The Climate Crisis and Indigenous Ontologies in the Museum Space

In recent years, some museums have acknowledged their ability to shape public opinion, leading to an increase in space for museum or curatorial activism. This session will examine the case study of one such activist exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas opened in February 2020. Central to the design of the exhibition was a commitment by curators to centre the voices and perspectives of indigenous craftspeople and activists in gallery text. In doing this, curators hoped to highlight indigenous ontologies which promote a reciprocal relationship with the natural world. This method has received significant praise: The Guardian’s Nadja Sayej commended the exhibition for emphasising the central place of indigenous people in resisting acts of ecological vandalism overseen by the Trump administration. However, critics such as UCL’s Edward Christie have argued that the exhibition does not go far enough to incorporate indigenous ontologies, and fails to be truly polyphonic.

In this session, we will use this case study to think through the following questions:

– Can museums put objects acquired in a colonial past to work in decolonising the present?

– What are the strengths of museum / curatorial activism? And the limitations?

– How capable are Western museums, in their present form, of effectively representing and incorporating indigenous ontologies?

– Short: Edward Christie, ‘[Review] Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas, The Brooklyn Museum, New York, 14 February 2020 – 20 June 2021’, Object (London) 22.1 (2020), pp.73-74.

– Short: The Guardian,  How artwork shows the impact of climate crisis on Indigenous Americans

– Long: Nancy B. Rosoff, ‘Climate in Crisis: Art and Activism at the Brooklyn Museum’, Genocide Studies and Prevention 16.1 (2022), pp.101-119. If you are short on time but interested in this article, I recommend just reading the short sections with the headings: ‘Introduction’, ‘The Exhibition’, ‘Canadian and U.S. Northwest Coast’, ‘Take Action Panel’, ‘Responses to the Exhibition’, and ‘Conclusion’.

Please email to RSVP for this session. We will send you a Teams link where you will have access to the readings.