A. Background

The world is changing more quickly and dramatically now than at any other time in human history.  With a global population of more than 6.5 billion people, human beings are not simply one of millions of species.  Human beings are affecting the entire biosphere in unprecedented ways.

Homo Sapiens have been on the Earth for over 200,000 years.  For the vast majority of that time, humans were a relatively small part of a vast and complex biosphere.  People organized themselves into communities that contended with the pressures that bore down on them – including climate, natural disasters, threats from other species, and so on.  Over the millenia, groups of humans evloved with different approaches to living within the world.  These differences in approach defined what now is called ‘culture’. The traditions of forebearers were passed down.  Social, economic and spiritual dimensions of society evolved. The underpinning values, traditions and behaviours of the various groups that have made up the human population account for what we refer to as humanity’s ‘cultures’.

‘Culture’ is defined here as an adaptive process, in which humans attempt to deal with the changing realities in the external environment and to integrate these changes into the values of individuals and groups within the culture.

Currently, at the beginning of the 21st century AD, the human population is undergoing phenomenal changes, including pluralization, urbanization and globalization.  To make this process more complicated, the carrying capacity of the planet, which is the ability of the planetary ecosystems to produce the goods/services needed by the resident species and to reabsorb the waste products so that they can be transformed into useful and necessary materials, has been exceeded.  In other words, the ‘natural capital’ of Earth cannot produce the goods and services (eg. clean air and water) to keep up with the demand.  The result is a draw-down of the planet’s natural capital.  A large part of this problem comes from the burning of fossil fuels, and the resultant production of ‘greenhouse gases’.

But the challenges of our day are not simply environmental.  Globalization, through transportation and communication technology, has highlighted the great disparities between those who live with material wealth, and those who have so little wealth that their very existence is threatened.  Economic systems, which are operating on a global level, have been created in such a way that they systematically produce inequity between people.  Meanwhile, religions that were arguably created to help people related to the forces of the world over which humans have little or no knowledge, let alone control, have produced deeply-seated ideologies that are pitting one group against others in violent and destructive conflicts.

Despite the challenges of our time, there is an opportunity for the human population of the Earth to forge a new system of addressing the needs of homo sapiens, as well as all other species, and create a new balance in our ever-changing world.  That balance will surely require the use of new technologies and new international frameworks for governance and monitoring of global systems.  Essential for this will be a new set of cultural values and ways of living that contribute to the enhanced consciousness of the relationships between individuals, local systems (human and natural), and gobal realities.

Culture, which entails how humans live their lives in a changing world, has become largely marginalized and institutionalized. Human creativity, heritage, and spirituality have found themselves embedded in organizations, such as museums, and situated primarily in leisure-time activities.  The organizations that are charged with responsibility for these functions have found themselves caught in many internal struggles between academic disciplines, economic stresses, and an increasing disconnect with the living cultures that surround them.

Yet individuals within these organizations are increasingly responding to the external pressures they feel and are attempting to re-direct the activities, priorities and purposes of their work.

This blog is intended to rally cultural workers, wherever they are employed, and to share ideas of how museums are grappling with these challenges.

The Working Group on Museums and Sustainable Communities (WGMSC), developed a novel approach to articulating potential performance indicators of cultural realities and impacts that can be found at 4 levels.  These are:

  • the individual (how aware are individuals of the challenges surrounding them and the impacts of their values and actions?)
  • communities (what are the issues and creative opportunities that lie within our collectives?)
  • organizations (how do organizations identify focuses that are important for their constituents, and how do they themselves continue to grow in ways that are relevant to the changing world around them?)
  • global reality (how do organizations operate to link individuals not just to their local context, but to the larger global reality to which they are connected, whether consciously or unconsciously?)

This approach has been formalized in a tool called the “Critical Assessment Framework” (CAF), which provides a set of questions to be asked as museums assess their options for public programs, or for evaluating the impacts of a specific program.  The CAF can be downloaded from this site, or from the

It is important for the museum field to share stories in which attempts have been made to address these separate, but connected, levels of public engagement.  We are looking for your stories and reflections.

To begin, we will ask people for their stories about how their museums are interacting with the ‘winds of change’, as they might be fit into the 4 categories of the CAF.  This framework will change as insights emerge from contributors.

By Douglas Worts, Toronto, Canada

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