The Sea Maidens (1885-6) by Evelyn De Morgan

This painting inspired the Kids in Museums Youth Panel to address the current climate emergency by re-reading the Victorian painting. Bethany Dockery explains…

Objects Declare Emergency is an exhibition curated by the Kids in Museums Youth Panel and other young people’s groups. We are taking objects from various museum collections and reinterpreting them in the light of the current climate crisis. Objects featured so far have ranged from an edible water bottle to eco-warrior helmets and are all shown in our Instagram exhibition @ObjectsDeclareEmergency.

The painting The Sea Maidens shows the mermaids of Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Mermaid. In the painting the five sisters of the little mermaid are intertwined with each other and it is debated as to which scene in the story it intends to show. Inspired by the blog post of Dr Melissa Gustin last year, this post takes a new look at Evelyn De Morgan’s The Sea Maidens and how objects can be used in discussing climate change.

The representation of the ocean in the painting is one way the painting may be ‘declaring emergency’.The ocean takes up a large portion of the image. Since the Industrial Revolution the amount of CO2 in the ocean has increased by 35% due to the burning of fossil fuels. The oceans are impacted heavily by climate change with increasing temperatures, changing currents, and rising sea levels.[1] Eco systems in the ocean are threatened and this can be seen in changes in places such as the Great Barrier Reef.

Image of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 after a bleaching event


Looking more directly at the mermaids as the focus of the painting, they are intertwined together, working as one. This could be read as the way humans need to come together as one unit and work together to reverse climate change. The mermaids in Hans Christian Andersen’s story work to save the little mermaid from her fate with the prince and we need to work as one to gain control of the effects we have on the environment.


Finally, we can look at the wider context of the painting and Evelyn herself. Evelyn De Morgan often used her art as a means to show her views on social issues. Her art style is full of symbols and meanings. It’s clear from her work representing the First World War she was a socially conscious woman, and this combined with her husband’s involvement in the Arts and Crafts Movement leads me to believe she would have been passionate about the climate emergency. Looking at this painting with modern readings has revealed layers of meaning that create a new interpretation of this object and its place in a collection such as Objects Declare Emergency.


S.O.S. (1914) by Evelyn De Morgan


Looking at museum collections differently has helped the Youth Panel learn about the climate emergency in a new way and share this with others. As young people, we will be most impacted by climate change in the future. We hope to inspire other young people and museums to look at and use collections differently.

You can get involved by sharing a museum object of your own, or a response to a museum object, this could be something made, found or created using discarded materials. Share with us on Instagram using the hashtag #ObjectsDeclareEmergency, or to add your own museum object to the collection please contact

Have a look at the current collection of objects on Instagram @ObjectsDeclareEmergency.



[1] The Ocean Foundation, Ocean and Climate Change, (viewed on 30/7/2020),nearshore%20and%20deep%20ocean%20ecosystems.