UW–Madison’s international partnership champions the role of museums in advancing sustainable cities

Museums from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and Spain agreed to explore promoting sustainable cities using an international framework for sustainable decision-making following the UN-Habitat International Summit on Latin America and Caribbean that was held in August of this year. 

Continuing the long standing collaboration between the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Guadalajara, visiting Nelson Institute professor Eduardo Santana Castellón and UniverCity Alliance Co-Chair Lori DiPrete Brown discussed the role of museums in advancing sustainability. The 2022 UN-Habitat Latin American and Caribbean Summit convened over 3,000 participants, and many more online, for three days at the University of Guadalajara.

“The proposal for museums to open and maintain a dialogue with the United Nations Program for Human Settlements (UN-Habitat) opens a new chapter in the discussion on the role of museums, which have already covered topics such as the Sustainable Development Objectives and human rights,” said Santana Castellón, who has spearheaded the important collaboration.

This initiative was further strengthened recently, with the signing of a cooperative agreement between museums of Brazil and Mexico during the Guadalajara International Book Fair in December. DiPrete Brown attended and presented related work at the Book Fair, which is the second largest in the world.

The 2022 UN-Habitat Latin American and Caribbean Summit convened over 3,000 participants, and many more online, for three days at the University of Guadalajara in August 2022. Photo courtesy of the University of Guadalajara.

Santana Castellón, who is the general director of the Museum of Environmental Sciences of the University of Guadalajara, and DiPrete Brown have worked together for over a decade on issues related to cities and sustainable development through environmental courses and the arts.

“Universities and museums have historically evolved together and serve as ‘anchor institutions’ in our cities,” said DiPrete Brown, who teaches in the School of Human Ecology. “Museums have an important role in creating the narratives and social experiences that we require to make the changes in mindset that we need in favor of sustainable development.”

During the hybrid conference, DiPrete Brown presented a strategy called SDG 360 Thinking that aims to advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These interconnected global goals are designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all,” according to the U.N.

As spaces for “science, art, discovery, and experiencing wonder,” DiPrete Brown said museums can be a critical space in promoting a sustainable future. Museums can illustrate how urban environments are connected to other landscapes throughout the region and state and the potential for positive relationships between them.

“When we think about making the SDGs place-based and meaningful for people, using the arts, museums, and local public spaces is really powerful,” DiPrete Brown said.

Nine museum leaders affirmed that their institutions can inspire action to improve the future.

“In the museum, it is possible to find tools and scientific data so that people think about what future, what tomorrow they want, so that they can leave the museum imagining what they can do, what actions they can take today to change the tomorrow they want,” said Ricardo Piquet, the director of the Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro.

Silvia Singer, the director of The Interactive Museum of Economics and secretary of the International Council of Museums of Mexico, said these spaces “allow the communication of ideas that can be of enormous value to the community.”

Arturo González, President of the Mexican Association of Museums and Centers of Science and Technology, said museums are “promoters of knowledge accumulated over thousands of years.”

“It is precisely with knowledge and research where we find the principles to understanding our environment, its past, and then proceed to correct our course to achieve a balance that allows a more sustainable life,” González said.

UW–Madison was the only United States-based institution to participate in the International Habitat Summit. Due to a relationship spanning four decades, UW–Madison had the opportunity to be involved in this international conversation.

“We’re engaged and rolling up our sleeves with global leaders from UN-Habitat to work in this way at local levels,” DiPrete Brown said. “We envision advancing ‘360 Thinking’ and engagement with museums both around the world and here in Wisconsin.”

–Abigail Becker