A Museum Transformed: interview with Emma Nicolson

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

This Autumn, Edinburgh’s Inverleith House starts its three-year transformation into Climate House. Through its archives, links to research and position with the local community, it has aims to be a blueprint for museums confronting the climate crisis. IFLA!’s Eden King finds out more from Emma Nicolson, Head of Creative Programmes at Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh.

Many cultural institutions are turning to the challenges of the climate crisis as an opportunity to produce cultural content that addresses the concerns of contemporary society. However, while these institutions add climate issues to their normal roster of exhibitions and events, few have sought to transform their operations as well. This is due to change at Inverleith House, an 18th Century Mansion and exhibition space set within Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh’s (RBGE) 116 hectare grounds. In rethinking Inverleith House’s mission to explore, conserve, and explain the world of plants for a better future, RBGE has produced a new manifesto for the arts, ‘By Leaves We Survive’. But RBGE goes further than solely creating a manifesto; this autumn, Inverleith House becomes Climate House. In doing so, Climate House embarks on a three-year programme with the aim of highlighting its position as a visionary institution addressing the climate crisis.

As part of the programme, Climate House and RBGE will welcome artists from Scotland and internationally to showcase work that facilitates conversations about life on earth and our place in the world. This will involve collaborating with a diverse range of artists, including Christine Borland, Cooking Sections, James Bridle, Kapwani Kiwanga, Fernando Garcia-Dory, Tabita Rezaire, and Ayesha Tan Jones. This selection of global and local artists offers a huge diversity of approaches in addressing climate issues. The wide range of topics covered by these artists, from power asymmetries and activism to food and memory, will hopefully create an intersectional programme of art that deftly navigates the real breadth and depth of the climate crisis.

The transformation into Climate House comes from a recognition that art has a crucial part to play in linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories, and discourse in a physical space, explains Nicolson. It opens dialogues and imaginaries that could be critical in finding solutions to the climate crisis. One featured artist is Keg de Souza, an Australian artist for whom collaboration and engagement with local communities is critical. De Souza has previously worked with First Nation peoples around the world in relation to their experiences of the climate crisis and produced art installations in response to these. In this, Nicolson is excited for de Souza to turn Climate House into a transformative, transdisciplinary space for conversation and action, while welcoming the broadest possible audience to confront the climate crisis; ‘we hope we can reach out to people with Keg’s work… to create an accessible, informative place for people to discover how they can mitigate the effects of climate change’.

Art has a crucial part to play in linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories, and discourse in a physical space

Climate House is in a particularly good position to engage with the global climate crisis given its position within RBGE, historic botanic gardens set to the North of Edinburgh’s old town. More than just beautiful gardens, RBGE has been collecting plants since 1670 and is a globally important centre for botanical research. Botanical and horticultural scientists employed by RBGE work on research and conservation projects in 35 countries. They work actively with local agents and botanists around the world, from China and Nepal to Chile and Brazil, as well as working locally within Scotland, to preserve plants at risk of extinction. Climate House can therefore draw on this scientific expertise in tackling challenges linked to the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis. Nicolson notes that, with its position within RBGE, it makes sense for Climate House to foster connections between artists and their work to the work that the garden is doing at the same time, as well as historically through engaging with projects from the archives. In this way RBGE will activate interdisciplinary exchange between artists, scientists, horticulturalists, scholars, activists, entrepreneurs, policymakers as well as visitors and local communities. Nicolson hopes these exchanges will help explore new ways of creatively sharing crucial research related to climate change adaptation and biodiversity.

It makes sense for Climate House to foster connections between artists and their work to the work that the garden is doing at the same time, as well as historically through engaging with projects from the archives

As much as it’s important to look at the climate crisis from a global perspective, it is on the ground in local communities where the grassroot changes take place. From this, Nicolson recognises that the Edinburgh public must feel able to access and engage with Climate House’s output. Climate House is keen to reach audiences who don’t normally visit the gardens; ‘The gardens host 1,000,000 visitors a year but many people in Edinburgh don’t feel it’s for them’, so Nicolson and Climate House is keen to redress issues of psychological and social barriers to access. As part of this redress, Keg de Souza will come to Edinburgh to reach out and engage with local communities to give voice to their experiences of the climate crisis. What form this engagement will take is not yet clear, and it will be interesting to see what approach de Souza and Climate House will take. To ensure engagement is effective and productive, it must be a two-way discussion, an act of collaboration rather than only consultation. Nicolson points out that, through engagement, a sense of connectedness is created which is how community resilience flourishes. And through this connectedness and resilience, people can discover how they and their communities can take steps and action to reduce the impact of climate change.

To ensure engagement is effective and productive, it must be a two-way discussion, an act of collaboration rather than only consultation

In order for the work of Climate House to be successful in both its art and its engagement, Nicolson recognises that curatorial care must be taken around the way this work and practice is done; ‘we must be respectful in how we deliver this programme’. From this, decolonising the climate crisis and climate history is essential in ‘asking questions’ to confront historical narratives and ‘creating space for dialogue… for the hidden voices within the Collections’. This is clear in Climate House’s first exhibition, Florilegium: A gathering of flowers, opening 16th October, which brings together new and existing works from four contemporary artists and more than 40 established scientific botanical artists with works revealing how flowers can elicit personal, cultural, socio-political, historic, geographic, and scientific ideas. One of these contemporary artists, Annalee Davis, confronts the destructive legacies of Empire plantation economies on social and coastal ecologies in Barbados. Alongside family portraits are drawings of coastal Barbadian plants on ledger pages, grounding these ecologies in the imperial plantation system.

Talk about climate crisis is vital, but Nicolson is fully aware that action must accompany talk for it to have the greatest impact. From this, Climate House is embedding the climate crisis not just into its programme but into the operational activity of the House, such as thinking and acting on their carbon impact. For Floralegium, the artists involved were not travelling to the exhibition launch even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, to reduce the exhibition’s carbon footprint. Many of the photos in the exhibition have been printed by the gallery itself to reduce the emissions of artists shipping the works to Edinburgh. Further to this, the artists Climate House has commissioned will directly work with issues of sustainability; Cooking Sections, a duo of spatial practitioners, fabricate works and artefacts from plants and materials using a sustainable process.

Nicolson’s work with RBGE and Climate House is a model of how cultural institutions can and should address the climate crisis. Putting the principles of community engagement and sustainability at the heart of high quality artistic and curatorial exhibitions is a very welcome approach to creating programmes for the arts. Climate House’s vision similarly highlights how arts institutions should not shy away from concerns about the climate crisis, but rather play an active role in mitigating its effects. Being at the beginning of its three-year journey, we look forward to seeing how their promises and programmes are put into action and do more than pay lip-service to the principles they aim to uphold. Curating exhibitions about the climate crisis is only productive if it engenders visible and meaningful change, and the best place to start that change is in the institution itself. By listening to those voices less heard, by refusing to conform to boundaries between culture and nature, and by bringing sustainable practice within its arts programme, Climate House can be a shining example of how cultural institutions should reflect on one of the most urgent concerns of our age.

Climate House is produced in partnership with the Serpentine Galleries. Learn about more about the exhibition and the project manifesto.