Institutions increase focus on environmental sustainability

As well as reducing their carbon footprints, museums are leading discussions on shaping a more sustainable future
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Rob Sharp
Environmental sustainability in museums has risen up the agenda, after politicians met in Marrakech for last month’s United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Henry McGhie, the head of collections and curator of zoology at Manchester Museum, says: “It’s important that museums operate with integrity, because with knowledge and position comes responsibility. We should relate our collections to broader society to create public value – we must also walk the walk.”

Manchester Museum recently became the world’s first “carbon literate” museum. Most staff have undertaken carbon literacy training, as part of the museum’s support for Manchester’s aim to become carbon zero by 2050. The training, developed and delivered in association with the city’s Carbon Literacy Project, helped staff understand climate change, related it to their work and the museum’s environmental impact, and helped them plan to reduce unnecessary waste and inefficient energy use. This complements the museum’s programming around the subject.

Affecting change

“It’s about fulfilling our responsibilities as trusted institutions,” says McGhie, who is organising the World Symposium on Climate Change Communication, which takes place in Manchester in February. “Sustainability isn’t about doing nothing or shrinking. It’s about being effective and investing wisely to produce maximum public benefit.”

Recently, museums have focused on environmentally friendly initiatives including sustainable collecting and storage, loans and design, according to Sholeh Johnston, the head of creative programmes at Julie’s Bicycle, an organisation that promotes sustainability in the creative industries.

Johnston says that museums have been looking at the environmental impact of their buildings for some time, and are now also identifying sustainable collecting strategies.

“The environmental sustainability of museums, storage and collections management is critical to reducing our impact on the planet and meeting climate agreements, improving organisational resilience and demonstrating sustainable values to the public,” says Johnston. “But museums are also exploring their civic and creative role, using their collections to stimulate discussion and reflect on what we can learn from the past, to shape a more sustainable future. It’s the combination of these two responses, practical and creative, that make the sector a potentially powerful catalyst for change.”

According to Julie’s Bicycle’s 2014 Sustaining Creativity Survey, 61% of museums said they had an environmental policy, with just over half taking action on sustainability.

The Happy Museum Project, which looks at how the museum sector can help to create a more sustainable future, has just announced a new “affiliate scheme”, a peer learning network for sustainability and societal wellbeing.

“Our premise is that if we need to make a shift, we need a really big shift in the way we work,” says Hilary Jennings, the Happy Museum’s project director. “Museums have a got a lot of challenges, but there’s a broader picture with regard to how museums might impact society. One of the issues at the moment is that people are really not talking about climate change.”

Jennings says that museums and galleries are in a good position to support that kind of conversation. Because “they have public space and levels of trust, they can open up our thinking to different possibilities”, she says. “They show us our capabilities for change.”

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