How can museums consider the environmental cost of digital technologies? - Museums Association

How can museums consider the environmental cost of digital technologies?

Don’t ignore the impact of digital activities, says Nicôle Meehan
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Nicôle Meehan

There has been a lot of discussion about the environmental cost of digital technologies in museums. A survey that I conducted last year relating specifically to digitisation practices showed that many institutions are taking important steps to reduce their digital carbon footprint. These included turning to green servers, identifying and removing redundant data, and developing more-efficient digitisation processes.

Survey responses also emphasised that barriers to action remain, including the difficulty of determining the digital carbon footprint of an organisation and the privileging of physical sustainability. Many highlighted a growing need to justify a digital project’s carbon cost, which can be partly achieved by ensuring broad access, particularly for those most affected by the climate crisis and digital divide.

This makes visible the connection between the ecological and human cost of digital technologies. Examples include the extractive practices that depend on human labour undertaken in producing hardware, and what sociologist Michael Kwet defines as the digital colonialism enacted by many software providers.

Museums cannot solve these problems, but they can consider the human and environmental value of their digital activities as part of their wider sustainability efforts.

Nicôle Meehan is a lecturer in museum and heritage studies at the University of St Andrews. She is speaking at Museum Tech: A Digital Festival for Museums on 17 April at the Museum of London.

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