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How Are Museums Reducing Waste And Working Towards Net Zero?

Bruno Maquart, Chairman and CEO of Universcience in France, explains to MuseumNext how a keen focus on reuse and recycling is helping to reduce carbon emissions and help his team to deliver on a Strategic Plan with sustainability at its heart.

As a public science museum, Universcience established a new Strategic Plan in 2021 to drive improvement and change over the course of a 5-year period. The plan includes 100 actions within a roadmap for the progress and success.

A key component of the plan was a concerted effort to move towards carbon neutrality, comprised of actions and activations across several fields, including HR, procurement, exhibition processes and, importantly, the drive to reduce waste through a circular economy.

Chairman and CEO of Universcience, Bruno Maquart, says, “As an institution of scientific culture, we have been sensitive from the beginning to the warnings launched by scientists and, in particular, those of the IPCC. Our mission is to carry the voice of scientists beyond the research centres, so that their messages reach the general public.

“Our museum staff actively work to develop content for our visitors that relates to the climate crisis. Beyond that, we strive to reduce our carbon footprint in all our activities so that we take part, on our own scale, in the collective transformations that are essential to build a more sustainable world.”

While Bruno notes that Universcience’s Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie and Palais de la Découverte have worked actively in this issue for many years, he suggests that the approach has also evolved over time – moving from a focus on preservation of natural habitats and biodiversity, towards the fight to tackle global warming and drive sustainability.

Bruno Maquart, Chairman and CEO of Universcience

Although shedding light on these topics is not new, Bruno suggests that the recent mobilisation of young people and the transition of climate change into a social issue, has brought the importance of activism and public engagement into sharper focus. This, he says, is what Universcience’s exhibitions are designed to reflect.

“Today, this sustainable commitment not only feeds institutions’ programming but also conditions their actions more and more. It also informs choices in terms of museography, exhibition design, exhibition recycling and reuse, supply chain and the creation of a circular economy.

“We must apply to ourselves what we explain to the public in our galleries, addressing the climate emergency across programmes, partnerships, people and places.

“The nature of our relationship to the issues of sustainability has evolved as well. It is now affected by a sense of urgency, by the idea that the situation requires quick action and concrete changes. This is why we have chosen sustainability to be one of the three pillars of our current Strategic plan.”

The first exhibition to reflect Universcience’s new sustainability strategy was “Renaissances” – an exhibition looking at extinction and how society can react to adapt in these contexts.

Bruno says, “The topic was not only a way to share a message of hope to the audience; the exhibition itself was eco-friendly. The installations were designed with wood from certified sources and textiles made out of recycled fibres.

“The exhibition was created to be assembled mechanically, without glue, which allows a disassembly of the various parts for easy reuse. All the materials and elements of this exhibition were made available on a donation platform to allow their redistribution and reuse.”

This approach dramatically reduced the CO2 emissions attributed to the exhibition and has since informed subsequent work by the museum. For the museum’s next exhibition, “Climate Emergency”, which opens in May 2023, a dedicated CO2 calculator has been incorporated with the long-term objective of being able to use the tool across every future exhibition:

“Understanding how much CO2 we produce and what activities produce the most allows us to adapt our policies and actions.”

Universcience is also working with a range of other museums, public organisations and local structures to implement a mutually beneficial circular economy. The idea of this process is that an ecosystem develops within a community to share furniture, reduce consumption of raw materials and minimise waste wherever possible.

Although this type of project presents a range of challenges in terms of transportation, logistics and regulations, it is hoped that collaboration will be the key to success.

How Can Museums Reduce Waste? 

Reuse is a significant area of focus for Universcience, according to Bruno. And since the launch of the Strategic Plan in 2021, efforts in this area have been redoubled. He says,

“Universcience takes part each year in the Semaine Européenne de réduction des déchets and uses this opportunity to offer its staff workshops on how to reduce waste and how to responsibly dispose of it. Universcience promotes recycling to its staff and visitors through numerous initiatives, such as a catalogue of office supplies that only includes recyclable, refillable, single-component or reconditioned products. In the public areas of the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, we have also stationed fifteen sorting garbage cans.”

