Championing environmental and sustainable values within cultural institutions

2 November 2022
What is the space for environmental and sustainability researchers and students within cultural institutions from galleries to museums? We hear from professionals in the field on their career pathways and advice for working in the sector.

By Maria Paula Cardoso

The need to advance climate change action and create advocates for the planet is increasingly recognised across different industries. As a result, the space for environmental or sustainability professionals to support the activities of different sectors is growing. Cultural institutions are a great space to do this kind of work, not least because this work has such a direct interface with the community.

Museums, art galleries, libraries, cultural centres: they are really creative, rich, warm places. Good places to keep on learning and places that help you to find the best version of yourself. It’s just an exciting and privileged place to be to be able to help people connect.
Jenny Newell

Recognising all the possible intersections in these areas, a recent event organised by the Sydney Environment Institute on employment pathways within cultural institutions, curated by SEI Deputy Director Thom van Dooren, explored the interrelated space between environmental issues and cultural institutions.

At the workshop, environmental and sustainability professionals spoke about their careers in cultural institutes and provided advice to students and researchers considering a career in the field. We heard from an expert panel made up of Emily Jateff, maritime archaeologist and Senior Curator of Ocean Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum of Australia; Chris Mercer, Leader of Australasian Arts and Culture at Arup; and Jenny Newell, Manager of Climate Change Projects at the Australian Museum.

Despite the diverse background of our panellists, they came to similar conclusions when reflecting on starting a career in the sector. The following are some tips that emerged from the workshop.

1.     Make yourself visible

To find your way in the sector, you have to be proactive and be on the radar of the people in the kind of work you want to do. Our speakers explored different ways to do this:

  • Take different opportunities to be part of the scene, such as turning up to events, volunteering or completing an internship. Not only will this help you be noticed, but you will be able to meet peers and researchers and understand the context and trends in the sector. Building a network in this industry is important. The more you collaborate with others, the better - you can be stronger together!
  • Send an email, introduce yourself and ask for a coffee. According to our speakers, people in the cultural sector are generous with their time and knowledge. A good idea is to get in touch with people you want to work with and share your interests and passions. It is then easier for them to consider you for future projects, collaborations, or roles. 

2.     Have an enabler mindset

The cultural industry is about creating meaningful connections and having a positive impact on the community. Our speakers agreed that it is necessary to create inclusive spaces for people and ideas to thrive. Hence, people who come to the industry from a genuine position, who understand and respect multiple worldviews, and who work to facilitate communication are a great asset. If you, as a candidate, can demonstrate that you understand the intersection of different perspectives and can solve problems within an enabling mindset, you will be considered favourably in the industry.

3.     Focus on the skills required by the industry

Across cultural institutions, there is an increase in awareness and commitment to climate change and sustainability. You can come from any kind of background as long as you can translate your skills into the industry. For example, if you have published your writing or work, you can use this to show your capacity to express yourself clearly and your expertise on a particular topic. Some valuable skills for curatorial, education or the collection field include database expertise, public presentation skills, writing, and group management.

Roles in this industry have a high rate of job satisfaction. Each day is different, with its own challenges and rewards. Different activities may require interaction with children, families, retirees and frequently involve creating opportunities to helping people to learn and understand the world differently.

If you are interested in being part of this industry, below are some useful links to job sites, conferences, and associations where you can find more information.

Additional resources include:

The SEI Employment Pathways Workshop: Cultural Institutions was held on Tuesday 18 October.

Emily Jateff is the Senior Curator, Maritime Trade and Industry at the Australian National Maritime Museum. Her role includes exhibitions, programs, partnerships and collections acquisition, as well as oversight of the museum’s 10-year program in support of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, 2021-2030. Emily has worked in museums for over a decade. Before this, she was a university lecturer and archaeologist. Throughout her career, she has managed laboratories, supervised students, produced short films and conducted research in and near Australian and North American inland and coastal waterways as well as the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. Emily is also an ardent supporter of community engagement and outreach and has delivered professional and public talks, including for VIVID Sydney and TedX Darlinghurst. Emily has also acted as Chair of the Australasian Institute of Maritime Archaeology Scholarship Committee and is a Founding Member of Sydney Cultural Institutions for Climate Action (SCICA).

Chris Mercer leads the arts and culture business for Arup in Australasia, and has managed production departments, award-winning productions worldwide and produced an iconic stage show in Australia. For Chris, a thriving arts and culture industry is a sustainable industry. To help make this possible, Chris partners with non-profits driving the industry’s sustainable development transformation to help drive change. He launched Circulate, a digital tool measuring greenhouse gas emissions for productions, events and creative business operations. With a multidisciplinary team, Circulate was created over two years in collaboration with Australia’s leading arts organisations with a shared purpose to start the journey of a sustainable industry.

Jenny Newell is manager of Climate Change Projects at the Australian Museum. Jenny works to advance understanding and engagement in climate solutions through the medium of museums. Her most recent exhibition is Spark: Australian innovations tackling climate change (Australian Museum, 2021, onsite and online). With a background in Pacific environmental history, Jenny has worked with Pacific communities and collections at the British Museum, National Museum of Australia, the American Museum of Natural History and the Australian Museum to amplify voices on climate change for broad audiences. Jenny convenes the Museums & Climate Change Network and is a member of ICOM’s Working Group for Sustainability. Her publications include edited volumes Living with the Anthropocene and Curating the Future: Museums, Communities and Climate Change.

Thom van Dooren is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Deputy Director – Member Engagement at the Sydney Environment Institute. His research is situated in the broad interdisciplinary field of the environmental humanities and focuses on some of the many philosophical, ethical, cultural, and political issues that arise in the context of species extinctions and human entanglements with threatened species and places.

Maria Paula Cardoso is a Colombian student of the Master of Public Policy at the University of Sydney and a Research Fellow and Administration Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. Maria has a background in law and sociocultural studies with interest in community action and social justice. She has previously contributed to developing evidence-based policy in Indigenous and youth education (Colombia) and domestic violence (Australia). Currently, she is working on projects related to community action research in environmental matters within the Grounded Imaginaries research project of the SEI.

Header image: by Anna Hunko via Unsplash.

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