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Climate Change – Can Changing the Way Museums do Business, Change the World?

Climate change is an existential issue and the public cares deeply about it. Teens like Greta Thunberg are taking to the streets, the seas, and the front door of the UN to get the world’s attention. Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee, said in the second democratic primary debate that climate change is the lens through which we should consider all other issues. From the Paris climate agreement to NYC’s new climate demobilization goals, policy is being shaped which will impact how museums do business in the future.

Museums have certainly been on the front line educating the public about climate change through powerful exhibits and dynamic programming, but perhaps it is time for us to be more introspective and look at our own buildings, operations and policies. If it is true that buildings account for 2/3 of the greenhouse gas emissions in the cities, then the 55,000 museums documented across the planet could have a huge impact on climate change if we decided to lead the charge.

I believe that if we want to change the world we have to start by changing how we do business. Before museums take the leap to replace our incandescent bulbs with LED’s, we need to embrace a comprehensive strategy toward environmental change which is more complex than say, making the shift to renewable energy. It is about intentionally shifting our perspectives, transforming our expectations and creating an organizational wide culture of environmental responsibility.

Getting Everyone on the Bandwagon

To do this effectively, we need to bring both the board of directors and the staff to the table to draft an environmental impact statement and develop the policy to support it. It’s about asking the hard questions. What does environmental change mean to each individual? What does it look like for the museum as a whole? What sacrifices need to be made? What obstacles will be faced? Which efforts should be prioritized? How much time will need to be committed? What support and resources are needed to be successful? Be sure to highlight what is to be gained as well. Discuss the long term cost savings from such goals as: replacing outdated equipment, or from generating renewable energy through onsite solar panels. Emphasize, as well, the benefits your efforts will have for your community, its future generations and for the planet.

Your statement and policy should address everything including: operations, energy use, water conservation, purchasing and sustainable product choice, contractor evaluation, recycling, transportation, and staff engagement. It should encompass administrative offices, collections, exhibit space and grounds, as well as your retail operations (cafe and shop).

Moving from Policy to Practice

Once you have your policy, you need to ensure that there is oversight in place to ensure that policy becomes practice. Will you have a dedicated staff person in charge of the effort? Will you create a “Green Team” made up of staff and board members to lead the charge? What are the roles and responsibilities of this team? What are the lines of communication between them and the rest of the organization? How will efforts be tracked? What tools need to be created to provide a standardized approach in all departments? Finally and most important, how can you excite and empower your staff to become environmental champions?

There are many ways to engage your already overburdened staff in becoming a part of the organization’s environmental responsibility efforts. Start by acknowledging that these changes may add to their burden or require them to relearn a system or procedure.  Assure them that you will provide them with the necessary training to meet these new expectations. Bring experts in to explain complex changes or to share tips and shortcuts.  Better yet, encourage your staff to lead lunchbag lectures showcasing their own successful efforts.

You can also offer incentives such as subsidies to encourage your staff to use public transportation, or amenities like car charging stations in the parking lot which might make it easier for staff to make the choice of buying an electric car over a gas fuelled vehicle. Be sure to reward success and recognize when a department has reached its environmental benchmark or an individual has developed a successful practice.

Investing in your Goals

High level strategic priorities need to be set for the organization as a whole, but it is crucial to set departmental goals which tie to the broader goals of the organization. Each department should be given the same checklist, and the same overall broad climate benchmarks that the organization is striving toward.  Then it is up to the department to determine how they can best contribute, given their own constraints. For instance administrative offices can reduce energy use by adjusting the thermostat when the offices are closed. The archives, however, does not have that luxury as the collection must be kept at a constant temperature. They may find similar savings through an energy audit, which could indicate the need to optimize, enhance or replace ineffective aspects of their HVAC system.

It may be helpful to create a template that asks the department to evaluate where they can implement the six R’s of environmental responsibility. They should be looking to see if there are places to Reflect, Reuse, Recycle, Reduce, Remediate and if needed Replace (and improve).

Make sure to use SMART goals. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time based. So instead of a goal saying “using less paper” you might say “launch digital mailing initiative which will gradually replace paper mailings over the course of the next three years.”

Museums environmental sustainability

Success is Contagious

Let’s face it. Environmental change is costly both in time, training and financial resources.  Your board and staff can only make so much headway internally. They will eventually need resources and support from outside the organization. Your plan should include ways to leverage your efforts to garner support from the wider community. With outside support you can tackle more expensive efforts like replacing your organizations HVAC system, putting a solar panel array over your parking lot or installing a living roof atop your building.

Hold a press conference to announce the launch of your new eco policy. Bring your constituents along for the ride. Consider creating a blog or a podcast to showcase your efforts.  Be sure to include your struggles as well as your successes.  Let the community know you need their help. Develop a list of businesses that might become sponsors of your efforts and start to build a relationship with them. Invite other nonprofits to the table and share your approach. Encourage them to model your efforts and multiply its effects in the community.

Show me the Green and I’ll Show you the Money

With a little research you can capitalize on local, regional, state and national climate abatement campaigns and the funding sources which accompany them to reach your environmental impact goals. Your Eco Statement and Policy will go a long way to showing these resources that you are committed to your efforts. Tracking of your efforts will provide the continued proof of your museum’s shrinking carbon footprint and give you a leg up in the competition for grant funding.

Step up and the line will form behind

After reading this blog you might be wondering if the effort your organization will need to expend will have a direct correlation to its impact on the environment. My answer is that if you succeed in creating a culture of environmental responsibility within your organization, your impact will be exponential. The museum will not just have lowered its carbon emissions or reduced its waste. It will have encouraged its staff to be more conscientious, inspired its constituents to become engaged and challenged other organizations to follow in its footsteps.

Interested in how museums can respond to the climate crisis? Join us for the Green Museums Summit in March 2022.

About the author – Amy Hollander

Amy Hollander is a storyteller, exhibit designer and a strategic planner with 20 years’ experience in the Museum field.  She established her company, Cloud Mill, LLC to help museums navigate 21st century challenges.  She works with institutions to strengthen their programs, policies and performance. Her focus is on developing comprehensive strategies that utilize modern tools and employ holistic solutions to address existential issues.

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