Museums Must Become Active Allies in the Climate Struggle

Condemning activists who take action against art is easy. But do museum directors actually take the climate crisis seriously?

Stopp Oljeletinga activists Joachim Skahjem and Anne Klenge during the action at the Vigeland installation, 18 November. Photo: Javad Parsa / NTB.

What kind of methods are acceptable in the fight against climate change? This has been the subject of one of the most heated debates in the Norwegian media this year after one of the activists who threw orange water-based paint at the statues in the Vigeland park in Oslo, Joachim Skahjem, appeared on the popular TV news show Debatten on NRK on 24 November and said that he could not rule out the possibility that “violence will happen.” He later clarified that he never advocated violence against people, but he still had to withdraw from the Stopp Oljeletinga (Stop the Search for Oil) campaign, which, like the Extinction Rebellion movement, takes a strict line of non-violence. The entire mainstream climate movement also turned against him.

In the debate that followed, few have actively responded to the fact that Skahjem was referring to the Swedish author, researcher, and climate activist Andreas Malm. Having written a number of analytical books about the climate crisis, in 2021 Malm published the small agitational manifesto How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Learning to Fight in a World on Fire – an adapted guide version for young people is due to be published next year – in which he advocates climate activists turning to direct actions and sabotage against the fossil fuel industry.

When Malm visited Oslo in May this year at the invitation of climate-committed social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen, the methods used in the climate struggle were a major subject of discussion. In an interview conducted for Kunstkritikk by the head of Kunsthall Oslo, Will Bradley, in connection with the visit, Malm said that he believes the climate struggle must be stepped up, and that “the moral case for destroying fossil fuel properties is virtually unassailable.” He elaborated: “It’s very hard to see how you can uphold the priority of these material things over the lives of human beings that are being lost in the climate crisis. But when it comes to the strategic and tactical issues, it’s more complicated.”

While Malm, who importantly draws a clear line between the sabotage of infrastructure and violence against people, argues in favour of actions that target the fossil fuel industry specifically, the actions that have made really big headlines recently are those aimed at iconic works of art, both internationally and here in Norway. The action against Edvard Munch’s Scream (1893) at the National Museum of Norway on 11 November and the action against the Vigeland installation on 18 November have been met with more or less universal condemnation, not least from the museums and from Minister of Culture Anette Trettebergstuen. The general view among the public is that people sympathise with the cause, but decry the activists’ strategy.

As custodians of cultural heritage, it would, of course, have been utterly strange and problematic if museum directors around the world thought it was okay for activists to attack works of art with soup, glue, and paint. But what is less obvious is the fact that the museums’ only response seems to be tighter security measures and condemnation. In a press release from the International Council of Museums (ICOM) dated 11 November, the organisation asks activists to see museums as allies in the climate struggle. But in what way are museums allies? How do they show it? The museum sector does not appear particularly concerned with climate issues, not even internationally, as was pointed out by Hakim Bishara in Hyperallergic in the rather acerbic editorial “Museum Directors, Do You Need a Hug?”, in which he called on museum directors to show leadership in the wake of the call issued by ICOM.

From the Stopp Oljeletinga action at the National Museum, 11 November 2022. Photo: Ludvig Furu / Tidens ånd.

A fundamental and very overt way museums can show themselves as allies would be to clearly distance themselves from sponsorships and funding from the fossil fuel industry. But, as demonstrated by the survey about sponsorship ethics conducted among Scandinavian museum directors and published in Kunstkritikk on 30 November, taking such a stance is not immediately forthcoming among Norway’s museum directors. Several heads of Swedish and Danish museums, such as the director of the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Gitte Ørskou, and director of the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK) in Copenhagen, Mikkel Bogh, stated quite clearly that they will not accept sponsorships from the fossil fuel industry. By contrast, Petter Snare and Karin Hindsbo, directors of Kode in Bergen and the National Museum of Norway in Oslo, respectively, said that distancing themselves from such sponsorship would also mean having to turn down support from the Norwegian state authorities. This is the same argument used by the former director of the Munch Museum, Stein Olav Henrichsen, whenever confronted about the museum’s oil sponsors. The museum’s new director, Tone Hansen’s position on the issue must remain a matter of conjecture, as the Munch Museum did not respond to Kunstkritikk’s queries.

Clearly, every Norwegian citizen can be said to live on oil money to some extent, which means that none of us can really criticise the oil industry without at the same time criticising ourselves. But using that as an argument for taking even more oil money directly from the fossil fuel industry really makes no sense. Compared to the responses from their colleagues in Denmark and Sweden, the statements made by Norway’s museum directors makes for disappointing reading.

Snare argued that state support is effectively oil money, the only difference being that it has been “tax laundered.” While it is true that the Norwegian state’s wealth rests largely on the oil and gas industry, there is still a big difference between receiving support from the “community coffers” and cooperating directly with oil companies, entering into agreements where the company’s name is attached to the art. As we all know, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and what sponsors expect in return is honour and glory, credibility and legitimacy. In the worst-case scenarios, they obtain these things at the expense of the integrity of the art institution and the art itself.

Because integrity is clearly the central issue here. As recipients of public support, artists and art institutions are still free to think and say exactly what they want about the Norwegian fossil fuel industry. My stating that Norway should immediately stop all oil exploration does not prompt Arts Council Norway to cut its support for Kunstkritikk. The arm’s length principle protects us so that I can safely oppose the views of the Minister of Culture, the rest of the Norwegian government, and the majority of the country’s elected representatives – who, amazingly, still have not realised that handing out fifty-three new licenses for oil exploration in 2022 may well be described as a form of violence, not to say warfare.

However, it goes without saying that the moment you receive funding from private-sector sponsors, you cannot simply bite the hand that feeds you. This is why it is so important to ensure that institutions will not be compromised by being associated with their sponsors’ activities. When the Munch Museum is sponsored by Aker BP and Idemitsu, this by definition means that it considers the fossil fuel business an industry it can vouch for. To be fair, Hansen has ‘inherited’ a problem that presumably cannot be resolved overnight. But there is nothing to suggest that this problem will grow less pressing over time if she does not do something about it.

I really hope that Hansen and other directors of Norwegian museums will soon show some real leadership on the climate issue. An excellent first step would be to disconnect from sponsors who actively contribute to the climate crisis. It is reasonable to believe that it would also be a little less tempting to carry out actions in museums if they truly appeared as genuine allies

Direct Action Theatre, projection at the Munch Museum on 15 November 2021. Photo: D.A.T.