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Solving a Museum’s Environmental Challenges with a Hackathon

The London Museum of Water and Steam has taken a creative approach to sustainability. Their aim is to address the climate emergency by creating a carbon zero museum.

The museum poses some unique challenges, being a Heritage site. It is dispersed across 17 buildings, many of which are not properly insulated. Some of the buildings even have windows that don’t close.

Without any models to inspire their carbon zero plan, the museum needed to get creative. They decided to host a hackathon. If it could solve technology and software problems, why couldn’t it solve environmental problems?

What Is a Hackathon?

A hackathon is a short-term event (usually 1 day or a weekend) where a team of skilled individuals come together to solve a problem or brainstorm ideas. It is very popular in the tech industry to produce mobile apps or other software projects. The hackathon is usually conducted as a competition with a panel of judges reviewing the results.

How Hackathons Can Work For Museums

Hackathons are great ways for museums to find innovative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. The London Museum of Water and Steam hosted a hackathon and invited young people (mainly undergraduate and postgraduate students) to propose ideas to make the museum more sustainable. They chose young people because they wanted perspectives that were not limited by logistics or budgets.

There was a lot of preparation for the event; they hosted both an in-person and digital event so they could mine as many ideas as possible. The first step was thinking about what information the hackathon participants would need. They gathered as much information as possible, including historical information, to create a package to inform the ideas.

Then it was a matter of designing a successful event. Hackathons need to:

  • Create an environment conducive to collaboration
  • Foster the development of employable skills (public speaking, networking, presenting ideas, teamwork, etc.)
  • Be fun
  • Encourage even the wildest, most impractical ideas

The purpose of the museum’s hackathon was not to walk away with a well-thought-out plan. This was an idea-gathering exercise. At the end of the day event, the museum had 34 ideas for their Sustainable Steam Sub-Committee to evaluate. The sub-committee’s job is to assess the ideas using the museum’s matrix to consider the carbon saving benefits in relation to cost, ease, and visitor engagement.

Many of the ideas they gathered were impractical but got them thinking about ways they could implement a more basic version. For example, one of the groups suggested they cover the surface of their Grade I listed tower with solar panels. Heritage listing regulations would not allow that, but it got the museum thinking about where on the museum site they could put solar panels.

An inspiring idea that the museum loved was altering the multi-floor ramp to collect energy from visitors walking on it.

The hackathon also produced simple, practical ideas that the museum could action in the short-term. For example, using carbon offsetting services to offset their energy use. This is something the museum could implement while they are looking for ways to reduce its carbon footprint.


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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