Cultural Institutions Consider their Role in Sea Level Rise Awareness at 11th Adaptation Forum

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Cultural Institutions Consider their Role in Sea Level Rise Awareness at 11th Adaptation Forum

Chrysler Museum of Art Director Erik Neil tells adaptation forum participants that cultural institutions can provoke conversation about sea level rise. (©Chris Patrick/VASG)

Chrysler Museum of Art Director Erik Neil tells adaptation forum participants that cultural institutions can provoke conversation about sea level rise. (©Chris Patrick/VASG)

Chrysler Museum of Art Director Erik Neil tells adaptation forum participants that cultural institutions can provoke conversation about sea level rise. ©Chris Patrick/VASG

By Chris Patrick, staff writer

Photographs of dirty rivers, droughty fields, and land marked by chemical runoff set the backdrop for the 11th Hampton Roads Sea Level Rise/Flooding Adaptation Forum on February 18.

These images, taken by photographer Edward Burtynsky, illustrate the stressed relationship between humans and water. While they were on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art, about 90 Forum attendees discussed the role of cultural institutions, such as museums and botanical gardens, in conveying messages about sea level rise to the public.

“If ideas and messages are put forward, we can inspire conservation,” Chrysler Museum director Erik Neil said, suggesting that the same can be done with sea level rise issues.

As the Forum’s first speaker, Neil shared examples of past exhibits that successfully started dialogues about issues. A 2008-2009 exhibit about school desegregation in Norfolk was one of the most popular in the museum’s history, indicating to Neil that the community welcomed the opportunity to discuss a sensitive topic in a safe place.

“People trust the information they get at a museum,” he said. “They feel at ease here.”

Chrysanthe Broikos, a curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, and another speaker at the forum, said that museums don’t only inspire conversation—they can also inspire action. Broikos designed a 2014-2015 exhibit for the National Building Museum titled, “Designing for Disaster.” The intent of the exhibit was to explore how buildings, homes, and communities can be designed to be safer for earthquakes, tornados, fire, and flood. The exhibit also tried to teach the public that they can mitigate their own disaster risk with education and preparation.

“People rationalize inaction,” said Broikos. She mentioned the relatively easy things individuals could do, like a pull together a disaster supplies kit. “But sometimes even very small things can save lives.”

In a panel, representatives from nearby cultural institutions offered possible strategies for reaching Hampton Roads residents with sea level rise messages. “First you have to address peoples’ interest. Then you can weave in messages,” said Chris Witherspoon, director of education at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center who participated in the panel. Other members of the panel were from The Mariner’s Museum and Park, Norfolk Botanical Garden, and Colonial National Historical Park.

Reflecting on the enthusiasm of institution representatives who spoke at the Forum, Michelle Covi, Virginia Sea Grant extension staff at Old Dominion University and a lead organizer of the Forum, says, “It’s clear that cultural institutions want to be a part of the solution to flooding and sea level rise resiliency.”

The Hampton Roads Sea Level Rise/Flooding Adaptation Forum started in 2012 with support from Virginia Sea Grant as a way to connect up-to-date research on flooding and sea level rise with those making public policy decisions in southeastern Virginia. The event is hosted in partnership with Virginia Sea Grant, Old Dominion University, and the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.