June 22, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Scarlett Parr-Reid explores the messaging behind the Natural History Museum’s ‘Our Broken Planet’ exhibition

By Scarlett Parr-Reid
1st February 2022

Talking about the destruction of our home has never been a simple discussion. From tsunamis to wildfires, apocalyptic imagery is rife, and there is often very little to smile about. It is in the name, ‘Our Broken Planet’: something so damaged it is no longer able to work. We often feel culpable rather than proactive in the face of statistics such as the fast fashion industry using the equivalent of 32 million Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water every year. This begs the question, what can I as one person out of 7.9 billion do?

With this in mind, my optimism was dwindling as I entered the exhibition. To my surprise, I was initially met with a very solution-focussed display, at least in terms of research. From disease-resistant wheat to fertiliser-free seaweed for sustainable food production, it was clear that scientific research is making strides towards offering us feasible plant-based diets. Putting the voices of scientists, many of which were female like Museum Scientists Professor Anjali Goswami and Dr. Bianca Huertas, at the forefront of the exhibits served to humanise their work.

I was soon greeted with specimens such as the preserved horseshoe crab, which I later discovered possesses special blue blood packed with immune cells that can detect bacteria that might otherwise contaminate our vaccines. Topical though it may be, it came to my attention that myself and those I visited with already had interests in, and had studied science. Whilst I could sense that the exhibition was aimed at families and young people, I couldn’t help but wonder if the exhibition was not actually attracting the type of people who most needed to hear what was being said. The consequences of climate change do not need to be restated. We see them on the news, and we have lived experiences of them. The exhibition content moved past that into the actions that can be taken to combat climate change, which is a positive step. If the aim of the exhibition was to prompt conversations on climate change and build awareness, then this came across well.

Preserved specimen of a Tasmanian tiger pup, hunted to extinction in 1936

Noticing that there were several young children ranging from five to 15 in the room, I picked up on their interactions, which we might learn from. Touch was central, such as trying to emotionally connect with an angry taxidermy koala, representing the tens of thousands who have lost their homes or lives to raging wildfires in recent years. Others assembled their own futuristic plates of food, incorporating the wacky and innovative menu of jellyfish and insects as if something out of ‘I’m a Celebrity’. Some picked up stickers stating things like ‘Supply Chain Savvy’ and ‘Pioneered by Science’ as if perhaps they had absorbed the display in one fell swoop so as to become spokespeople for sustainable living. Perhaps this is a little more intimidating than empowering. Whilst I admire the Natural History Museum’s curatorial attempt to present a range of display formats, they could have been integrated together more carefully.

Suggestions like ‘cycle to work’ and ‘eat less meat’ were post-it-noted on the wall by the various young visitors who had moved through the exhibition. Albeit positive messages to end on and a chance to properly interact within their learning experience, it was clear something was missing.

Hope goes a long way. But as the Swedish Climate Activist Greta Thunberg addressed global leaders at the World Economic Forum in 2019 ‘I don’t want you to be hopeful…I want you to act’. Where was the pressure on corporations that have overseen the manufacture of those wrappers that have been sitting in the Thames for two decades? Where was the institutional movement towards a green economy? To put it simply, I can choose to bring a keep-cup to Starbucks or bag-for-life to Tesco, but it is the companies selling me these products and the shops I buy them from that choose to cover them in unnecessary and harmful plastics. Eschewing a party-political stance, as museums aim to take non-partisan approaches, at least an attempt to address corporate action points on climate change is needed.

On balance, ‘Our Broken Planet’ might have made inspired hope in me for a few days, but now I am frustrated because hope alone won’t ‘fix’ our broken planet.

Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways To Fix It is open until 18 April 2022 in the NHM’s Jerwood Gallery. Admission is free.
All images courtesy of the author