Focus | Low-cost sustainability solutions - Museums Association

Focus | Low-cost sustainability solutions

Lorraine Finch shares accessible steps that museums can take towards a more environmentally sustainable way of working
Museums for Climate Justice
Lorraine Finch
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Illustration by Lizzie Lomax

We’ve all heard the phrase “it’s not easy being green”. Let’s start by getting rid of this notion – acting sustainably as an individual and as a museum is easy.

It is simply a case of moving away from a model of living and working that is “take, make, waste” – where resources are taken from the planet, made into something and then discarded – to “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle”.

We are in a climate and environmental crisis. In August 2021, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report was nothing less than “a code red for humanity”.

We need to take action now. The time for talking is over. We need to start doing.

At this point you may be thinking: “The climate and environmental crises are so massive, what could I possibly do?”

According to Count Us In, a project that aims to mobilise people to take practical steps against climate change, if one billion people take practical action during their lives, they could reduce global carbon emissions by as much as 20%.

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Every action that you take makes a difference, and everyone can make a difference no matter what their role is in the sector. Your actions count whether you are employed or freelance; whether you are a curator or learning staff; whether you work in HR or the shop; whether you’re in your first job or the director. Every job is a climate job.

Getting started

You may be thinking: “That’s fantastic, but where do I start?” One action that you and your museum can take right away is to gather information on the climate and environmental impact of your museum.

The easiest initial step you can take is to calculate your museum’s annual carbon footprint – this is a measure of the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere as a result of all of your activities. It is expressed as CO2e (see glossary p61).

There are many free carbon calculators available online including:

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Set up a regular review of your museum’s carbon footprint. A regular review will allow you to see what you have changed and to know the impact of your actions. It will also allow you to re-evaluate your goals and to create new ones.

Measuring the carbon footprint of your museum tells you what you need to change. It gives you a baseline to work from and a springboard for your actions. It will help you to identify areas for action, the priority areas for action, where to focus your actions and where to start.

When you get started, you should:

  • Set realistic priorities

Prioritise your actions in terms of what is achievable and what will have the greatest impact. Prioritise actions that have maximum impact relative to the effort and difficulty they take to deliver.

  • Set realistic timescales
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Prioritise your actions into short term (three to six months), medium term (six to 12 months) and long-term (12 months-plus).

  • Set achievable goals

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your actions need to be big and grand or cost a lot, such as installing solar panels, adding a green roof or changing your heating to an air source heat pump. But remember that simple actions repeated over time will make a massive difference. The Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston decreased its electricity consumption by 10%, a reduction of 4 tonnes of CO2e, simply by being more diligent about switching off lights and computers.

Refuse, reduce, reuse, recyle

The four Rs should be central to how you approach making positive changes to your museum’s environmental output. They can be applied to all areas of work and activities, including in shops and cafes.

Refuse is about saying no – no to acquiring more, no to supporting activities that damage the environment. Think about everything you buy and use in your museum. Do you need it? Is there an alternative? The Field Museum in Chicago replaced chemical cleaners for glass display cases with de-ionised water.

More fundamentally, do you know what you already have? Audit materials and equipment for all your activities, including office equipment and stationery. You’ll be surprised how much you have, how much you don’t use and how many items you have multiples of.

Reduce is about reducing necessary purchases and your use of harmful and wasteful products and products that are not easy to recycle. It’s about using the minimum amount required to avoid unnecessary waste.

Reuse means choosing reusable options and ensuring that things are reused as much as possible.

Recycle is the last on the list because it should be the thing you do at the end of an item’s life, when it’s no longer usable in any way.

There are a number of areas where you can apply the refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle approach:

  • Equipment and materials

Look for equipment and materials that have reused components and recycled content.

More materials are sent for recycling than are made from them. This is the case because there is low consumer demand for products made from recycled materials. We need to change this to ensure that materials sent for recycling are made into new products.

By using recycled materials, we are directly preventing materials being incinerated, going into landfill or being sent to other parts of the world to become somebody else’s problem.

As well as using what you already have, consider sharing or borrowing equipment and materials with other departments in your museum and with other museums (start locally).

  • Energy

Think about whether you need to use the equipment. Do you need to use the vacuum cleaner or could you clean up using a broom and a dustpan and brush?

Think about how often you use that piece of equipment. For example, if your cleaning team is using the washing machine to clean their cloths every day, could they save them up and do them once or twice a week?

Make sure you switch off the lights when you leave the room, whether that’s your office or the collections store. Not only does this reduce your carbon emissions, but it is good for your museum collections because it reduces light damage.

  • Water

Make sure you know where your water pipes run and where the shut-off valves are. That way, if you have a leak you can turn everything off before you waste too much water. Again, this has an added benefit for museum collections because this will reduce the potential for water damage to the items.

Put a sign up in the visitor toilets asking people to make sure they have turned off the taps. You could explain that this is part of the museum’s sustainability actions.

  • Digital

Every member of staff should make sure they are deleting old emails, but they should also try to send fewer too. You could include “think before you thank” messages in your signatures.

If each UK adult sent one less thank-you email a day, it would save more than 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year (the same as 81,152 flights to Madrid or taking 3,334 diesel cars off the road), according to research commissioned by the renewable energy supplier OVO Energy.

  • Managing risk

Many museums closed when Storm Eunice battered the UK in February, including two museums in Ironbridge Gorge world heritage site – the third consecutive year that the two riverside museums have been flooded. 

Understanding the damage from storms and other extreme weather caused by climate change can help you demonstrate the risk that climate change already poses to museums and collections and communicate the financial case for implementing sustainability measures now.

  • Talk

Start the conversation about the climate and the environment and keep it going. Add a slot into your staff meetings to share your sustainability successes. Talking about sustainability will encourage others to act and allow you to come together to find solutions.

Include everyone in the conversation – staff, trustees and volunteers, visitors and community partners. There are different ways to share your sustainability actions and successes with them, from social media and newsletter updates to a visible sustainability success noticeboard.

Celebrate your actions and tell everyone about them. A 2021 Tate Modern exhibition had labels that explained what would happen to the materials the cases were made from after the show.

One read: “The central platform is clad in scaffolding boards. After the exhibition these will be reused in construction projects.”

Reducing the impact of your museum on the climate and the environment has other benefits. It makes your museum a nicer place to be in, a healthier place to work, aids the preservation of the collection and engages your visitors and your colleagues in collective action towards a common goal.

You have the power to make a difference. Simple low- or no-cost actions that anyone working in museums can take regardless of their role will have an impact. Collective change is created by countless individuals.

Get out there and start doing.

Lorraine Finch is a sustainability advisor in cultural heritage. Her book Low Cost/No Cost Tips for Sustainability in Cultural Heritage is available at lfcp.co.uk/publications

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