Climate Change Crisis Loses Some Urgency in Touring Museum Exhibit

santralistanbul/Promo image
The 'Climate Change' exhibit.

"Who will win this war?" a child's hand has written in block letters above two cartoon figures engaged in what appears to be a lightsaber battle: a nuclear power plant and a tree.

The drawing, pinned up in the visitor-response section at the end of a traveling exhibition on climate change, prompts a chuckle. It also perhaps indicates something about the successes and failures of a well-intentioned show that nonetheless seems a bit muddled on who it's trying to reach, and with what message.

Final Weekend In Istanbul
The exhibit, "Climate Change: The Threat to Life and A New Energy Future," debuted at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the fall of 2008 and has been touring ever since, finishing its Istanbul run up this weekend at santralistanbul.

The Istanbul museum and its local NGO partners have made a big push to draw school groups to the show, and when I visited, it was indeed noisy with kids, running from one display to the next (when they weren't crowding around the strange note-taking foreigner). But most of the text-heavy displays -- on historical growth in fossil-fuel use, natural disasters, coral bleaching, and wave energy, among other topics -- seemed unlikely to grab the attention of kids, or for that matter, anyone who doesn't already have an interest in the topic. At the same time, the material presented is basic for those already conversant in environmental issues.

santralistanbul/Promo image
An interactive display focusing on lifestyle choices at the 'Climate Change' exhibit.

Part of the problem may simply be the time that has elapsed between the show's debut in 2008 and now. Since then we've seen devastating flooding in Pakistan, a nuclear crisis in Japan, and the catastrophic BP oil spill. As striking as the exhibit's neon-red line graph showing the recent spike in CO2 emissions and the model of sea-level rise in Manhattan are, people probably don't need as much convincing as they once did that there's plenty wrong with the way we're currently producing most of our energy. And the solutions sections of "Climate Change" are the ones that leave the most to be desired.

What Can We Do About Climate Change?
An interactive station that shows the effects of different visitor-chosen actions, such as replacing 50 percent of their home's lightbulbs with energy-efficient ones, is pretty cool, but the neighboring "Ne Yapabılırız?" (What Can We Do?) board simply offers a collage of green tips with the option to "pledge" to take unspecified action in a particular category by pushing a button. Some quizzes or games would better engage young (and old) visitors.

© Jennifer Hattam
Answers supplied by museum visitors to the question 'How should we tackle climate change?' include 'By using bicycles more' (bottom) and 'Please from now on let's be aware: No to coal!' (top).

The room near the end of the show that is focused on renewable energy seems a particular missed opportunity: Its information panels, small-screen videos, and static mock-ups of wind, solar, and wave power don't have much punch. Like the rest of the show, they also don't have any mention of Turkey, a gap local NGO partners and corporate sponsors worked hard to fill with add-ons at the end of the exhibit, including an IKEA-showroom-like home display with energy-saving tips, as well as parallel events such as panel discussions, workshops, and film screenings.

Telling The 'Local Story'
"We encourage each venue to add their local story, whether it be their country as a whole or just the city they are in, to the exhibit to enhance it and [help] visitors have more of a connection with the show. Turkey had many outside partners who were very interested in contributing content and they were fortunate to have enough space to do so," a press representative from the American Museum of Natural History's Traveling Exhibitions Department told TreeHugger in an email. "It is up to each individual venue what they would like to do. But they don’t have to add anything."

Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that the show has been most popular, according to the AMNH representative, at the three American and Canadian stops (plus Singapore) on its globe-trotting tour, which next goes to Abu Dhabi. In countries such as Turkey where environmental issues are hardly a priority, a model of a flooded Istanbul or a Turkish coal mine might better get the climate-change issue some of the attention it so sorely needs.

Tags: Exhibits | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Causes | Global Warming Effects | Global Warming Science | Global Warming Solutions | Turkey