cities, Stockholm and Malmö in the south of Sweden. Earlier this year, the museum in Malmö presented an exhibition called Sensing Nature from Within. As its starting point it took the assumption that the natural world, from which humanity has so thoroughly distanced itself, no longer exists. With the exhibition project, the Moderna Museet Malmö wanted to offer an artistic and philosophical sounding board for existential explorations of our time. The exhibition was enriched with an extensive lecture programme. 

Currently, we are planning a symposium for professionals in different kinds of museums – not only art museums – in collaboration with the Mistra Environmental Communications project. Mistra is an independent foundation, which supports research on sustainability. In this national symposium, which is to be held in February 2021, we want to address what roles museums have to play in the transformation towards sustainable society. Because it is not just about presenting exhibitions and displays on sustainability and climate change or about highlighting objects that illustrate these issues. As places that collect memories and stories, museums can help people reconnect to what it means to be human and how we relate to the world around us. These are existential matters that I believe are key to make the necessary changes. Going back to where I started, the top environmental problems that Gus Speth identified were selfishness, greed, and apathy. These problems can be tackled with the cultural and spiritual experiences that museums can provide. 

I would like to end by quoting a few inspirational lines by writer and storyteller Dougald Hine:

“Art can hold a space in which we move from the arm’s-length knowledge of facts, figures and projections, to the kind of knowledge that we let inside us, taking the risk that it may change us. Art can give us just enough beauty to stay with the darkness, rather than fall or shut down. Like the bronze shield given to Perseus by Athena, art and its indirect ways of knowing can allow us to approach realities which, if looked at directly, turn something inside us to stone.”


Ylva Hillström is Curator at the Learning Department of the Moderna Museet. Moderna Museet is the national museum for modern and contemporary art in Sweden. 

Project was presented on 27 October 2020 at the seminar 'Museums for the Environmental Sustainability', organised by Think Tank Creative Museum and Group of Museum Collection managers.

Image: Acclimatize | Modernamuseet