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How Can Museums Become More Sustainable?

The health of our planet is one of the defining issues of the age, and cultural institutions have their own part to play. But how can Museums become more sustainable?

Image: Mimi Haddon / Getty Images

The drive for museums to be more environmentally sustainable has never been more prominent nor more necessary. With constant news updates, fierce debates, regular strikes and bleak warnings all centred around the environment becoming more commonplace, it’s now impossible to ignore the need for sustainability across all industries. And that includes arts and culture.

Like businesses, shops, organisations and, of course, private individuals, museums have a duty to operate in a more eco-conscious manner. But knowing how to do so can be difficult, especially if you’re working with limited time and resources.

Thankfully, sustainability needn’t require museums to undertake total renovations or dramatic overhauls of their premises or practices. Simple steps can be a good starting point for institutions looking to do their bit for environmentalism.

10 simple steps to fight climate change and be more sustainable

While by no means a total resolution to the issue of sustainability in museums, making small changes is a great starting point for establishments, especially those who are small or medium sized and community led. Here are 10 simple yet effective ways to lower emissions, reduce waste and turn museums into altogether greener entities:

  1. Switch to LED lighting solutions: it’s no secret that electric lighting can take up a significant wedge of your carbon footprint, but making the switch to LED lighting is a seamless exercise that can make a significant difference. However obvious this recommendation may seem the truth is that all too many museums are still reliant on lighting installed decades ago.
  2. Recycle and compost your waste: responsible waste disposal is one of the cornerstones of effective sustainability, and recycling and composting your waste appropriately should be considered a minimum requirement for museums.
  3. Remove plastic bags from the gift shop: many institutions now charge for the use of plastic carrier bags, but removing unnecessary plastic from your museum can act as a good ground rule for practising sustainability.
  4. Find your energy drainers: doing an inventory of your establishment’s main energy users can give you a clearer idea of how best to reduce your usage. Is there a particular space or piece of equipment that’s draining your resources? Think heating systems, air conditioning units and audio-visual equipment left on 24/7. Lighting left on overnight is another key issue in many museums – a problem that can be easily resolved through the installation of motion sensors.
  5. Go paperless, or switch to recycled paper: with society as a whole going increasingly digital, the need for hard copies is reducing all the time. Where they are necessary, try and opt for recycled paper.
  6. Seek out and plug up leaks and draughts: it sounds mundane, but draught sources can significantly increase energy usage within museums, especially during colder months.
  7. Go for green cleaning products: changing the way you think about restocking your museum supplies is key to continued sustainability. When it comes to the likes of cleaning products, consider investing in greener alternatives.
  8. Create a zero-waste event: many museums host several annual events a year. By making just one of these events zero-waste, it can act as a significant step forward in terms of both action and awareness.
  9. Remind staff about the importance of sustainability: a team effort is far more effective than an individual one when it comes to sustainability. If everyone within the museum team is aware of the efforts they should be making, the reward will be far greater. There’s plenty of research now showing that changing behaviours is as powerful a tool as any technological improvement.
  10. Spread the word: eco-inspired programs, exhibitions and lectures can help your museum become more actively involved in the fight against climate change.

The rise of Green Museums

In recent years, the concept of the “green museum” has gained momentum. Although there are no hard and fast rules to this label, the term typically refers to a museum that factors concepts of sustainability into its programming and operations. Many of these establishments use their collections to produce events, exhibitions and other programming with the intent to educate visitors about the environment. They strive to help people become more conscious of the world around them.

The green museum movement actually began primarily in children’s museums, with The Children’s Discovery Museum in Illinois becoming the first LEED-certified children’s museum in 2005. Since then, many museums have followed suit, including The Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Boston Children’s Museum, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and many more.

Jeongok Prehistory Museum

Some of the most successful and innovative museums from around the world are also the most sustainable. This is certainly the case when it comes to the Jeongok Prehistory Museum in South Korea.

Built on a site of archaeological significance, the museum is dedicated to educating and immersing visitors in the prehistoric past. The structure itself is built between two elevated points, making it feel at one with the natural surroundings. But not only is the building beautiful, it also regulates internal temperature in order to keep energy usage to an absolute minimum.

Cité de l’Océan et du Surf

Another example of sustainability within the museum space comes from the Basque coast in France. With a specific ecological focus at its heart, the Cité de l’Océan et du Surf features exhibitions about the importance of the environment and our oceans. Its striking design is both beautiful and highly sustainable.

Inigo Bujedo Aguirre-VIEW / Alamy Stock Photo

Natural History Museum of Utah

The NHMU is dedicated to exploring the relationship between humans and the natural world, so it’s no surprise that it remains one of the most sustainable institutions of its kind. In fact, the establishment was fully renovated in 2011 to meet new green building standards, and the museum works continually to minimize its environmental impact.\

Natural History Museum of Utah

One look at the museum reflects this. The green roof and extensive solar array work to manage water waste and use solar energy for heating and cooling the building. What’s more, many of the building materials are locally sourced.

Museums fighting climate change can start small

Sustainability doesn’t have to mean a total overhaul for museums. It can mean taking small but significant steps towards being more environmentally conscious in both daily practices and through exhibitions and events. However, the issue of environmentalism does provide an opportunity for museums to embrace the current fight against climate change with open arms. People around the world are looking for more information and more chances to be active, and museums should be well placed to provide this.

The Green Museums Summit will be held from 26th – 27th February 2024, and will feature inspiring ideas and case studies from those championing sustainability in museums and galleries. Click here to book your tickets now, to make sure you don’t miss out.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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