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World Reconnections: Objects from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art

The theme for this year’s Earth Day 2021 is ‘Restore Our Earth’.

It focuses on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems. It rejects the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only ways to address climate change, and challenges each and every one of us to Restore Our Earth, because we care about the natural world and because we live on it. ‘A healthy planet is not an option – it is a necessity’.

The Earth Museum is hugely supportive of the above vision and believes that a greater global understanding of our connected histories is critical to our collective ability to look after the planet and each other into the future. Through sharing perspectives on past events and their multiple legacies for present communities and environments we can learn about how fundamental inequalities have come about, and inspire values around solidarity, respect and creativity to drive the changes required for a healthy planet.

Museums around the world have an important role to play in this journey. They are the current institutional gatekeepers of the collective record of natural and cultural life on earth. Many were forged in the ‘fires of empire’ over centuries within a philosophy of ‘one empire to rule them all’. Their collections are inevitably ingrained with hidden stories of trauma, resilience and achievement refracting multiple perspectives laying under the surface of dominant familiar narratives.

For a healthy planet to have a chance of flourishing, these diverse hidden stories must be discovered, revealed and shared; and their legacies for the present understood. Museums must stop making decisions about what is and isn’t important in their collections and open up information in ways that empower communities and citizens to make these decisions for themselves. Most museums (and funding agencies) see the digitisation of collections as low priority for resource allocation compared to investment in venue experiences. So, they sit on this data that has huge collective social and economic value, and don’t invest in collaborative and new technology solutions that can release this much wider value for global society.

One institution that has pioneered the opening up of its heritage data is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Their Open Access Artworks resource contains more than 375,000 hi-resolution images of public-domain works, which can be used by anyone for any non-commercial and commercial purpose. In doing so, it has begun to let go of intellectual control over cultural heritage objects they hold from across the world.

Here at The Earth Museum, we champion the opening of heritage data and create resources for learning that reconnect collections with people and places, with the aim to facilitate revealing and sharing of currently hidden stories. Today, on Earth Day, we launch our experiment with the intention to map one ‘Met’ object per day, from every country in the world back to its origin.

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