color photograph of the exterior of a row of commercial buildings with brown faux column facades. a black sign hangs above one door that reads "the climate museum"
18 April 2023, USA, New York: Exterior view of the Climate Museum in the SoHo district in southern Manhattan. (Photo by Christina Horsten/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Nestled under the Waco Street overpass and bounded by elementary schools, the disused Union Pacific wood treatment site at the Englewood Rail Yard doesn’t readily tell the true story of its own history. Houston, Texas, residents and their descendants have tried to: how Black men were pushed into the most dangerous and taxing jobs at the wood treatment site; how the site’s original operator, Southern Pacific Railroad Company, dumped creosote and other chemical waste into the land unabated for more than six decades; and how the wood preserving slough of chemicals poisoned an untold number of people in the city’s Fifth Ward.

Some residents within a 5-square-mile area that encompasses the creosote wood treatment site have lost a loved one. Others have lost multiple family members and friends to cancer and illness they believe were caused by exposure to creosote, dioxins, and other chemicals. Only in February 2023 did the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Union Pacific enter a legal agreement to “investigate site-related impacts in the surrounding neighborhood.” 

What justice can look like—if it ever comes—was the subject of “Creosote Stories: Seeding Planthroposcenes in Northeast Houston,” a recent art exhibition at the Houston Climate Justice Museum and Cultural Center (HCJM). The exhibition included framed photographs of creosote workers from the 1940s and oral histories curated by the artist, Willow Naomi Curry. 

“In terms of looking at archives and the ways in which museums and cultural institutions are approaching climate change, there are a lot of contradictions inherent to that,” Curry said. “A really key question [is] how do you go between these massive data architecture pieces and these really intense personal emotional stories? How do you put those together in a way that is transformative for people who experience it?”

In many ways, art has always existed in relation to the environment, said Sugata Ray, an associate professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley. However, the gaps separating art, climate change, and environmental injustice are shrinking, revealing what climate organizers have said for decades: climate change is a form of inequality. It’s subject matter worthy of art-making, and art is emerging as a trusted medium for conveying the complexities of climate change in ways news media or research papers cannot. In the case of the HCJM and Manhattan’s Climate Museum, curators are attempting to reshape what a museum space can be or do altogether. 

Curators argue that it’s high time museums work with climate change as a driving subject. Some legacies of racist political or economic systems are more broadly and well recognized. For instance, there’s ample documentation that connects the banning Indigenous practices like cultural burning, the suppression of forest fires, and the explosion of destructive wildfires today. Yet these systemic legacies also exist in museum spaces, the origins of which are their own colonial projects intended to objectify and impoverish cultures for the benefit of imperial governments. Museums can be just as committed to promulgating ideas of wildness and whiteness, places where some people’s art and stories are worthy of being told and others aren’t. 

How cultural theft built the “universal museum”

One of the most significant historical exchanges of art, from private collection to public domain, took place in the summer of 1753. British Parliament agreed to house more than 70,000 objects in what would become the British Museum and British Library—a world renowned “universal” museum that aims to showcase art and artifacts of cultures throughout the world and throughout time. 

Looted objects, including the Rosetta Stone and ceremonial masks belonging to the Kwakwaka’wakw people, are on view for the museum’s annual 4 million visitors. Curators organize artifacts in rooms denoted by region or period, and the curatorial intention is to offer a story of the artifact’s significance to the culture that bore it, rather than to the one that stole it. 

The period of surveyance and expansion led by the Spanish, Dutch, British, and French militaries distorted the social organization of the world’s peoples forever. Colonization of the Americas began in the late 15th century and compounded with the land grabs of the 1800s, which saw the territorial expansion of the U.S. and decimation of the land’s Indigenous peoples. 

According to Ray’s research, this expansion period is the origin of climate change as we understand it today, and this origin story is important. It shapes narratives that help identify how we arrived at the current moment while also pointing to who is culpable for the problems of climate change, he said. Rapid ecological change has not, and still does not, impact all people equally. In the U.S., that’s likely because our systems of governance were not intended to serve people equally. 

“So the systems of oppression that are in place today, all of it can be traced to the colonial moment,” Ray said. 

