Wednesday, 27 April 2011

exhibition of '10 climate stories' misses out on the big narrative

In this guest post, Benjamin Morris reviews the Science Museum's latest exhibition Ten Climate Stories

Buried deep inside Ten Climate Stories, in a film detailing Sir Vivian Fuchs' 1955-58 Antarctic expedition, is a brief statement of profound, Zen-like wisdom. In describing the literal pitfalls of their travels, with a giant Sno-Cat (above) freshly fallen into a crevasse, Fuchs drily notes: “You have to see a tractor in a hole before you can decide how to get it out.”

The lesson is reflective of its context: so, too, must you understand an exhibition before you can decide to give it a name. Ten Climate Stories is worth the trip, but not for what it promises, ten different stories about the climate. Not so. The content of the exhibition can roughly be divided in half, between old 'stories' retold from existing collections in the gallery (such as the steam engines, the atom-splitter, and the rocket modules), and new stories based on artefacts which appear in the museum for the first time (such as Yao Lu's photographs and Thomas Thwaites' toaster). Overall, the exhibition is clearly laid out, with a variety of artefacts, media, and modes of presentation, and the path is linear enough to give a sense of coherence in time—no small order for an exhibition spanning nearly three hundred years in just ten fits.

But still, the title. More accurate would be a title reflecting the exhibition’s actual focus: Ten Consumption Stories, or Ten Energy Stories. Only a few of the ten exhibits address either the climate or climate change, which becomes in this drama a background player lurking in the wings, waiting for its entrance onstage—an entrance that, with everyone else already having played their part (the exploration and discovery of natural resources, the history of scientific pursuit, the surge of private, public, and corporate development, and the ongoing artistic and cultural response) scarcely suggests a happy ending. In some cases, such as the third 'story' (an early photograph of Earth from space), the reference is barely even implicit. It feels as though, trying to drum up additional interest for its brand-new climate change wing, the Science Museum has positioned the word 'climate' as the bait before the switch.

As disconcerting are the mixed political messages sprinkled throughout the exhibition. The opening text of the first panel lays it plain: “The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century demanded huge quantities of natural raw materials such as coal and iron ore,” the panel calmly notes, as though this were a bygone fact of an historical era. The curatorial attitude towards resource consumption, extraction, and exploitation over the centuries remains largely neutral, even as the stories of the exhibits they have selected—contributing to it, critiquing it, or inviting us to reimagine it—are anything but ambivalent to this process. Henry Ford's own distaste for the modern era is a perfect example, with the exhibit addressing the development of the motorcar noting that “Ford himself considered the repetitive production process 'terrifying,' yet it helped usher in a modern age of mass consumption.”

This studious neutrality is perhaps reflective of the exhibition's sponsorship, partly from Shell Oil, and the risks in curatorial tone the Museum may have had to limit. The sheer brevity of the panels, and their often yawning generality, leaves the question open. More disappointing than any possible sin of comission, however, are the sins of omission: the absence of any narrative of renewable or sustainable sources of energy anywhere in the hall. The closest the exhibition comes is the following non-statement before the atom splitter, a few feet away from Ford's motorcar: “[Burning] fossil fuels such as coal to generate electricity has long been under scrutiny and alternatives are being closely examined.” Not that any are named, especially those so obvious (and free) as sunlight, wind, or water, anything that might one day temper profit margins.

That said, certain elements are worth sustained attention. The digital models of the steam engines illustrating their action are excellent: clear and simple, building from the humble output of the atmospheric engine at the beginning of the hall into a powerful narrative of design innovation and efficiency by its end. And of the two categories, the 'new' stories are as a group effective, with Lu's subtle yet vivid photographs inviting a scrutiny that rewards, surprises, and ultimately provokes the viewer. Thwaites' celebrated toaster, moreover, built only from materials he mined and refined himself, earns its laurels: ambitious in its goals yet modest in tone and delightful in execution, it succeeds in playfully exposing the level of material dependency to which consumer society is now unwittingly yoked. (But still, here, a missed opportunity: “The tremendous worldwide mining and manufacturing industry required to create these products,” the panel tells us, “and the millions of years taken for the raw materials to form, aren't considered when we throw them away.” Nor, the point could have been made, when we choose to buy them in the first place.)

Jem Finer's Longplayer, a musical composition that is intended to play unbroken for a millennium—from 1999-2999—is perhaps the most compelling of the three. Sit with it long enough and the realisation dawns that the bright pings that penetrate its deep, sonorous bass rhythms resemble those infrequent yet urgent reminders pinpricking our environmental consciousness. Warnings of overconsumption, of tipping points, the onset of new disasters and the release of new, alarming indicators: each of these comes to mind amid the background hum of daily life and habits. But in our minds as in the hall, too easily they are dismissed or ignored, leaving us only with the rhythm of the bass coursing through our body as we sit, a rhythm that we continue to take for granted long after we have stood and walked away.

All told, Ten Climate Stories is worth seeing not for what the title promises but for what it delivers without broadcasting in advance: smaller moments that reveal much both about our relationship to the earth and its resources, and, crucially, about the way that museums and other institutions of knowledge tell those stories themselves. Like Edward Said's proverbial map, any narrative-based exhibition ultimately tells a story about itself as much as its objects. That the story this exhibition tells falls short of its own mark is to be lamented; that it manages to reward its audience despite its own intentions is a lesson from which museumgoers and museum alike could learn.

Benjamin Morris last reviewed Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Festival for Ashdenizen. His work appears or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Horizon Review, and Dark Mountain vol. 2. Having recently completed a PhD in Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, he is now a researcher at the OpenSpace Centre for Geographical and Environmental Research at the Open University


  1. Thanks, this is an interesting review. I haven't yet seen the exhibition so my comments should be read as tentative or general. On your main critical point, too often we don't acknowledge climate change as the back story and epilogue of a story, so it could be seen as refreshing that tales of consumption or energy are entitled in relation to climate, allowing us to make that connection. On the point about curatorial neutrality, this can be frustrating, and I was certainly frustrated by the soft treatment of climate in the Atmosphere gallery (the main Shell-sponsored climate change display), but it is absolutely the norm in all museum-led curation. It's really only when artists or scientists (for example) are invited to co-curate shows that some variance from this tepid, cautious approach creeps in. As this exhibition has included works of contemporary artists and experimental designers, some space at least is opened up. The focus here on intriguing objects, rather than the linear story of climate change, fractures the narrative and allows questions to be asked. In contrast, the Atmosphere gallery attempts to tell the past, present and future of climate change authoritatively and almost seamlessly, with a few objects only there to illustrate the telling. I've made the point elsewhere that the Atmosphere gallery misses an opportunity to enable visitors/public to make their own tales, questions or ideas public. I don't know if Ten Climate Stories addresses that gap and provides an online or in-gallery forum, but at least the object-based structure and inclusion of artworks would seem to create more potential for visitors to think more independently and curiously.

  2. Thanks for an insightful review. Jem Finer does some lovely work! He fashioned a Malwiya minaret-shaped radio telescope out of string, sticky-back plastic and two-by-fours in the University Park in Oxford, and spent the nights listening to sounds of the universe. Great stuff. Other very long music pieces include John Cage's 639 year work being played on an organ in Halberstadt!