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Questions … and answers … on causes and impacts of climate change: no longer primarily the domain of mainstream news organizations.

Wander through The California Academy of Science’s “Altered States: Climate Change in California” exhibit.

View exhibits illustrating potential damages from climate change to local resources like The Sierras AND the California coastline. Consider the potential impacts on eco-tourism.

Take notes, recording your ideas on how to solve the climate challenge. You’ll need them for when you walk over to the museum’s Carbon Café, where you can determine the carbon footprint of any meal you might select.

It’s all part of the museum’s efforts to engage the public in proactively addressing climate change. Once primarily the domain of “the media,” informing the broad public on issues like climate change has fallen victim to newsroom budget cuts and down-sizing of reporting staffs. It’s creating an opening for other venues – museums, theater, Hollywood, the arts generally – wanting to fill the void.

It’s not that museums, like most other institutions, have avoided the sting of a deep recession, of course, but a number of them nonetheless are trying to take on a far greater role in public education on the climate change issue.

Showing Impacts ‘Globally … in Our Own Lives’

“Our role is to reinforce the message that global climate change impacts everything, globally, locally, and in our own lives,” says Carol Tang, director of visitor interpretive programs for the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco. With 1.5 million overall museum visitors a year, she says, the goal for the “Altered States” exhibit is to inspire the public to learn more and do more about climate change.

Go down the list of museums nationwide, and you’re likely to find climate change and related state of the oceans exhibits from coast to coast … and all in between, as with The Field Museum in Chicago.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said the shrinking news hole for environmental and scientific reporting in much of the popular media is making museums a far more important source of information.

A principal reason is that museums can reach persons who may not necessarily be interested in science, but are looking, for instance, for a way to entertain and educate a child on a Saturday morning. “So they go to a museum and have the opportunity to be exposed to a powerful experience that helps explain difficult scientific ideas,” says Leiserowitz.*

In the Nation’s Capital, the National Academy of Sciences Marian Koshland Science Museum’s “Global Warming: Facts and Our Future” looks back 350,000 years at CO2 and temperature levels, providing evidence that shows human actions that have led to higher CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations. And everything on the museum floor is replicated on the museum’s website.

Sapna Batish, manager, exhibits and programs for the museum, said that when the museum’s climate change exhibit first opened, visitors were most interested in whether global warming was real and whether humans were causing it. Now, they want to know the impacts and what they can do to mitigate greenhouse gasses, she says.

“Visitors want to be engaged in the process and appreciate the ability to make decisions in this area,” she says. Well referenced, National Academy of Sciences studies become the starting point for conversation with the public, she said. “Journalists don’t have the time or resources to do that,” she said.

The museum’s website has received more than 400,000 visits per year since 2004, a total of two-million, and some 30,000 visitors go through the downtown museum annually.

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Capturing the attention … and interest … of today’s youth on climate change through visits to the nearby museum.

Unlike popular news media, museums can provide a three-dimensional environment, where people learn by doing. There’s a value in seeing things they can’t see anywhere else, “to make sense of their own lives,” says Paul Martin, vice president for exhibits at The Science Museum of Minnesota, located in downtown St. Paul.

Martin and his colleagues are planning a “Future Earth” exhibit, scheduled to open in 2011. A museum website,, featuring science topics that include global climate change, receives some 100,000 visits a month.

“These are social environments that people can experience first hand, engaging in problem-solving,”he said. He pointed to studies indicating that museums are one of the most trusted sources of information, largely because people have the opportunity to make sense of things themselves.

At The National Building Museums’ “Green Community” exhibit on display until October 25, visitors can see model sustainable communities like Portland, Oregon. They can view a timeline that charts 2,000 years of law, public policy, innovation and inventions such as a solar pump patented in 1861. And they can delve into the introduction of a mechanical windmill for pumping water in the American Midwest in 1854.

Not ‘Bleak’: ‘No Drowning Polar Bears or Smokestacks’

Susan Piedmont-Palladino, curator of the Washington, D.C., National Building Museum, says it has the ability to reach out to diverse interests, everyone from those in the construction and design professions to school groups. Since opening in October 2008, “Green Community” has attracted more than 30,400 visitors.

