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Museums and the art of environmental sustainability

It’s no longer enough for museums to simply serve as monuments to preservation — they must now focus on conservation, as well. As climate change impetuously rears its ugly head, major institutions have a new responsibility of consciousness when it comes to their impact on the environment.

Museums are increasingly concerned with the environment and sustainability

This can be tricky, as preserving the past, educating the present and shaping the future come at an obvious cost. Climate control, lighting, security; these are some of the factors that play into the effectiveness and success of a museum. They also serve as major contributions to its environmental impact. But the good news is that museums across the globe are rewriting the books on infrastructure, energy usage, waste management, and much more to reduce their impact and ensure global heritage and culture are preserved for generations to come.

Taking the steps

In 2017, when the U.S. federal government became one of three nations to drop out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a 194-nation strong global response to the threat of climate change, people took to social media to express their shock and outrage. Some of these messages catalyzed a movement.

Sarah Sutton, principal of Sustainable Museums and co-author of “The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice”, created a hashtag to rear up against the government’s decision and make it known that cultural institutions would stay in the ring to fight climate change. During the week that #MuseumsforParis gained traction on the internet, We Are Still In (WASI) was formed. This coalition includes more than 2,700 states, counties, cities, colleges, tribes, businesses, and other leaders representing a portion of the U.S. economy and society that honor the goals of the Paris Agreement and are committed to climate action. Sutton serves as the sector lead for cultural institutions for WASI and believes museums can play a major part in global change.

“Museums hold in one body the diverse physical and intellectual resources, abilities, creativity,

freedom, and authority to foster the changes the world needs most.” This quote comes from an article co-authored by Sutton for Curator: The Museum Journal. To foster that change, Sutton suggests four important, preliminary steps any institution can take right away and simultaneously to move in a sustainable direction.

  • Determine your institution’s annual carbon footprint.

“The first assessment can be an in-depth assessment or a simpler approach to raise awareness,” Sutton said. Smaller museums can use domestic-focused carbon calculator unfccc.int/climate-action/climate-neutral-now, while larger museums can use the business side of carbonfund.org. “Both sizes of institutions can invite donors to fund the purchase of carbon offsets for that amount, and use the UN-certified offset programs to make a safe, responsible choice,” she said.

  • Arrange for an energy audit from your utility.

This is often free or subsidized by the utility. The report will explain issues like air-conditioning leakage, energy over-usage, and inefficient equipment. “The resulting priority list of improvements and any links to incentives and grants will help with planning replacements for efficiency or renewal and in making the funding case to donors,” Sutton said.

  • Stop promoting single-use plastics.

“A change in policy … signals your awareness of public concerns while making it possible to save resources and money,” Sutton said. Reusable metal straws and paper straws made available by request are great alternatives. This can also build momentum to eliminate all single-use products, outside of health and safety, which will lessen cost, labor, storage and waste.

  • Talk about sustainability and climate change.

By talking about these topics, we become more comfortable with them. This makes it easier to work together in changing our behavior and finding solutions to this problem. “Conversation makes climate change a shared challenge rather than an overwhelming threat,” Sutton said.

Museums are institutions of education, and with a topic as important to the global community as climate change, it’s important to make it their mission to raise awareness and inform the public.

“As charitable institutions we have a responsibility to use all our resources wisely: this includes money, of course, and also energy, land, air, water, and the products from those resources,” Sutton said. “To squander or damage those resources should call into question our public-benefit status. As community institutions we have a duty of care to our visitors, neighbors, staff and communities. To increase the community’s risk because of how we build and operate our buildings, or because of how we fail to plan to protect them and our collections, is irresponsible and should call into question our trusted status.”

Setting the pace

The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian takes a special interest in this duty, as profound concern for the environment is deeply woven into the sacred fabric of indigenous culture. In 2017, when NMAI was awarded the Sustainability Excellence Award from the American Alliance of Museums, it was the culmination of a decade of both small and large steps taken to lessen their environmental impact.