One of the key problems that museums face when it comes to waste is the issue of what to do with the materials and devices that were featured during exhibitions. Within the framework of the waste action plan, a project to analyse the end of life of Universcience’s exhibitions has been set up in order to support the commitment to creating a circular economy. Bruno explains,

“An exhibition requires the use of a lot of material and furniture, which must also be transported, sometimes from far away. Universcience has been working for several years on a circular economy for exhibition materials and its buildings. Today, 60% of Universcience’s exhibition elements find a second life.

Two recent projects have placed emphasis on reuse in particular. These are “Les Étincelles du Palais de la Découverte” and the “Lab of Cité des Bébés”.

With the Palais de la Découverte currently closed as part of a renovation project that began in September 2020, Bruno says that the temporary museum site (which is capable of hosting scientific presentations and workshops) had a clear emphasis on reuse and recycling:

“The ephemeral structure of Les Étincelles du Palais de la Découverte – a place where we host our visitors during the restoration of our historical building – is eco-responsible, modular and sustainably constructed entirely of wood. The roofs are designed in a thick thermal insulation with windows that diffuse natural light.

“As part of a logic of exemplary construction, the interior design was conceived in a creative, sustainable and circular approach to recovery. The ephemeral structure thus benefitted from a complete process of recovery and reuse of equipment and materials from the Palais de la Découverte. The fitting-out team were made up exclusively of French companies specialising in the circular economy, which gave new life to the Palais’ old oak floorboards, parts of the stage, and  even the cupboard doors of my old office!”

In total, more than 90% of the interior fittings on the project were reused, thanks to the collaboration of the Universcience teams with actors of the social and solidarity economy. Bruno notes, “We have saved the equivalent of the energy consumption of a four-person household for 20 years.”

The theme behind Cité des Bébés meanwhile is to create a “nest” for young children of up to 23 months to explore in surroundings designed specifically for cognitive and psychomotor development. Importantly, the creation of this space is not only fun and child-friendly but also plastic-free.

Bruno says, “In a very short space of time and with a low budget, Lab des Bébés has seen us adapt our space for babies to feature only reused elements – sourced both internally and externally.”

A Holistic Approach to Waste and Emissions in Museums

While reuse and recycling are key factors in any museum’s attempt to be more sustainable, Bruno acknowledges that it is essential to think more broadly. Among the 100 actions outlined within Universcience’s Strategic Plan, many relate to sustainability. Sustainable travel planning for staff; implementing energy efficient technologies into museum spaces; creating a paperless work environment; and even trialling tickets that link the price of admission to low carbon modes of transport all feature within the plan.

Bruno explains, “Our 2021 carbon footprint calculation has revealed, as for other major cultural institutions, that travel by visitors and employees to our two sites accounts for the majority of CO2 emissions, and a set of measures has been adopted in the area of transportation.

“As part of our mobility plan, the institution subsidises the use of bicycles by our employees and provide 150 sheltered and secure parking spaces. Another initiative offers visitors a CO2 calculator when they buy their ticket, enabling them to estimate emissions generated by their journey. Not only that but in April 2023 visitors coming to our museum by bicycle are granted a rebate on entrance tickets.”

Bruno suggests that museums have a responsibility to increase their awareness and knowledge of sustainable development. This process should also incorporate a willingness to question an organisation’s own processes and global environmental strategy. He says,

“Museums have to tackle the issue of sustainability both in their processes and the way they produce exhibitions, as well as how they maintain or build their facilities and the topics they chose to put forward in their exhibitions and events.

“We won’t get anywhere if we all work in isolation. Universcience strives to stimulate joint reflection among museums and among public institutions in France by participating in various think tanks. This is particularly true at the European level, through Ecsite, the network of science centers and museums, which Universcience chairs.”

He concludes, “We need to mobilise culture – to draw up desirable visions of the future, and science, which is there to inform the decisions to be taken. This is what Universcience does on a daily basis, as do all the science centres and museums in France, Europe and the world.”

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.

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