To tackle the climate emergency, museums must learn to let go
The impacts of a rapidly changing climate are increasingly evident in the UK’s museums, galleries and heritage sites. Beyond headline-making events such as floods and storms, there is a growing range of smaller climate hazards, from more prevalent harms in collections to accelerated degradation of buildings and archaeological sites.
Urgent action is needed to adapt to these risks, but this must not come at the expense of the planet. This year has seen the launch of new initiatives such as the UK Heritage Adaptation Partnership, an alliance that will see seven heritage organisations – Cadw, the Welsh historic environment service; Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities; English Heritage; Historic Environment Scotland; Historic England; National Trust; and National Trust for Scotland – pool their knowledge and expertise on climate adaptation.
The publication of a new green book to help museums work more sustainably, developed by the Buro Happold consultancy with the National Museum Directors’ Council and Arts Council England, is also imminent.
As this work builds, a quiet revolution is beginning across museums and heritage: long-held norms are shifting and ideas that might once have seemed heretical are being aired.
There is a growing understanding in the sector that old ways of doing things – the preservation-at-all-costs mindset, the perpetual growth of collections and visitor figures – are no longer sustainable or ethical in the face of a climate emergency. There is an emerging acceptance that, while the sector will never abandon its duty to the sites and objects it cares for, some things must change.
“For our sector there are several big tensions,” says Hedley Swain, the director of Brighton & Hove Museums and part of the panel that helped to develop the upcoming green book. One of these is that while there is now a huge momentum towards carbon neutrality, the sector is sitting on vast swathes of historic property that consumes and wastes energy on a grand scale.
In Brighton – ironically, home to Britain’s only Green party MP, Caroline Lucas – many buildings the trust cares for are a long way from achieving carbon net zero.
“The Royal Pavilion is an absolute nightmare of a building – all through winter staff need to sit next to one-bar electric heaters to keep warm,” Swain says. “The Booth Museum of Natural History – the very museum we’re using to tell the story of the climate crisis – is itself a climate disaster. I can’t think of anything useful we could do with it other than tear it down and build it again.”
Not only does adapting these historic buildings present a daunting upfront cost, it also clashes with existing planning laws, which currently preclude many of the changes that would be required.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is change our planning legislation to allow us to do more to old buildings,” says Swain.
The other big priority is developing a long-term, sector-wide strategy that includes funding and incentives for adaptation, he says.
Schemes such as England’s Museum Estate and Development Fund have been vital to address years of under-investment in museum buildings – but Swain believes the next government initiatives must go beyond repair and invest in more ambitious change.
Starting the conversation
This highlights another tension in the sector: the strong will for action among museum and heritage professionals is matched by an alarming sense of apathy among many political leaders, with little attention given to climate issues in the recent Conservative leadership race.
“It’s truly frightening that everyone is saying that this is now absolutely urgent but politicians are turning away from it,” says Swain. “Where
I am on the narrative arc is not despair but realisation of the scale of the challenge.”
New thinking is also needed in collections care and management. The international Bizot Green Protocol for museums, introduced in 2015, set out sustainable principles for environmental controls and loan conditions. The protocol advocated a more tailored, intelligent approach to collections care, using passive methods where possible.
But the principles of the protocol have not been widely adopted, says Nick Merriman, chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens in south London, and all the while collections are expanding. A sector-wide conversation is needed on sustainable collections development, he says (see below).
One of the most sensitive areas – particularly in the built heritage sector – is anticipating and accepting that, as the climate changes, it will not be feasible or sustainable to protect all heritage assets, and some loss is inevitable. The concept of managed decline is familiar, but can carry connotations of neglect.
In 2021, a collaboration between the University of Exeter (UoE), University College London, National Trust, Historic England and Natural England produced a new conceptual framework, called adaptive release, for managing loss.
We decided that we needed a new language to address this challenging space we find ourselves in
Eliminate the negative
Described as “an active decision to accommodate and interpret the dynamic transformation of a heritage asset and its associated values and significance”, this new approach – still a proposal rather than formal policy – shifts the dialogue away from words like “decline” and “decay”.
“It’s hard to discuss this topic in a positive way,” says Caitlin DeSilvey, UoE professor of cultural geography. “We decided that we needed a new language to address this challenging space we find ourselves in.”
Adaptive release implies some relinquishing of control but, rather than a passive letting go, it requires proactive, ongoing engagement with the process of transformation and the new value and knowledge this can generate.
DeSilvey acknowledges the delicacy of these discussions; questions remain over whether this approach can be aligned with current legislation and insurance policies, leaving aside the challenge of bringing along stakeholders and the wider public. But it has been welcomed as a “potentially game-changing” piece of work that will help the heritage sector make more sustainable decisions.
As the planet warms it is becoming clear that adaptation is not solely about physical change – letting go of old ideas will be just as important.
A reminder to forget
"Sustainable development means development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
On this definition, museums are inherently unsustainable institutions: their collections grow inexorably, yet are often poorly stored and documented.
The climate crisis has served to highlight this lack of sustainability at their core: at times conserving collections can seem more important than conservation of the planet.
In 2008, my article Museum Collections and Sustainability argued that museums are memory institutions and that, by analogy with human brain studies, they need to find ways to “forget” by disposing of collections and achieving a healthy museum ecology.
When I presented these ideas, most colleagues agreed, yet over the past decade nothing has been done. This is because it is so difficult to deaccession – there are no resources to do it, other priorities take precedence, and no one ever got acclaim for reducing the size of a collection.
I can’t pretend that this situation is likely to change soon. However, the climate crisis and further resource reduction make partnership working, such as shared storage, more imperative, and I think we have already passed the peak years of collecting. As institutions of the long term, museums must develop plans to realise sustainable collections management."