Skip to main content
In depth
Wildlife Photographer of the Year

A pivotal moment: the Natural History Museum at COP26 and beyond

The museum is on a mission to inspire people to take action on climate change


London’s Natural History Museum is on a new mission to create advocates for the planet. Recently, leaders, activists, and decision-makers from around the world convened in Glasgow for COP26, and we spoke to the museum to find out more about its new strategy and the different ways that it has been getting involved in this pivotal event.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is currently taking place in Glasgow and will close on 12 November. These climate talks are bringing together heads of state, climate experts and campaigners, with the ambition to agree on coordinated action to tackle the climate crisis.

The Natural History Museum has been hosting a variety of events in Glasgow, both in-person and digitally. At the same time, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, another cornerstone of its climate mission, is now open in London.

A key moment

Brad Irwin Natural History Museum
Brad Irwin

COP26 is the most important meeting of our time says Brad Irwin, head of global engagement at the Natural History Museum:

“Political leaders and the public are all coming together to talk about the one issue that concerns us all: climate change and the planetary emergency.”

It is an interesting moment for several reasons, he adds. “There have been many other COPs before this one. But COP26 feels different because there is more at stake, and we know more about the state of the planet.

“Young people, in particular, are standing up and saying we need change, we need action. So, COP26 feels like it’s moving out of the political realm and into the public realm like never before, which is exciting. It is becoming a big public moment, whereas historically it was always a sort of private, political moment.”

The Natural History Museum at COP26

The Natural History Museum felt that COP26 was an ideal opportunity for it to play a part in the climate change conversation.

Nature Bar New York Times Climate Hub
The Nature Bar at The New York Times Climate Hub. Natural History Museum’s Director Doug Gurr (centre) with Dr Sylvia Earle, Founder, Mission Blue (right) and David de Rothschild, Founder, Voice for Nature (left)

During the event, it partnered with The New York Times. Together, in a music venue near the Conference, they created The New York Times Climate Hub. Here, the museum hosted a series of panels, discussions, and events. These covered a wide range of subjects, going from the state of deep-sea oceans to mining, biodiversity loss, climate change, food security and more.

The changing role of museums

Doug Gurr

For the Natural History Museum, taking part in COP26 has been a chance to shift and redefine what a museum can and should do.

“If our subject matter is life on planet earth, and we know that that life is under threat, then it’s probably no longer enough to be what we’ve always been, which is collectors, cataloguers, chroniclers, researchers, exhibitors,” says Doug Gurr, director of the Natural History Museum. Essentially, the museum felt it could not simply be a passive observer of the biodiversity crisis.

“We want to try and create what we call advocates. This involves reaching out to our audiences to get them to care about life, care about the natural world, and be inspired enough to want to make the kinds of small incremental changes which individually may not seem like a big deal, but collectively can change everything,” says Gurr.

“We want to inform our audiences,” adds Irwin. “We want to show them ways in which they can act for planet Earth. Glasgow is the moment to do that.”

The NHM is completely underpinned by its science collection. This means that it has an authoritative voice, based on scientific work and scientific backing.

Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum in London, UK. ©Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

“We are a trusted cultural institution with a strong science base and a large public reach. So, we can’t sit on the sidelines anymore. We must get involved,” says Irwin. “If museums don’t change, they will become redundant. It is a big shift. What is interesting is that when we road-tested our new strategy with some of our audiences, they, and in particular our young audiences, absolutely expect this from us. It’s a no brainer for them.”

Touring exhibitions at the Natural History Museum

Pauline Robert

In addition to this outreach work at COP26, for the Natural History Museum, its touring exhibitions are a key part of helping it put this new strategy in place.  

“The touring department has existed for about 30 years, and over this time it has completely changed,” says Pauline Robert, head of touring programmes at the museum. “Initially, we began touring roaring animatronic dinosaurs. While travelling shows supplement the museums’ income, it’s also about sharing our collections with far broader audiences than those who visit the museum in London. It also helps us to deliver important messages in terms of biodiversity conservation.

“The big milestone really for the touring department was when the Treasures of the Natural World exhibition was produced, because it was the first time that we were taking collections from the museum that had not been out, sometimes not even on display at the museum. These objects represented the core of the collections and we decided to pack them and take them on tour. For the first time, we were sharing our most treasured collection on a global scale.”

Treasures of the Natural World at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, Japan. © The Yomiuri Shimbun

For this exhibition, the museum selected all the objects that would go on tour. But the host museums were also able to design and change the content to be relevant to their local audiences.

“We’ve learned so much about other parts of the world through this,” says Robert. “For example, the Melbourne Museum partnered with the local indigenous community. Together they worked on the content and talked about explorers and First Peoples knowledge and science.”

Spreading the message

Touring exhibitions are key to the museum’s mission. If it wants to create advocates for the planet, it must tell as many people as possible about what it is doing, says Robert.

“For instance, with Fantastic Beasts™: The Wonder of Nature, we’re now reaching a new audience that may not usually think to come to the museum and inviting them to discover the fact that the real world is as magical as the wizarding world portrayed in the much-loved books and movies, but that it’s under threat, and we need to protect it.”

This exhibition is a partnership between the Natural History Museum, BBC Studios Natural History Unit, and Warner Bros. Consumer Products. It draws parallels between creatures from the popular franchise and the natural world’s most spellbinding animals.

Fantastic Beasts Natural History Museum
The Conservation team at the Natural History Museum in London prepares specimens for the Fantastic Beasts™: The Wonder of Nature exhibition. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

The exhibition has a strong conservation message. It does not sugar coat the biodiversity crisis, but it also conveys a sense of hope through conservation success stories.