National Museum of the American Indian takes sustainability seriously

“Work through the problems until you understand it, and in that understanding there comes resolution,” said Jane Sledge, associate director for collections and operations at NMAI.

One event in particular served as a call to environmental consciousness for NMAI staff. In 2007, in conjunction with Live Earth, the museum hosted Al Gore to speak on climate change. This influenced the museum’s approach to the topic, from public programming to internal operations. A sustainable committee was created and chaired by the custodial staff, which implemented training in recycling, waste management and green cleaning. With the help of a sustainable consultant and senior management’s commitment to the cause, embedding this first step into the work process led to NMAIs LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification by the Green Building Council in 2011—making NMAI the first Smithsonian museum to achieve this status.

“This team of people firmly believe it’s the future of the planet and their children,” Sledge said. “We share a common vision: Success comes from commitment and inspired individuals.”

Now, Sledge notes the ways the Smithsonian implements sustainable practices into daily operations, such as tracking recycling, composting and electronic waste; training cafe staff in best compost practices, undergoing HVAC audits, and implementing energy-saving methods. Some steps require more thought than others. Staff is currently aiming at LEED certification for the Cultural Resources Center, which houses collections. However, the fragile nature of these artifacts calls for specific preservation requirements regarding humidity and temperature, which can be costly to both the environment and the budget.

“That right now is our challenge,” Sledge said. “But struggles are a worthwhile thing.”

Empowering people

At the Field Museum in Chicago, staff members are key in the success of any sustainable efforts. Whether it’s promoting the use of public transportation and participation in Bike to Work Week, or using and tending to the staff community garden, the museum community finds ways to connect with each other while protecting the environment.

Image: Shutterstock - Field Museum in Chicago

“Those things that people can touch are key things,” says Carter O’Brien, sustainability officer at the Field Museum.

One initiative he sees as hugely valuable uses ionized water to clean the acres of display glass inside the museum. This completely eliminated the need for chemical cleaners, which not only lessened environmental impact, but also improved air quality for visitors. Other green innovations share priority with visitor experience, as well. For its sustainable, vegetarian-friendly, and 5-percent-local food offerings, as well as its 74 percent waste diversion rate, the Field Museum won the Sustainability Excellence Award honorable mention in 2017. Zero-waste is next on the museum’s list of green goals.

Constructing change

Just as there’s plenty of room for improvement in older buildings that house these cultural institutions, new construction presents a wealth of opportunity for sustainable practices. A shining example of this is the California Academy of Sciences. Located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Academy was awarded LEED double platinum certification for its green innovations.

California Academy of Sciences

The green, rolling hills of the Academy’s 2.5-acre “living roof” serve as a great indication of the environment’s role in the museum’s structure, vision, and values. Although it might look like a scene in a Dr. Seuss book, it serves a greater purpose than simple aesthetic pleasure. The living roof provides the building excellent insulation, which reduces energy needed for heating and cooling; captures excess rain water, which reduces pollutants carried into the ecosystem from runoff; and turns carbon dioxide into oxygen. The roof is also bursting with native plants that provide an environment for birds and insects. In fact, according to the Academy’s website, the living roof acts as the densest concentration of native wildflowers in San Francisco.

The structure built to house the Academy opened in 2008. This followed a period of construction in which 90 percent of the demolition materials were recycled to help local projects, such as dune restoration and roadway construction. To minimize environmental impact for the duration of the project, eco-friendly materials were sourced, such as recycled denim for insulation, recycled byproducts of coal combustion and metal extraction for concrete, and lumber from sustainable yield harvests.

A key part of the Academy’s efforts includes continuing to examine impact and coming up with new and innovative ways of incorporating green practices. In this way we see there’s an art to effective sustainable efforts: Look back to understand history, and use that knowledge to envision a greener future. As we move toward greater sustainability, the Academy’s official statement  leaves us with an appropriate question “How has life evolved, and how can it be sustained?”

Image Credits: Shutterstock.

About the author – Lauren Styx

Lauren Styx is a magazine editor and freelance journalist in Chicago. Her storytelling explores health, culture, sustainability, and the ways in which those areas intersect.

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