“There’s no drowning polar bears or smokestacks,” said Piedmont-Palladino, emphasizing that the exhibit’s particular appeal is that it’s not bleak. Instead, it’s aimed at providing ways for a better and healthier life and a healthier planet, through easy measures that aren’t expensive. Museums have a huge role to play in communicating messages directly to children through hands-on experiences, as public schools become overburdened, she says.

Why Museums? ‘I’m Just Going Where They’re Going’

Lynne Cherry, author of the children’s book, The Great Kapok Tree, and the more recent How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming (About Our Changing Climate), is also taking advantage of museums for climate education.

Cherry and photojournalist Gary Braasch have teamed up to develop a documentary, “Young Voices on Climate Change,” featuring children who are reducing their carbon footprint all over the world, through initiatives like tree planting and avoiding over-reliance on plastic shopping bags.

The Cherry film builds on Braasch’s Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World. It is currently being shown as part of a long-running climate change exhibit at The American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and also on a number of environmental websites.

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Museum exhibits are illustrating to kids the impacts of carbon footprints on the Earth.

“The books don’t reach enough people,” she said, and with the general public reading less and publishers having limited budgets to promote books, it’s difficult to get the word out through books and printed media alone. So her goal is to disseminate information in a way that children will be receptive to, and a way that is accessible to them.

“I’m just going where they’re going,” Cherry says. She thinks reaching children, instead of adults, is a far more effective way to communicate information about climate change. “Adults are going to a lot of conferences and talking about legislation. Kids are out there doing it,” she says.

In Tucson, A ‘Shock’ Forcing Us to Pay Attention, React

The way artists portray extreme forces of nature and harsh effects on land is the focus of “Trouble in Paradise: Examining Discord between Nature and Society,” at The Tucson Museum of Art. The exhibit depicts artists’ illustrations of tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, overpopulation, and polar bears losing their habitat.

The goal is to send the message about the perils of climate change “in a different type of format than we’ve been getting through newspapers and television,” said Julie Sasse, museum curator.

The exhibit is accompanied by various programs, including scientific presentations and films, using art as the catalyst. Stephanie Coakley, the museum’s director of education, said it’s “been a shock to people. It’s bringing up emotions, forcing us to pay attention and make us react.” The exhibition, on display through June 28, attracted 9,000 visitors from its February 28 opening, through the end of April.

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service is partnering with The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago to reduce its own carbon footprint. Instead of shipping exhibits across the country, they’re putting all the design files and text on a website, for launch in January 2010, which other museums can replicate.

The exhibit will include solutions for improving the environment that visitors can experience. Devra Wexler, project director at The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, said it is particularly exciting to see children involved in the hands-on activities and programming in the exhibit, including demonstrations of how they can make their own recycled paper, since such exhibits allow children to see how easy it is to make beneficial changes on their own. She said if 20 to 40 museums use the exhibit, “people will really respond.”

Leiserowitz, at Yale, says Americans tend to think of global warming as a distant problem, one where the effects won’t show up for years down the road. He’s working with 12 science centers to demonstrate specific local effects, everything from the spread of damages caused by the pine bark beetle in pine forests in Arizona, to changes in bird migrations in Philadelphia.

The nation’s vast array of science centers “are well positioned to engage the community in identifying and tracking what’s happening,” he says, particularly because few individual Americans may know scientists personally, and social barriers can make it hard for people to understand science and how it works.

Museums can play a role in overcoming that barrier he said. At the same time, Leiserowitz cautions that museums and institutions such as aquariums can never be a replacement for the media. “Media play a much larger role in our lives overall,” he says. But media coverage can be effectively complemented by museum exhibits dedicated to informing and educating the public on complex issues such as climate change and its impacts, he adds.

*Leiserowitz, publisher of The Yale Forum, works closely with the Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated (ASTC) Communicating Climate Change project, funded by the National Science Foundation. The program fosters innovative partnerships between research centers, the media, and science centers, and showcases the role of science centers in educating the public about global climate change.

Topics: Climate Science