“There is an evolution we’ve seen across everything we do. Even things that we don’t control, like Wildlife Photographer of the Year,” says Robert. “We used to see more animal portraits or simply beautiful behavioural shots. Now, the images are almost always telling a powerful conservation story. You can see climate change, the impact of human actions on the natural world, and biodiversity loss behind nearly every photo.”

The Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Wildlife Photographer of the Year has been one of the museum’s most longstanding exhibitions. However, it also aligns perfectly with this new premise of creating advocates for the planet.

The competition was created by BBC Wildlife in 1965 and the museum took on the brand in 1984. Each year, the winning entries are displayed on-site in London, as well as touring the world. Between London and the global tour, the winning images are seen by almost 2 million visitors every year, even more through digital channels.

“We can create advocates for the planet through this incredible visual imagery, taken from all over the world,” says the head of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Programme, Soraia Salvador.

“It’s a very emotional project, wildlife photography. This can help us to move hearts and minds and to influence visitors all over the world, as well as decision-makers, politicians and businesses. There is a wealth of organisations and individuals that we want to reach out to. We do this not only with the touring exhibition but also by taking WPY to conferences and different platforms. For example, COP26.”  

Inspiring change

Soraia Salvador nhm
Soraia Salvador

One of the goals of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is to trigger empathy and curiosity.

“They are incredibly powerful and can also be difficult for some people,” says Salvador. “But they are pictures of things that are happening in the real world. We can influence an individual’s behaviour after they have seen the exhibition. We make them stop and think, ‘Okay, can I do better? What is the next step that I can take?’

“In the future, on the competition’s website, we also want to add a tab that says, ‘How can I help?’ We want to give people ideas about changing their behaviour and about how to respond to this planetary crisis.”

Salvador says that the Natural History Museum is the ideal organisation to host this competition. This is because it brings together two different worlds:

“Firstly, the amazing photographers and conservationists who are working all over the world and capturing these images. But then you also have our in-house scientists who can explain the images and tell the stories behind them. It is the power of these two worlds, photographers and scientists working together, that makes it so impactful.”

Reflecting the changing world

The competition has evolved over time, with new categories being added. But these changes generally reflect what is happening in the wider world.

“The way people perceive nature and their connection with it, and the way we tell these stories to the visitors, has moved with the times,” says Salvador.

“In the past, we simply presented beautiful images, and we still do. However, throughout the decades the planetary emergency has become much more at the forefront of the exhibition. And that is not because we are selecting more of those images. It’s because this is happening, the competition is reflecting the changing world.”

A message of hope from the Natural History Museum

“I’m always excited about highlighting and featuring the human side behind the images,” says Salvador. “The photographers and conservationists are so passionate about the work they do. And they sacrifice a lot. There is a lot of hard work done, in difficult conditions, to show these images to the world.”

Wildlife-Photographer-of-the-Year-2021 Natural History Museum
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 57 exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London.  © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

“I’m inspired by images that change things. For instance, when they change a piece of legislation or policy, or when the image shows a positive conservation story. One of the images from this year is of the Iberian lynx in Spain. It is an amazing story of a species that was on the verge of extinction. Political decision-makers invested a lot of money in conservation efforts and now this species is no longer in danger.

“We need these positive stories to inspire people. If we had an exhibition telling only challenging stories, people would get quite down. They could feel so overwhelmed that they think nothing they do matters, or that they can’t change anything.

“There are these glimpses of hope in the exhibition. This tells people that they are part of this, they can change things. That is the part that inspires me. It’s always the human side.”

Reaching far away audiences

Paolo Russo

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition also plays an important role when it comes to reaching audiences that are far away.

“It allows us to speak with these international audiences and most importantly, allows venues to interact with their own communities on these important issues,” says Paolo Russo, exhibition partnerships manager at the Natural History Museum.

“Host venues organise all sorts of events around the exhibition. These often focus on local biodiversity and climate change issues. Sometimes, they organise regional wildlife photography competitions to attract new audiences. Or they invite local wildlife photographers to give presentations or take part in panel debates. These photographers speak the same language as the audience, and they know local issues.

“It’s difficult to take care of what you can’t see. That’s one of the main things that the exhibition does. It makes you see, and then it makes you discuss and take action. If you do that on a local level, audiences feel more involved. So, they become much more willing to play an active role in the protection of wildlife and biodiversity.”

Get involved

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 54, which toured the year before the pandemic, had over 1,800,000 visitors across the world. It visited 31 venues across 11 countries and four continents. Wildlife Photographer of the Year also continued during the pandemic, reaching people across the globe despite lockdowns and travel restrictions. The Natural History Museum adapted by taking engaging events and content and making these available online.

WPY57 Natural History Museum
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 57 exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London.  © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The latest edition of the exhibition, WPY57, opened at the Natural History Museum in London on 15 October 2021. It has already embarked on its international tour. This will see it visiting the UK, Denmark, Canada, the USA and Australia before the end of the year. The tours will also go to several more countries in 2022.

To follow the Natural History Museum’s updates from COP26, you can visit the live blog here. It has also created a guide to the conference.

Top image: Wildlife Photographer of the Year 57 exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London.  © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Share this
charlotte coates

Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is blooloop's editor. She is from Brighton, UK and previously worked as a librarian. She has a strong interest in arts, culture and information and graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in English Literature. Charlotte can usually be found either with her head in a book or planning her next travel adventure.

More from this author

Companies featured in this post

Search for something

More from this author

Related content

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update