In her application for the role of climate champion trustee at the Museums Association (MA), Sara Kassam wrote of her passion for “positive action on sustainability” and the need for museums to tap into appetite and enthusiasm of museum workers and audiences.
This energy and upbeat attitude characterise Kassam, whose day job is leading on sustainability at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). While many museums have grappled with how they approach something as big and scary as the climate crisis, Kassam is clear that the issue is not something anyone in the sector can shy away from.
“It’s complex and it’s hard, but the overriding message has got to be about hope,” she says. “Less doom and gloom and more urgency and honesty. Everyone is an agent of change and what we want is to unlock that and give them the opportunity to do something.”
Sara Kassam studied for a BSc in geography at the University of Nottingham, where she also worked as the environment and social justice officer at the student union.
She started her career working in sustainability roles at local authorities, including Ashford in Kent and the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, before moving into higher education.
She spent five years at the University of East London as sustainability and energy manager and a further five years as head of sustainability development at the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers where her role was focused on policy as well as knowledge exchange.
She joined the V&A as sustainability lead in June 2020 and was appointed as an MA board member just over a year later. She has a PGDip in local government management and a PGCert in low-carbon buildings, and has volunteered extensively for the Scouts, Girlguiding and at Eastlea Community School where she was a governor for five years.
How museums do that is the primary focus of her work at the V&A. The role, which she took up in summer 2020, sits within the museum’s estates team and covers its South Kensington site, as well as the Young V&A, formerly known as the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green and V&A East (due to open in 2024).
Her remit is to bring about systemic change across the organisation centred on a far-reaching sustainability action plan that was published in September. The plan’s actions fall into three categories – people, place and programme.
“Systemic change isn’t about swapping plastic straws for paper ones or upcycling – we have to move upstream, to look at how we integrate sustainability into every decision, to provide ways for people to intervene in processes and to produce resources that not only we, but the whole sector can use and share,” Kassam says. “I’m a big believer in people power – everyone knows their jobs inside out and probably knows how they can do it more sustainably, but my role is to help unlock the barriers that prevent them from doing this and connect people to share and learn.”
She has already invested in training for staff at the V&A – everything from biodiversity to behaviour change and intersectional sustainability – and relaunched a network of staff volunteer coordinators in different departments and sites, which is vital for a large multi-venue organisation such as the V&A.
The museum is one of several nationals that has invested in a dedicated sustainability role. Kassam realises this is not possible for every museum, but she believes that writing sustainability into job descriptions will ensure that the changes museums need to make stick.
Despite this being her first museum job, Kassam brings a wealth of experience from the higher education and local authority sectors – both of which have been quicker and keener to embrace the field of sustainability than the culture sector.
“I actually see museums as being where higher education was a few years back,” she says. “Universities have evolved so much since then – they now have teams of people looking after sustainability.”
One of the key barriers that museums face is that they come in all shapes and sizes. Kassam urges the need for consistency, especially around language, and collaboration across all.
“I’ve had so many conversations with people since joining the V&A and what I’ve found is that people are often asking similar questions – the thing is, all the information is out there, it just hasn’t percolated down,” she says. “The museum sector needs to share knowledge, collaborate and instigate a collective effort around sustainability – and it has to do it a lot faster than is currently happening.”
She hopes the V&A’s action plan will be used across the sector. “I think there’s a real need for specific and focused advice and actions,” she says. “There is so much information out there – including lots of duplication – and while museums need a deep level of detail, they don’t have the time or resources to do all the research themselves.”
Language can be a tripping point with numerous and sometimes confusing terms often being used incorrectly – zero-carbon and carbon neutral, for example. Kassam recommends a glossary written by her counterpart at Kew Gardens, as part of its 2021 sustainability strategy, as a good starting point for museums looking to get to grips with this issue.
Time for change
When it comes to selling sustainability, to staff as well as audiences, there is always a risk of pushback. While climate-change deniers may be in the minority in the sector, being told to do something differently to how it’s always been done can result in defensiveness. But Kassam says she’s not seen much of that at the V&A.
“Everyone has been enthusiastic and supportive,” she says. “The problem is time – people need to be given time to think and research and interrogate different, more sustainable ways to do things.”
While time is of the essence when it comes to climate change, bringing people along on the journey is vital. Kassam’s job title of sustainability lead, as opposed to climate-change lead, is crucial here.
“The term climate change doesn’t capture the whole gamut of the problem,” she says. “Sustainability is a somewhat more holistic issue and there are more entry points – people have different motivations for doing things, such as saving money, and sustainability allows for that.”
She quotes the United Nations Brundtland Commission’s 1987 definition of sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
It’s time now for the sector to reach out and be bolder about sustainability
But with a nod towards the V&A as the museum of design and art, she also quotes the arts and crafts designer and social reformer, William Morris: “We are only the trustees for those who come after us.”
As she settles into the role of climate champion trustee at the MA, Kassam is excited about the possibilities ahead. “I’ve not come across an organisation appointing a specific trustee like this before – I think it’s very forward-thinking to recruit for someone with sustainability experiences in the same way you would someone with financial or legal expertise,” she says.
As a relative newcomer to the sector, she recognises her role is a great way to help us understand the wider picture and get more involved.
“And I really like the fact the MA is a campaigning organisation – it’s time now for the sector to reach out and be bolder about sustainability.”
Founded in 1852 and named after the UK’s then monarch and her husband, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is the world’s largest museum of applied arts, decorative arts, and design.
It is based in South Kensington, London, but has two further London branches – the Young V&A in Bethnal Green and the V&A East in East London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, which is due to open in 2024. In 2017, it opened an international gallery, the Design Society, in Shenzhen’s Shekou district in southern China. One year later it opened the first V&A museum outside London, V&A Dundee.
The museum’s sustainability action plan, published in September 2021, comprises three sections – place, people and programme.
- Place: “We will reduce the negative environmental impact of how we deliver our activities and operate our buildings, targeting net zero by 2035.”
- People: “We will support our people, partners and sector to embed sustainable decision-making and practices and to share knowledge and skills.”
- Programme: “We will take a bold approach to engaging our audiences in issues of planetary limits and climate justice, focusing on people’s agency to take positive action.”
Progress will be reviewed annually.