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Exhibition overview: ‘Our Broken Planet’ at the Natural History Museum

With this free, temporary exhibition, ‘Our Broken Planet: How We Got Here and Ways to Fix It’, South Kensington’s dusty museum evokes the audacity and urgency of recent climate activism to encourage visitors to reflect on their own environmental impact.

From the blunt name (which the usual suspects will surely describe as “political”) to the colorful slogan stickers that visitors adorn themselves with, Our Broken Planet is steeped in the culture of Extinction Rebellion and similar grassroots climate movements.

Coupled with a handful of well-chosen artifacts from the museum’s unique collection, it makes for an eye-catching jewelry display.

The exhibit relies largely on the contributions of the NHM’s hundreds of local scientists, who were asked, “What is the world breaking or repairing?” Their answers span the range of environmental problems:

deep-sea mining; carbon-intensive agriculture; zoonoses (infectious diseases that spread from animals to humans); wildlife smuggling; plastic waste and fast fashion. Some of these challenges are represented by a single artifact.

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Some objects have a deep impact, such as a fine whale earwax plug (reminiscent of a memorable scene from Shrek);

or examples of all British bees extinct since 1800, or the skin of ‘Happy Jerry’, the somewhat ironically named pipe-smoking Georgian mandrill. However, Our Broken Planet is not an exhibition that leans on spectacle.

With the rest of the museum available on the other side of a few doors, the appeal of this exhibit lies in the unconventional presentation of the artifacts.

The NHM emphasizes our relationship with each item — and the environmental challenge they represent — by, for example, sprinkling hamburger wrappers around aurochs and modern cow skulls to ask questions about our beef consumption.

Would you consider alternative protein sources? grasshoppers? Synthetic meat? Planting burgers? It doesn’t stop with directly asking visitors what changes they’ll make to help fix the Broken Planet, challenging unsustainable standards (“How many more things will make you happy?”).

Government, industry and science are part of both problem and solution, just like every individual visitor.

The scientists who nominated these issues are a visible part of the exhibit, allowing for more direct coverage without compromising the museum’s grand, aloof neutrality as an entity.

They appear in handsome black-and-white portraits at each exhibition, alongside quotes and voice recordings.

A notable contribution is from plant biologist Dr. Ana Claudia Araujo, whose ancestors were slaves to African-Brazilians forced to work on sugar plantations; Aruajo nominated the environmental impact of sugar production.

Our Broken Planet has a limited amount of interaction and mixed media. It’s small enough that pre-teens can be taken anywhere without getting bored or tired.

Thanks to the sheer breadth (if not depth) of Our Broken Planet, it could serve as a powerful introduction to environmental challenges for young visitors, where there is no doubt that these are challenges in which they themselves can play a small part in further worsen or resolve. But if you bring kids, take them first to see the dinosaurs.