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The Climate Toolkit: Bringing Museums Together For A Greener Future

Center for Sustainable Landscapes – Picture: Paul G Wiegman

Richard Piacentini, President and CEO for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, shares how his institution’s Climate Toolkit is reimagining the way museums address climate change. By shifting away from blame culture and promoting a culture of learning, Richard explains how museums can become ecological hubs within their communities.

Having led Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for nearly thirty years, Richard has made it his mission to promote a more ‘regenerative’ way of thinking – both within and beyond the cultural sector. The Climate Toolkit developed by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, invites institutions to forego an individualistic mindset and work as part of a larger effort to protect our planet.

And there is no better organisation to lead the way than Phipps, with its rich history spanning more than a century, and the incredible surroundings of its carbon neutral lower campus.

Changing mindsets: Regenerative Thinking

Citing the work of author and leading thinker Carol Sanford, Richard describes the origins of the Climate Toolkit as rooted in Regenerative Thinking. Sanford highlights four key ways of thinking: Extractive, Less Bad, Do Good, and Regenerative. Richard explains:

“Particularly in Western nations, we follow Extractive Thinking: we are separate from the world, and the world’s resources are merely there for the taking. Then there’s the Less Bad model, where people still see the world as fragments, but now they’re realising connections: ‘it’s not just about me anymore, it’s about us.’ This is really where the environmental movement started: the idea of reduce, reuse, recycle.

“In the Do Good model, we start to recognise reciprocity. It looks good on paper, but the issue is that somebody has to decide what ‘good’ looks like and hold everyone to that standard. But we’re all different – every institution, every community, every country, every culture. What works in one place, or for one organisation, may be totally wrong for somebody else.”

This is where the Regenerative Thinking model comes in. Rather than seeing ourselves as outside of nature, we see ourselves as part of it, and acknowledge that everything is connected. Anything you do affects everything else. “That’s the model we try to follow at Phipps,” says Richard.

Welcome Center – Picture: Paul G Wiegman

The Climate Toolkit initiative

So how do museums fit into this? Increasingly, Richard says, museums are moving into the Less Bad model and working to reduce their environmental impact by focusing on lowering carbon emissions, recycling pursuing a more sustainable approach.

The Climate Toolkit aims to help them take the crucial next steps. Richard says,

“We recognise how important it is to lead by example. It’s very easy to talk about reducing energy and fighting climate change, but walking the walk is critical. The Climate Toolkit gives people the tools to take decisive action.

“We had a lot of people asking us about the work that we’re doing: how did we do it? Why are we doing it? How can they do it as well? And we decided to identify a series of different metrics that make sense for museums of all types. It pulls information from the Paris Climate Agreement, UN Sustainability Goals, Project Drawdown, and more.”

By inviting institutions to join the programme, Richard and his team removed the hurdle of having to invent eco-conscious changes themselves. Users can share, mentor, or learn from each other about different ways to address climate change.

“Museums are some of the most trusted institutions in their communities, so why not leverage that?” Richard asks. “The Toolkit provides an opportunity to lead by example. It’s not just talking about things but showing people how change can be made. Museums have the power to engage their communities, and the Toolkit helps them use that power for good.”

A positive environment: more collaboration, less blame

Conversations about climate change are often rooted in blame, asking who is at fault, and who isn’t doing enough to bring about change. The Toolkit aims to move away from this, creating a culture of collaboration rather than finger-pointing. Richard says,

“Everybody has starts somewhere, and you have to figure out what makes the most sense for you. What we’re doing here at Phipps may not work everywhere. I can learn from others, just as they can learn from me.

“We have workshops, webinars, resource lists, and more. We feature different institutions each time we’re creating working groups.”

The Toolkit aims to include content for all regions and budgets, so that any institution can find helpful, relevant information and inspiration. All for free.

Richard Piacentini, President and CEO for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

“There’s no cost to join the Climate Toolkit. The only cost is that, if somebody asks you for help, you share what you’re doing.”

The Toolkit continues to grow

Since its launch in 2020, the Toolkit boasts 143 institutions serving more than 70 million visitors, but Richard says this is just the beginning.

“We’re still relatively new, so a lot of people haven’t heard of us. But by asking institutions to share what they’re doing, word is spreading. We’re adding a couple of institutions every week, and as more people find out about it and see its value, it’ll grow even further.

“We have a number of national and international organisations that are partners in this, including Botanic Gardens Conservation International, the Association of Science and Technology Centers, the American Alliance of Museums and the American Public Garden Association.”

From an environmental standpoint, Richard says the one of the most substantial actions taken by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens itself was the creation of its Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL).

“The CSL makes more energy than it uses every year, captures and treats its own storm water, is free from toxic chemicals, has lots of natural daylight and lots of natural ventilation. It met the Living Building Challenge, which is the most rigorous green building standard in the world, and LEED Platinum. It’s reached the highest level of some of the most stringent certification programs in the world.

“But the important thing about this is not the certifications. It’s demonstrating what good looks like. The building is built to the highest standards of human health, environmental health, and ecological health.”

A fresh view on eco-friendly changes

The Climate Toolkit is creating hope within the cultural sector, and hope is exactly what Richard says we need in order to win the fight against climate change. Environmental progress should be treated as a benefit, not a sacrifice.

“If we want people to change, we must show them that what we’re talking about is better than what they have now. We’re not asking you to give things up. We’re not asking you to be miserable. We’re saying, come on over. This is better than where you’re living, working, playing, learning, healing. This is a much better way to live. It’s good for you and it’s good for the environment. It’s a win-win.”

The future of the Toolkit? Engaging the youth

Engaging the next generation of museum workers and visitors is essential in ensuring both culture and climate remain at the forefront of key conversations. And this is exactly where the future of the Climate Toolkit lies.

Youth Climate Advocacy Committee

A year ago, Richard and team started the Youth Climate Advocacy Committee, an aspect of the Toolkit specifically focused on engaging young people to address climate change.

“It’s not telling them what they should be doing, but asking them what they think, and how we can help. You don’t learn about Regenerative Thinking at school, so we want to fill that learning gap. This year, we’re launching the Climate Toolkit Youth Network to connect museums around the country, especially those with youth groups.

“Eventually, we want the Climate Toolkit to act as a hub for young people to engage in climate conversations, helping them connect with other young people around the world to initiate real change.”

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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