The Climate Control exhibition at Manchester Museum. Photo © Paul Cliff

Museums focus on tackling climate crisis to become more environmentally sustainable

Simon Stephens, Issue 120/02, 01.02.2020
Sector builds on progress last year and continues to take measures
Last year was an important one for the cultural sector’s role in tackling the climate crisis, as organisations started to take the issue more seriously and adopt concrete actions to address this. Environmental sustainability was a key theme at the Museums Association (MA) Conference in Brighton in October and many organisations, including Tate, Nottingham Contemporary and the People’s History Museum, declared a climate and ecological emergency.

With the latest research showing that 2019 was the second hottest on record, and the ongoing bushfire disaster in Australia in people’s minds, addressing the climate emergency has become more crucial than ever. 

Crisis point

The MA has issued a climate crisis statement asking all museums to ensure that they address their own environmental impact; use their collections, exhibitions and learning and engagement work to raise awareness of the issue among the public; and work with others to implement greener polices in their local area.

People and planet

Also, last month, London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) declared a planetary emergency and unveiled a strategy to help tackle this. The organisation has committed to expanding its efforts to engage the public with issues related to this and will also further open up its collection and continue to share the scientific data and evidence needed to find solutions to climate instability and biodiversity loss.

“Our strategy is built around our vision of a future where people and planet thrive,” says Michael Dixon, the director of the NHM. “The museum is well placed to make a difference – it is a world-leading science research centre and our 300 scientists represent one of the largest groups in the world working on natural diversity.”

Arts Council England published Sustaining Great Art and Culture 2018-19 last month, which looks at how the culture sector is responding to the climate crisis. It covers the arts council’s 2018-22 National Portfolio, which has grown by 20% and includes 184 organisations new to environmental reporting. 

National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are required to put environmental policy and action plans in place, while annually monitoring their environmental impacts using a carbon foot-printing tool designed by Julie’s Bicycle, which is employed by ACE to support this work.

Carbon footprint

The report shows museums make up 8% of NPOs, but contribute 41% of the total carbon footprint. Museums comprise 72 funding agreements out of 841 across the portfolio (there are 828 organisations in the portfolio, but 841 funding agreements – as some organisations have an NPO funding agreement, some an SSO funding agreement, some both).

A statement from ACE says: “The primary reason why museums generate a much bigger percentage of the carbon footprint in comparison to their percentage of the portfolio is that they are nearly all multi-site, and tend to have lots of sites under the umbrella of a single NPO/SSO. Other disciplines, like theatre for example, mainly have one venue and if they are multi-site generally have fewer compared with museums. 

“Many museums are also based in large buildings and tend to be high energy users (one of the reasons for this could be, for example, that museums have collections to care for and require energy use to keep these in certain conditions) – all of which contributes to their carbon footprint. However, the museum sector has become more proactive in addressing this over the years.”

Responding to Sustaining Great Art and Culture 2018-19

“The title of the report is better flipped around, so that it is about how ‘great art and culture can contribute to sustaining society and the environment’. I’d suggest that it would also benefit from starting with the end in mind: committing to zero carbon or at least carbon neutrality across the sector by whatever date it chooses, and monitoring the implementation of that goal. 

It is great to read of so many initiatives that are heading in the right direction, but making that journey clearer would help understand the figures. 

For example, the figure that museums contribute 41% of the carbon footprint of NPOs, although they represent 8% of NPOs, could be made more helpful (assuming the figures are correct). It is the commitment to where they need to get to and the rate of reduction that matters, for this and other figures. Also, how is the carbon footprint of visiting museums factored in, or the embodied carbon of products museums sell? 

There is little mention in the report of the Sustainable Development Goals, the most ambitious ever programme to put the world on track to a sustainable future by 2030, although they have a lot of traction with other sectors, across all countries (the UK is a signatory to these), and have lots of great resources available that museums and others can use to accelerate and amplify their contributions to a sustainable future.”

Henry McGhie, founder, Curating Tomorrow 

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