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Planners Hope to Open NY Climate Change Museum in 2020

FILE - New York's climate change museum will have only two rivals. One is the Klimahaus (Climate House) in Bremerhaven, Germany. In one of its exhibits, shown above, a man looks at an artificial starry sky.

New York City's museum devoted to climate change has no walls, no admission fee and no exhibits.

In fact, it doesn't exist yet.

It's an idea that its planners, led by Miranda Massie, attorney-turned-museum director, are hoping to make a reality. They are eyeing an opening in 2020, with pop-ups and publicity between now and then to get it off the ground.

Yet, despite growing pressure to cut planet-warming emissions and the global accord on climate change reached in Paris last weekend, building a successful museum on the issue is no small task, experts say.

"Paris gave us a huge boost," Massie told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "It shows that the museum will be wanted and will succeed, and that it's very much needed."

While science museums may have climate-change exhibitions, a dedicated museum would be unique for the United States. It would join a climate-change museum in Hong Kong and Klimahaus in Bremerhaven, Germany, which exhibits the world's climate zones, Massie said.

The challenges of creating such a museum are immense, from raising funds to keeping exhibits up to date, said Joseph Gonzales, director of museum communications and an assistant professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

"Museums of causes or museums of ideas can be particularly challenging," he said. "They're ideological or they're about abstract concepts, and they're not collection-based."

Not only are museums of any nature difficult to launch, but they are at high risk of failing later, said Mark Walhimer, a museum planning expert and author of the book "Museums 101." Walhimer estimated that only one in 10 museums he works with comes to fruition.

Like a new restaurant, a museum needs people to make repeat visits, he said. "Everybody will try a restaurant, but to get people to go back to a restaurant is really tough," he said.

Focus on solutions

The Climate Museum will focus on solutions and the need for collective action, Massie said. Such action could be as small as switching to energy-efficient light bulbs or as big as signing up to work for an environmental cause, she said.

"If we're all doing it, it makes a difference," Massie said.

Keeping exhibits fresh is critical, Gonzales said, citing the challenge of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., to keep up with news events.

"It's not impossible, but it takes thoughtfulness and, of course, like everything else, resources," he said.

Massie said she envisions needing a space of 100,000 square feet (9,290 square meters) — the size of a typical city block — to handle 1 million visitors a year.

Architects and designers suggest putting the museum on the waterfront, because rising sea levels will be part of the way New York City is affected by climate change, she said.

The museum idea came to Massie, in fact, after Superstorm Sandy caused severe flooding in the city in 2012.

But waterfront property is expensive. The new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, facing the Hudson River in Manhattan, was launched with a gift of $125 million and public funding, according to its website. The Whitney's new building alone cost $422 million, it said.

So far, the museum for climate change, with a staff of four, is just starting to seek significant sponsorships, Massie said.

Its board of trustees and advisory board include experts from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and London's Science Museum.

"From the science point of view, there is a continuing need for understanding the evolving climate system even after the Paris agreement," said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a museum trustee and senior research scientist who heads the climate impacts group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

U.S. museums draw 850 million visits a year, according to the American Association of Museums.

Yet it is arguably easier to start a business than a museum, Gonzales said.

"A lot of people would look at somebody who wants to start a museum and tell them that they're crazy," he said.