Guide | Getting your act together - Museums Association

Guide | Getting your act together

Top tips on how to put sustainability on the agenda at your museum
Climate Crisis Sustainability
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Imperial War Museum London
Katherine MacAlpine
Holiday Donaldson

The evidence is clear: the world is facing a climate crisis. There are many ways in which individuals can tackle climate change, but to enact real change, we need to work together.

Set up in 2020 in reaction to the climate crisis, the Zero Carbon Club is a group of staff at Imperial War Museums (IWM) with a mission to inspire collective action and hold their museum to account. At the time of writing, co-founders of the group, Katherine McAlpine and Holiday Donaldson, still worked at IWM, but have since left.

Here are their tips on getting sustainability on the agenda at your museum.

Work together

One of the most effective lies we have been sold is that tackling the climate emergency is the sole responsibility of individual consumers. The concept of a carbon footprint was created by fossil fuel companies to shift the blame away from themselves on to individuals. That doesn’t mean that reducing our own personal consumption doesn’t matter, but when we start looking at things on an institutional level, the scope for change becomes much, much bigger.

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Setting up the Zero Carbon Club involved an open call to everyone in the museum via the intranet and an all-staff email. In August 2020, the Zero Carbon Club was born. It brought people together from across the organisation who felt they wanted to do something – they just didn’t know what.

With a sustainability framework in place, we could focus on working across teams and projects to deliver real change. Along with the realisation of tangible benefits such as reduced carbon and lower energy/running costs, we strove for much wider, holistic sustainability outcomes, including improved access and inclusion, diversity, wellbeing and social value. This work affects everyone within the organisation – so working together is paramount.

Set priorities

Understanding how money is spent in your organisation can be a useful way of identifying the scope for change. You could look at this from an institutional, departmental or individual level. What budgets are you responsible for, and how can you use that money to tackle the climate emergency?

If your organisation spends most of its budget heating energy-inefficient buildings, why not make the case for better insulation? If public engagement is your focus, how can you use your public programme to talk about the climate emergency?

At IWM, we achieved a key milestone in January with the endorsement of a Sustainability Framework outlining a 10-year journey. IWM’s trustees and executive leadership team have also endorsed the need to match, or better, the UK government’s decarbonisation timeline to achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. Having a clear set framework for sustainability ensures that this work will remain a priority and gives teams across IWM targets to work towards.

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Having moved to the Brunel Museum recently, much of our annual budget goes on salaries, so spending time talking about climate change and sustainability as a team is one of the most valuable things we can do. We have a paid subscription to Ethical Consumer magazine that is available for all staff, so they can make better-informed choices about how they spend their money.

Ask questions

More green space, renewable energy, improved energy efficiency in homes and buildings, and green transport are essential tools in the fight against climate change. When the Zero Carbon Club discussed these topics, each one raised a different question. To support renewable energy, we needed to know who our energy supplier was. To improve energy efficiency, we needed to understand how energy efficient the buildings were.

Don’t be afraid to suggest new ways of working. You may work in the estates department and be able to affect these areas in a direct way. You may work in a department where your impact is likely to be more diffuse. But there is nothing to stop you asking the question.

Make space for other interests

Don’t restrict yourself too much. When we asked the question “what’s missing?” at IWM, it was brilliant to hear so many colleagues passionate about so many different areas: divestment of pensions, ecology, plant-based food, access to water, local habitats, gardening and much more. While looking at the bigger picture and where you can have the most impact is crucial, it is also important to recognise that people achieve more when they are motivated by particular issues.

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Start small and celebrate success

Tackling the climate emergency is a long and difficult road, and wanting to give up at times is understandable. That’s why starting with small achievable goals and celebrating success as you go is essential. It’s important to encourage your colleagues to engage in whatever way feels right for them.

Sustainability can feel divisive and exclusive, but it doesn’t have to be. Everyone has a role to play. If we are going to tackle the climate crisis, we need everyone to work together.

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