Acting for the future

Dr Jenny Peachey, Senior Policy Advocate, Carnegie UK on future generations, wellbeing, and relevance.

Future generations and museums 

Our great-great-grandchildren have no power in today’s society: they can’t vote, instigate a protest, or argue with us about how we are spending our financial and natural resources. Yet the decisions we make today will impact them. We take out loans for them to pay back. We use up natural resources they will not be able to access. We make laws that will govern them. MacAskill, who has written about future generations, argues that “future people count, there could be a lot of them, and we can make their lives go better.”

The fact that the future counts, as well as the past, is an essential quality of museums. These institutions were founded because we want future generations to learn and to care. Be that to care for the natural world through learning about crabs, to care about peace through learning about the impact of war in a local community.

Wellbeing and future generations 

At Carnegie UK we want to create a future where:

  • Everyone has access to the services and support that they need (social wellbeing)
  • Everyone has a decent minimum living standard (economic wellbeing)
  • We are all able to access a quality local environment and collectively we live within our planetary boundaries to secure the environment for future generations (environmental wellbeing)
  • We all have a voice in decisions that affect us (democratic wellbeing).

In other words, we’d like to see a future where focus on economic growth is tempered by an equal weight being placed on social, economic, environmental, and democratic wellbeing. Where wellbeing is the focus of government and decisions are therefore made on the basis of whether they will improve the quality of our lives.

Curating conversations about the future we want

Collections in a museum serve not only to connect us to objects, but to connect us to ideas, people and places across time and space through those objects. Objects are the “what” of museums, the connections they facilitate are the purpose or “why” of museums. As such, museums can provide an entry point for connections and conversations about the kind of community, locality, or world that visitors or communities want to leave for future generations.

For example, an iron griddle at the Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Dunfermline could serve to prompt discussion not only about how things were done in the past, but about the proliferation of single use items today and the impact they might have on our planet’s future. This could lead to a question about, “Is this the kind of future you want to leave your children?”

Collections and “things” may be static but the conversations they could generate are potentially limitless.

Who are you engaging about the future? 

Who do you picture when you hear the phrase “future generations”? People like you; people not like you, or a mixture thereof? This is important to think about when considering objects in a collection: how many were collected by the kind of people (and reflect the values) you seek to serve, speak to, and engage today and in the future?

In the words of Nina Simon, “relevance is a key that unlocks meaning,” with the challenge being that different kinds of people find meaning in different kinds of things. It follows that relevance evolves all the time: it requires constant attention and work in relation to who you are for and who you want to reach.

Nina Simon asks curators to consider, “How do you invite people outside your circle into what matters to you?” My question to you is, how will inviting them in help you refine or strengthen the story you’re telling, or how you’re telling it, about your “why”?

Questions for reflection 

  • What would paying attention to the wellbeing of future generations look like in your museum?
  • How might that framing lead you to act now and evolve for the future in ways that feel different from current or past approaches?

Collective wellbeing

At Carnegie UK we believe that collective wellbeing happens when social, economic, environmental and democratic wellbeing outcomes are seen as being equally important. Click here to find out more about Carnegie UK>>