Future Imperfect: Climate Change at Museums Around the World

The approach of Labor Day weekend marks the unofficial end of a summer of weather extremes—including unprecedented rainfall in the Northeastern U.S., record-breaking heat waves on four continents, and the largest wildfire in California history.

It should come as little surprise, then, that museums around the world are starting to focus more on the changing climate and its potential effects on the planet’s future. From a new exhibit in one of New York’s most famous museums to a time-traveling experience in Rio, here are a few of the ways museums are addressing climate change.

American Museum of Natural History, New York

Watson Adventures Climate Change at the Museum

In July, the Museum of Natural History unveiled “Our Changing Climate,” its first permanent exhibit dedicated to man-made climate change. The interactive wall panel helps visitors visualize the rising temperature of the ocean and the atmosphere; the seasonal extremes of both warm and cold weather; and more. A series of before-and-after images of environments devastated by climate change—like the dwindling of ice in Greenland and the bleaching of coral in the Pacific—is particularly striking.

And the museum doesn’t mess around. Visitors can compare the major human factors and natural factors affecting climate, with one unavoidable conclusion as to the cause. “Is it greenhouse gases,” the exhibit asks. “Yes,” it answers. “The rise in heat-trapping greenhouse gases is the only factor that can account for observed warming since 1880.” The exhibit is light on suggestions for fixing the problem, but it’s a start.

California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco

If fixing the problem involves greener, more sustainable living, then this California museum is leading by example. Its “Living Roof” covers 87 percent of the museum’s two-and-a-half-acre rooftop with rolling hills of grass, flowers, and dozens of native plants. Among other things, the rooftop helps regulate the museum’s temperature and lowers its carbon footprint while providing a living classroom for visitors and student groups. And it’s lined with solar panels for good measure.

Jockey Museum of Climate Change, Hong Kong

First of its kind, this museum opened in 2013 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. With a mission to explore climate change and its macroscopic impacts on the planet, it features multimedia exhibits and the research and collection of Dr. Rebecca Lee, an environmentalist and the first woman to reach the North Pole, the South Pole, and the summit of Mount Everest.

Visitors also can keep up with the university’s latest research on climate change, as well as a section of the museum devoted to providing advice on how to live a greener, more sustainable existence.

Museum of Tomorrow, Rio de Janeiro

In addition to stadiums and stuff, the 2016 Summer Olympics saw the construction of the Museum of Tomorrow, part slick art museum, part terrifying science museum. The museum follows a narrative from the earth’s beginnings through the Anthropocene—scientists’ term for the era of humanity’s general domination of the planet—and on to our almost certainly bleak outlook for the future. Ah, Rio.

The Climate Museum, New York (Someday)

Watson Adventures Climate Change at the Museum

In the future, there will be a definitive museum, somewhere in New York City, dedicated entirely to climate change and the state of mankind and its relation to its home, and that museum will be The Climate Museum.

In the meantime, the museum’s foundation organizes exhibitions in a gallery at the Parson School of Design to raise awareness and funds while it searches for a permanent home. Its first exhibition, opened in December 2017, treated visitors to an artistic look at humanity’s effects on polar ice. And in July, hundreds of young people staged an environmentalist march organized by the Climate Museum’s Youth Advisory Council.

Learn More & Lend a Hand

The Museums and Climate Change Network provides information on these museums and more, including the traveling Museum of Water and a coming exhibition space in Norway, as well as options to contribute to fighting global climate change.