This colonial moment in the U.S. coincided with the European Enlightenment, a valuing of reason and knowledge predicated on Western values and thought. Rather than seeing humans as part of nature as one animal among many species, the Enlightenment positioned humans as separate from nature—and nature itself as an object to be conquered. 

The nature-man dichotomy is well documented. Hudson River School paintings and Ansel Adams’ photography launched the American conservation movement. A form of environmentalism predicated on racist beliefs, the conservationism that first took place in the imaginations of the country’s vaunted artists sanctioned Indigenous erasure and resource extraction. The colonial moment saw a resurgence in the 1970s as artists inspired by a nascent environmental movement attempted to convey the relationship between a settled, polluted place and notions of an untouched wilderness. 

It’s out of these histories that museums are attempting to shape their identities and missions.

Learning to see: Blurring the boundaries between art and the world 

To view an Andy Warhol, you go to the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the one in New York, or the Metropolitan Museum. The Cincinnati Art Museum and Detroit Institute of the Arts are also fair game. You stand at least 3-to-4 feet away from the wall. The faces of Marilyn Monroe or Jacqueline Kennedy might stare back at you. You walk away, but has the experience changed you?

Being changed by art isn’t the only way to measure the quality of a museum experience, but the mechanisms for viewing art as laid out by a conventional art museum are clear. How museums instruct us to position ourselves in relation to a work of art encourages a certain quality of viewing, and it’s this viewing that has the potential to shape how we feel and think—not just about the content within the walls of the museum but about the world outside of them. 

Debarati Sen, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Houston who has helped advise anthropological best practices for the HCJM, explained that at HCJM, “the way you use your senses to interact is extremely different from a traditional art museum.”

So much of the continuance of climate change is predicated on an allegiance to the status quo—an economic and social agreement that the way things are is the way they should be. Learning histories—of place-based pollution, for instance—and critiquing structures that support polluting operations, demands a level of questioning. 

Art displayed at the HCJM may help visitors to develop what Sen calls “critical literacy” regarding “how even the smallest things that we encounter in everyday life have far-reaching consequences.” Global supply chains, for example, continue to allow imperial countries to industrialize and its citizens to purchase cheap products whose raw materials and the labor to make them are extracted from colonized regions. It’s also a transference of capital that has exploited peoples’ labor and land, as told in a 2022 exhibition, “Feral Atlas.

The American public has largely been shielded from the truths about climate change and the governmental and social systems that support a fossil fuel-based economy. The public education provided by contemporary climate museums arrives at an inflection point: a majority of Americans believe that climate change is happening and want governments to do something about it. This includes  77% of American adults who believe that schools should teach about climate change, of which there is currently no national standard. By and large, fossil fuel corporations still maintain outsized political and social influence, even profiting from the crisis as it continues to balloon. 

Other museums with climate goals in mind are more instructive. The Climate Museum in New York City calls itself an “activist museum” where visitors can build community and take action on climate change based on a set of recommendations from the curators, according to Anais Reyes, the senior exhibitions associate at the Climate Museum.

The Climate Museum explicitly races against the six years remaining to lower fossil fuel consumption and emissions to hold the planet’s temperature below a 1.5 degree Celsius increase. Its art exhibitions are often conceptual interpretations of the existential consequences of climate change. For example, castings of a window made of water soluble paper that the artist later destroyed and offered to passersby in Washington Square Park as a way of discussing sea level rise. Or, highway signs typically used for construction placed around New York displaying climate “alerts” like “CLIMATE CHANGE AT WORK.” 

With each exhibition, the Climate Museum suggests that visitors engage in a range of actions intended to “create change at the scale and pace that we need to,” Reyes said. Some actions are taken from larger grassroots movements to divest from banks, investment firms, universities, and insurance companies that invest in or otherwise financially support fossil fuel industries. Other actions include calling an elected official, or putting a sticker on the museum’s wall as a commitment to taking climate action or talking about climate change with friends and family. Though its goal is to move visitors toward climate action, Reyes said the museum does not currently have a way to measure if visitors are indeed taking action. 

Action is also the aim of the international organization Gallery Climate Coalition, which encourages museums, artists, and galleries to commit their operations to Paris Climate Agreement-level goals by halving emissions by 2030. Since GCC launched in 2020, 800 art entities from 40 countries have committed to lowering emissions. They self-report based on a publicly available carbon calculator and can learn from GCC about new science around climate controls for art, as well as shipping methods that require less fossil fuels. 

