Creating an Environment-Friendly World with Museums

Added to Medium, November 16, 2017

Our society is continuing to becoming more aware of what we can do to preserve our environment, and museums are great resources for this preservation. I have come across many articles, blog posts, and other resources discussing the environment and sustainability. We can use these resources as we move forward in our preservation and sustainability efforts. There are many examples that I will mention in this blog post but they are not limited to these resources.

Most recently, for example, the American Alliance of Museums released the most recent edition of Museums magazine that flash forwards to the year 2040 to show a version of what the future we can envision for museums and our world. I also came across an article online about the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh designed a storm water filtration system that got sustainability advocates’ attention. Another article I came across was from the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice written by Catherine Dumouchel and Douglas Worts which introduces and discusses in detail about Canadian Working Group on Museums and Sustainable Communities (WGMSC) – a group that operated between 2000 and 2007. There were also a workshop and a webinar I participated in, both hosted by Sarah Sutton (Sustainable Museums) about Environmental Sustainability in Museums through New England Museum Association (NEMA).

This is not a new subject but it is worth discussing because every living thing has one planet to live on, and we need to do what we can to preserve our world. The number of resources we see are a testament to our museum field’s acknowledgement to how significant our world’s preservation is. I appreciate seeing so many museum professionals talking about this topic.

By reading about what other museum professionals have to say about this topic, we can learn so much and make our institutions more environmentally friendly as a result.

The latest edition of AAM’s Museums, Museums 2040, for instance includes articles about the environment and sustainability. Overall this special edition of this magazine shows readers what 2040 could look like based on information we have and what we are doing right now to protect our future. According to Elizabeth Merritt, of the Center for the Future of Museums, she challenged authors of the articles to describe what museums could have done between 2017 and this idea of 2040 to achieve the success museums have in this version of 2040. The articles, including “The Next Sustainability Frontier” and “Maintaining Green while Sustaining Collections”, take on this challenge to give us a fascinating version of 2040.

In “The Next Sustainability Frontier”, it discusses museums’ progress towards sustainability in 2040. The article revealed what has been done in the past and what is being done in this present to create sustainable solutions for our museums and environments. This author stated in the article,

“Most major cities have reached or are approaching carbon neutral status, having benefitted from museums’ significant contributions to urban planning. Our research into historical and cultural alternatives, our commitment to public outreach for engagement and compliance, and our infrastructure adaptations and innovations have established museums as leaders in the drive toward sustainability. We have accomplished this by integrating our buildings and open spaces, knowledge, programming, and creativity into climate response teams in major urban areas, helping to improve the lives of millions.” (12)

The previous example shares the idea of what the writing style was like to take on that challenge Merritt proposed for this special edition magazine. An example of how integration of buildings and open spaces discussed in the article was Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay which opened in 2012 and used 250 acres to help transform Singapore from a “garden city” to a “city in a garden”. The author stated that the Gardens by the Bay serves as a stunning example of applying climate positive solutions to the urban issues of both energy and habitat.

This example reminds me of the garden at Butler-McCook House & Garden in Hartford where I previously worked. Since the McCook family returned from their visits to Europe, they designed a garden inspired by the European gardens they witnessed. Today, it serves as a little oasis for Hartford residents and workers who sit in the garden to admire the beauty of the plants, both foreign and local. If we work towards this version of 2040, gardens like the one at Butler-McCook House can serve as part of the positive solutions to urban issues.

The second article, “Maintaining Green while Sustaining Collections”, is a case study about California Science Museum in Santa Rosa figuring out how to cultivate living walls while protecting the museum’s diverse collection of objects. According to the article, the California Science Museum was able to be green and sustain the collections in three steps:

“First, staff reviewed humidity readings to determine the most affected zones. They replaced sensitive objects in those areas with reproductions, allowing the museum to preserve the original objects and display them in other ways. Second, they shortened the object rotation cycle for galleries outside the most affected zones.
Third, they created a visible “open” storage area with stringent temperature and humidity control, where they could display objects at minimal cost and staff time, without interpretive context.” (15)

When we work to balance being green and sustaining the museums’ collections, we can improve our practices to preserve our collections while making our environment a better place to live.

I love how this special edition pushes us forward in time, and how we interpret how our future could look as a global society and as a museum field. I thought about the questions Merritt posed in the letter she wrote at the end of the edition: “Do I think this could happen?” “Do I want this to happen?” and “Does this have to wait until 2040, or can I make it happen now?” And I believe we should not wait. Museums have so much potential to help our communities improve our environments, and we already are working towards a better future.

In addition to this special edition of Museums magazine, I also came across this post about storm water flow at the North Carolina Museum of Art. According to the article, they stated that the parking lots at the museum in West Raleigh, help storm water flow into a designed system of grass and soil that slows the water and filters pollutants before the water flows into a stream on the property and eventually into the Neuse River. Water is an important resource we have on this planet, and it can be taken for granted. By doing something similar at other museums, we can help maintain our water supply and create a better environment.

Other examples that discuss museums’ dedication to creating a better environment include ones I found on the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice’s website. The first example is called “Museums & Sustainable Communities – Six Things Our Working Group Learned”; it introduces the organization, Canadian Working Group on Museums and Sustainable Communities. It went into the backstory of the organization that addressed the question: How could museums help to create a coherent culture of sustainability (including environmental learning as well as social and economic equity), which touched Canadians of all ages, ethnicities, geographic settings and socioeconomic backgrounds? The purposes of this organization include:

To provide opportunities for capacity-building in the museum community, regarding the role of museums in the development of sustainable communities;
To develop resources and tools for use by museums for planning, implementing and evaluating initiatives related to the development of sustainable communities; and
To develop and maintain networks within and outside the museum community that encourage museums to take action in contributing to the development of sustainable communities.

This article continues to provide additional information that can inspire museums to work towards a better environment in our world.

The second example I found on the website called “A Shade of Green: Ten Practical Steps for Museums” written by Joshua Lichty, who the article stated is an experienced Project & Event Coordinator with a demonstrated history of working in the museums and cultural industry and is involved with the Ontario Museum Association. It offers advice museums can follow to make their museums greener including light your museum with LED lighting solutions; remove all plastic bags from your gift shop; recycle and compost at your museum; purchase only recycled and sustainable paper products; and run an annual eco-inspired program (exhibit, lectures, school program, etc.). By being able to learn practical advice, it will help museums not only be environment friendly but also use its status as an educational resource to educate visitors on making their homes environmentally friendly.

Good news is museum professionals are still talking about creating a cleaner, greener environment and we need to continue this discussion not only within our field but with our visitors and community members.

Announcement: Since next week is Thanksgiving, I will not be posting on the blog to focus on celebrating the holiday with family and loved ones.

To those who are celebrating, Happy Thanksgiving!


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