No arts or heritage on a dead planet

Together towards an
ethical charter for museums

By Extinction Rebellion (BE)

Dear Museum,

The science is crystal clear: climate change and ecosystem collapse lead to extreme weather, conflict over natural resources, mass migration and a failing food system. Around the world, the climate and ecological crisis is showing its face. In our country too, extreme drought and floods occur more frequently.

The museum sector has had turbulent years, with subsidy cuts, Covid closures and difficulties to regain the audience’s trust. The actions of environmental activists generated additional concerns. Museums pointed out the risks of their action methods and wondered whether radicalising them could lead to serious damage.

Yet it soon became clear that activists and museums were not opposed to each other as if they were hostile camps. They shared concerns about the accelerating climate and biodiversity catastrophe: there can be no arts or heritage on a dead planet. Museum directors publicly expressed sympathy for activists, and players at both federal and regional levels reached out to each other and engaged in fruitful conversations.

These positive developments, incidentally, fit seamlessly into the ICOM’s recent discourse. The International Council of Museums emphasises that museums can and should be allies in tackling the climate crisis. In its Code of Ethics, the organisation explicitly advocates an ethically conscious approach to sponsorship.

In neighbouring countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, action groups like Liberate Tate and Fossil-Free Culture have been campaigning against fossil sponsorship of public museums for years. With success: Tate stopped its sponsorship deal with BP, Van Gogh Museum and Mauritshuis said goodbye to Shell.

In our country, we see museums thoroughly rethinking their role in society. They are distancing themselves from their stuffy and sometimes elitist image. Besides preserving and protecting heritage, they are trying to bridge past, present and future through their collections.

Complex questions arise around scientific neutrality: museums are understandably reluctant to take political positions they rather want to provide a platform for the existing plurality. Nowadays, there is a pretty large scientific consensus around the scale of the broad environmental catastrophe and its roots in a colonial history. Leaving these historical facts unmentioned can no longer be considered as ‘politically neutral’.

Besides the ‘sustainable’ exhibition programmes and the public communication around them, we still notice a gap between discourse and practice, and between the public events and the more structural ways of working. An opinion piece following an action at the KMSKA in the fall of 2022 pointed to the numerous sponsorship deals between important art, heritage and cultural institutions like the KMSKA, the Bruges Concert Hall, BOZAR, Flagey, Europalia, De Munt/La Monnaie… and fossil companies like Total Energies, Wolf Oil, BMW, Fluxys and BNP Paribas, globally the bank with the sharpest rise in fossil investments since the Paris Agreement. These deals too often tend towards ‘art-washing’.

We also understand the difficult financial position of these cultural institutions. Due to the steady reduction of public funding, in order to carry out their important public tasks, they increasingly have to appeal to the market. These partnerships raise questions about public funding as well.

How can museums propagate real plurality? How can they generate discussions and reflections on abrasive themes such as the climate and biodiversity catastrophe, decolonisation, anti-racism, restitution, patriarchal structures… How can they afterwards act upon these discussions and reflections? More than ever, the Flemish museum sector needs clear guidelines in the form of an ethical charter. Environmental activists want to participate in these discussions with a lot of eagerness, modesty and ambition.



Based on this letter, Extinction Rebellion consulted the Flemish museum and heritage sector. On May 16, 2023, this sector is organising Het Groot Onderhoud, with a focus on the climate crisis and the ecological footprint of arts and heritage. That day, there will also be public communication about the state of affairs regarding Extinction Rebellion’s request for an ethical charter.