According to Aoife Fannin, an associate with GCC, one of the largest sources of emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in the art industry comes from transporting art. Air shipment emits the most carbon dioxide, but switching to sea freight transportation on average lowers those emissions by a factor of 60. Other art-world collectives, like Artists Commit, are similarly interested in pushing galleries and artists to measure, track, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Artists Commit also works to reduce exhibition waste and encourage collective artist action. 

If and how the rest of the art world—and the more monied corners of its largest institutions—chooses to grapple with emissions remains a question, especially since the allure of exclusivity is partly why some spaces are successful. The Met offers art-based travel itineraries for those who can afford the $6,000-30,000 price tag—a stark reminder that the art market serves to maintain the wealth gap and facilitate tax avoidance, a rather explicit reflection of the ways that main champions of climate change profit off of it. 

“If we only focus on climate change as our ‘problem,’ then we’re gonna miss a lot of the picture”

It’s understandable that spaces like the Climate Museum view mobilization as a primary priority, but an emphasis on climate change as existential, rather than bodily or communal, raises the question of what effective climate education looks like. 

Climate justice organizers will tell you the work isn’t only about keeping track of the planet’s temperature, but about mitigating past, current, and future harms and reworking the systems and organizations that created climate change. Even if fast action is needed to tear one system down, slow, tedious work is required to build a new one. As part of this dynamic, one of the more challenging aspects of climate change conversations is learning to sit still with the attending loss, devastation, and grief of ecological disaster.

“We recognize the importance and urgency of climate change, but we also really feel like climate justice should be about many more things than just climate change,” said Aaron Ambroso, co-founder of the HCJM. “If we only focus on climate change as our ‘problem,’ then we’re gonna miss a lot of the picture.”

When institutions and museums grapple with specific environmental consequences and threats—everything from species extinction and monocropping to the history of nuclear energy production—the conversations around culpability and impact change. 

“I sometimes ask folks when they come to the museum, ‘Is climate change global?’” Ambroso said. “We’re inclined to say, well, yeah, of course, climate change is a global phenomena, but when we actually start to look at it a little more carefully, we know that climate change is not the same everywhere.” 

Carbon dioxide concentrations vary across the globe, not to mention that pollution, environmental degradation, and climate impacts vary broadly in the U.S., often depending on income and race. According to Ambroso, a more generative question is: How is climate change a local phenomenon?

The art on display at the Houston-based museum is reflective of the region—its location as a petrochemical industry hot spot, its relationship to trade as a major shipping corridor, and its history. Houston was the launch point for the research and activism of the “father of environmental justice,” Robert Bullard, in a state defined in part by oil and gas production. 

A visit to the climate justice museum asks people to grapple with the question: What does a museum owe to its local visitors? It’s one in a larger array of questions, namely what makes great art, and what deserves to be displayed for public viewing and learning? 

Reflecting local climate histories is also the aim of the exhibition at the Levine Museum of the New South titled “Climates of Inequality: Stories of Environmental Justice. On view through September 2023, the exhibition tells the histories of Charlotte’s communities: poor residents made to work in dangerous mining, mill, and factory conditions, Indigenous tribes that stewarded the region’s waterways and creeks, and Black neighborhoods forced to contend with severe pollution. 

Graduate students, as well as students within Charlotte Public Schools, helped contribute art, archival work, and research to the exhibit, said Kristina Schull, an assistant professor of public history at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who helped to bring the traveling exhibition to Charlotte in partnership with the Humanities Action Lab. 

We need to center history in the discussion of environmental justice, Schull said. Centering history changes the conversation, shifting stories of environmental justice away from the totalizing problem of climate change, which is often marketed as a collective problem caused by everyone and thus is equally everyone’s job to solve. 

“That stalls action because there’s less hope there,” the public history professor said. 

Understanding the connective forces between local environmental injustices and broader systems that contribute to climate change is a steep hill to climb, and many people feel that the negative impacts brought about by both are too entrenched to fix. But, according to Schull, students who contributed to “Climates of Inequality” had their minds changed. 

“[Through] working on this project, many students have shared that it has instilled in them a sense of hope,” Schull said. “Because it’s elevating education and looking at how people have taken action in local contexts that have made a difference.”

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.