This post was shared by Lee Hutchinson, curator of history at M Shed, Bristol for History Day 2021.
Bristol has been the scene of numerous climate protests in recent years. They have become a part of the ongoing Bristol story. Two groups, in particular – Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Youth Strike 4 Climate (YS4C) have dominated the news.
Extinction Rebellion was formally launched in November 2018. It described itself as “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse.”
From the outset, it had a strong Bristol connection. The XR Bristol group is one the biggest outside London. Up to 500 people attend weekly meetings in three areas of the city. It is also one of the most highly organised, with around 15 working groups, from arts to actions, and finance to regenerative culture.
XR Bristol is currently focussed on clean air initiatives, raising public support for the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill and opposition to the draconian measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
To date, it has been one of the most politically successful XR groups in the UK. In principle, its three demands have largely been met: ‘Tell the Truth’ – Bristol was the first council in the country to declare a climate emergency; ‘Act Now’ – Bristol has a One City Climate Strategy with a genuine pathway to net zero by 2030; ‘Beyond Politics’ – the council voted to hold a Citizens Assembly after the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions to give people a voice in climate and community affairs.
Annabel O’Hene at the XR fashion action in Bristol on 1 June 2019, wearing a necklace made of discarded fishing net, later gifted to Bristol Museums. © Tracey Byles-Walker
Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate
Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate (BYS4C) was founded in January 2019 as part of the Youth Strike 4 Climate and Fridays for Future movements inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. Like XR, the Bristol branch is one of the biggest in the UK. The group organises climate strikes in the city centre and campaigns for climate justice.
BYS4C’s first strike took place on 15 February 2019, when over 1,000 students assembled on College Green. Further strikes were held in March and April and the group continued to expand. Efforts were focussed on the campaign to stop Bristol Airport expansion.
On 20 September, BYS4C took part in their seventh strike – part of the Global Climate Strike which was the largest ever mobilisation against climate change. Globally, over six million people took part.
BYS4C’s successful stand against the proposed airport expansion – and their tireless campaigning for national initiatives, such as a Green New Deal – led to Bristol being chosen as the first UK strike location to be attended by Greta Thunberg. On 28 February 2020, an estimated 30,000 people came to hear her speak.
Climate protesters at the Bristol Youth Strike 4 Climate event, 28 February 2020. © Bristol Culture
Greta Thunberg at the youth climate strike, Bristol, 28 February 2020. © Bristol Culture
Climate strikers at the Global Climate Strike in Bristol, 20 September 2019. © Bristol Culture
BYS4C placard donated to M Shed. © Bristol Culture
So why should Bristol’s museums, and M Shed in particular, collect from the climate movement?
M Shed was designed to tell the story of Bristol, past and present. It was intended to provoke healthy debate about the stories and issues that matter to local people.
It serves as a safe, physical space for individuals and communities to hear those stories and have those debates. As part of its mission, the museum seeks to represent and raise awareness of contemporary local groups, including those in the climate movement.
At present, a new display is in development with a climate-protest theme, and a new project, Think Global: Act Bristol is set to launch in June 2022. It will draw on objects and archives from Bristol’s past, and collect from the present to share knowledge and help connect people across Bristol at this tipping point in human history.
Recent donations to M Shed have included climate-protest banners, placards, posters, videos and oral and written testimonies.
One young climate activist, Persephone Hubbard, who donated her placard while visiting M Shed in 2019, wrote:
“If we don’t act now, we’ll have to swim later because our land will be flooded… I hope, by the year 2031, when I am 19, global warming will be under control… I want the politicians to realise that this crisis is far more important than Brexit… they’re stupid if they continue to do nothing to stop climate change.”
A big question for decision makers in museums, and one that urgently needs to be addressed, is whether or not they will prioritise collecting and programming that not only represents the climate movement but supports and provokes action.
As activists and climate scientists keep telling us: time is running out – every city must act like this is an emergency.
Bristol XR flyer – We Want To Live