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How To Reduce Your Museum’s Carbon Footprint

The day I took those Friends of the Earth leaflets into school, filled with concern over pollution and environmental destruction, is still etched on my memory. I was 14 years old and everyone looked at me blankly. In 1979, I annotated my copy of “The Limits to Growth” with the comment “We can change our ways because we choose to, or we can change because we’re forced to.”

Since then, we’ve come a long way, have a whole raft of new (and old) environmental problems to deal with, and at last the future of our planet is not only top of the agenda but also the focus for mass global protests. Now, most significantly, the mood is for action, and the sense of urgency about the issues has never been higher. With the focus on reducing CO2 emissions, we’re taking a look at how museums can take action on reducing their carbon footprint. That is the estimation of the amount of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, fluorinated gas and nitrous oxide, that are produced by each institution.

Green Museums

How your museum can make a difference

As Jim Richardson has pointed out in an article on this website, museums supporting climate strike protestors may create dilemmas for some in the sector. The positive side to this is that as educational hubs, museums are well-placed not just to be aware of the issues but also to respond constructively and to lead by example.

As the role of museums changes, they become less storehouses of artefacts (although conservation of collections is likely always to be a priority, and that requires energy) and more social hubs and centres for exchanging knowledge. The nature of your museum and how your visitors use it will have an impact on your carbon footprint.

The starting point for any action is an audit – when it comes to CO2, what are your existing strengths and weaknesses? These will vary according to where your museum is located, the items in the collection, the age and construction of the building, and the local conditions.

Is your building well-insulated? Does it offer opportunities for solar capture that can be used to disperse heat through the building if required? Conversely, which methods do you currently use for climate control throughout the building, especially where cooler conditions are needed? Whatever your current circumstances, it’s inevitable that energy input will be required, so the first thing to do is look at making energy use more efficient.

Effective ways to be energy efficient

Energy efficiency, along with waste reduction, is a key priority. Using fewer materials means using less energy. In order to do this, a popular mantra has emerged, and it goes like this: Rethink – Refuse – Reduce – Reuse – Refurbish – Repair – Repurpose – Recycle. Used as a check list of priorities rather than a snappy soundbite (it’s too long for that anyway), it can be applied to all areas where you’d like to see improvement.

Top of the rethinking efficiency list is sourcing energy from renewable sources whenever possible, along with energy efficient lighting, since this can dramatically reduce the carbon footprint. Suppliers who offer energy from renewables will have some form of certification to prove that, such as REGOs (Renewable Energy Guarantees of Origin) and your museum can use this certification to indicate the action you’re taking, which encourages others to follow suit.

Energy efficient lighting involving the use of LEDs, dimmer options and movement sensors that automatically turn lights off can have a big impact, particularly as this is a key part of museum display. After the initial installation costs, it’s of ongoing benefit to the annual budget, too. Win-win.

Need money to make greener choices in your museum? Consider a Crowdfunding campaign.

Reducing waste in every area

Energy efficiency and reducing waste are two sides of the same coin. There are numerous ways to reduce waste that can have an impact not only within the building, but beyond it. Many organisations, both commercial and public, now offer facilities for filling reusable water bottles, for instance. (And what a great opportunity for a permanent display on the history of public drinking water provision.)

One major way to make a difference is simply to print less. It saves energy, saves paper and reduces costs. (How much of it ends up in the paper recycling anyway, and how soon?) Then there’s plastic reduction, particularly of single-use plastic. One of our MuseumNext articles has already given some great ideas on how to cut the use of single-use plastic use throughout your museum.

What items come into your museum and how far have they travelled? Can you source them more sustainably and/or locally? What goes out – and how much of it is currently recycled? Rethinking waste management involves reusing and recycling efficiently, including the installation of appropriate food waste bins where required.

Travelling light

Whether we’re introverts or extroverts, we’re social animals – we just tend to interact in different ways. There’s nothing quite like attending a conference to provide inspiration and reinvigorate enthusiasm (along with bringing back a whole menu of new ideas). Conferences, though, involve travel, and travel almost inevitably involves increasing the carbon footprint, which is influenced by how far and by what means we travel.

Consider whether you can make the journey to a conference by the least impactful travel option possible, or watch the event online. This year MuseumNext has introduced Virtual Tickets to allow delegates to attend without the need to travel.

Encourage staff and visitors to use transport other than cars throughout the year by offering secure undercover storage areas for bikes and places to dry outdoor clothing. Carpools are another good way to cut the carbon footprint. Reward staff who car share by providing petrol vouchers or discount cards. Encourage train and bus use by keeping up to date timetables in the museum and by using digital ads onboard local transport if they are available.

Engagement, engagement, engagement

Involve everyone, including visitors of all ages. While it’s youth that is leading the way, action for the planet isn’t a generational blame game. There are plenty of people out there who remember the days of make-do-and-mend and even rationing, who carried string shopping bags or pulled a shopping trolley behind them every time they walked – yes, walked – to the local shops.

You will find these people right across the globe. They are the generations who had meat as an occasional treat and who automatically switched off the lights when they left a room in order to “economise”. Thrift wasn’t seen as frugality, nor did they do it to “be green”. It was simply their way of life, and so it still is for many. The have more than reminiscences to contribute. Recognise their worth and skills – we can all learn from them.

Do these changes have enough impact?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that “Behaviour- and lifestyle- related measures…have already led to emission reductions around the world and can enable significant future reductions.” They also recommend greater participation through social innovation via “bottom-up initiatives”. So yes, we can all make a difference by simultaneously using less/being less wasteful.

Recognise and reward

Finally, I’d like to see two more “re-words” added to the familiar list quoted earlier. They are recognise and reward. Recognise staff when they make a difference and offer “thank-yous” in the form of travel vouchers or book tokens. If we are going to “be the change we want to see” we need to feel optimistic for the future, and there’s nothing like the power of positive reinforcement!

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 – Miriam Bibby

Miriam Bibby has worked at Beamish Museum, Manchester Museum, Clan Armstrong Trust Museum and Gilnockie Tower giving her a broad overview of the museum sector. She has written and edited a number of magazines and developed an Egyptology distance learning course for University of Manchester.

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