Sustainabilityand museumsYour chance to make a differenceMuseumsAssociation

The Museums Association (MA) has issued this discussionpaper to encourage people to think about museums andsustainability. Please read the paper, discuss it withcolleagues, come to one of our discussion workshops,or organise your own discussion. For more information, whereyou can find more information and also a short introductoryversion of this discussion paper.Please send your comments by 1 September 2008to [email protected] orto Sustainability Consultation, Museums Association,24 Calvin Street, London E1 6NW

ContentsIntroduction: serving the futurep41 Draft sustainability principles for museumsp62 Economic sustainability: taking the long viewp73 Environmental sustainability: going greenp94 Social sustainability: local and global communitiesp115 Sustainability as a museum messagep136 Collections: an irreplaceable asset or an under-managed burden?p157 Working sustainably: staff, skills and knowledgep168 Managing growth or going slow: is there a sustainable future?p17Acknowledgmentsp19Summary of questions for discussionp20Notes and referencesp21

Introduction:serving the futureSustainability is, at its most basic,concerned with the needs of the future.The generally accepted definition says thatsustainability means ‘meeting the needs ofthe present without compromising theability of future generations to meet theirown needs.’1Museums similarly consider the future aswell as the present. As the MA Code ofEthics states, museums ‘enhance thequality of life of everyone, both today andin the future’. They balance the interests ofdifferent generations: ‘As well as aresponsibility to provide access to currentand future generations, there is a duty torespect the contributions of pastgenerations, particularly benefactors,communities of origin and creators of theobjects which museums now safeguard.’2Museums devote considerable resourcesto honouring the legacy of collections,information and knowledge contributed bypeople in the past and passing it on tofuture generations.Sustainability is usually considered underthree headings. The most familiar of theseis environmental sustainability. But it isabout much more than meeting thechallenges of climate change; there is alsoeconomic sustainability and socialsustainability. Sustainability concerns thelong-term role of museums and theirrelationships with communities, as well asthe future of the planet. ‘Sustainability is[connected to] education, the economy,business, travel, leisure and ourcommunities. Getting the balance right isvital to secure a stable future A massivecultural shift is required in everycommunity, in every school, everyworkplace and every home.’3Surprisingly, few museums are yet thinkingexplicitly about sustainability. Over fouryears ago Museums Journal observed:‘Everyone is talking about sustainability.Except museums.’4 In 2006 MuseumPractice concluded that relatively fewmuseums in the UK can claim to be takingenvironmental sustainability seriously.5Internationally, ‘most conventionalmuseums are not engaged in sustainabledevelopment work despite potentialbenefits that might flow to their institutionsand local communities.’6Museums have a lot to consider. Theytypically occupy energy-hungry buildingsand have expanding collections, whichthey aim to keep in tightly-controlledenvironmental conditions. They oftentotally destroy old exhibitions anddisplays and replace them with newones, with little reuse or recycling. Qualityof service and ‘excellence’ sometimesseem less important than counting thenumber of visitors. Tourists, especiallyinternational tourists, are regarded asdesirable visitors, in spite of the fact thattourism often involves extensive, energyconsuming travel. More locally, museumsoften launch short-term projects to buildrelationships with new audience groups,without a clear view of how therelationships will continue once theproject funding ends.Long-term thinking is essential tosustainability, yet few museums planmore than a few years ahead (apart frommajor capital projects). Some traditionalsources of funding are being eroded.Many museums are overstretched asthey are expected to achieve more andmore on flat, or declining, funding.

Is any of this sustainable?The MA believes that concepts ofsustainability have the potential to helpmuseums improve their service tosociety, to make decisions aboutcollections management, to secure longterm financial stability – and, of course, toserve future generations appropriately.As well as the ethical case, there is abusiness case. Sustainability offers greatopportunities for museums. It brings newways of interpreting collections andreaching audiences, it offers new ways ofthinking about old problems such ascollections care, financial stability andrelationships with local communities. Itbrings better use of all resources,improved accountability and socialresponsibility and opportunities forexcellence, innovation and creativity. Itgives a chance to provide communityleadership and is increasingly important tocentral and local government, and otherfunders.We are open to a full range of possibilities,but it is likely that we will publish a full reportin 2009 and start work on an action plan.Q1 Do you agree that museums needto think about sustainability? Arethere important aspects of it that wehave missed?Q2 What are the main difficulties yourmuseum faces in becoming moresustainable?Q3 How can the MA and other bodiesworking on behalf of the sectorsupport change?Economic, environmental and social, thethree overarching aspects of sustainability,are discussed next. Then some moremuseum-specific implications areconsidered: notably collectionsmanagement and museums’ potential rolein raising public awareness of sustainability.This discussion document is part of anew programme of work to helpmuseums consider their sustainability,overseen by the MA Ethics Committee.We hope you find the ideas herestimulating and that you will give us yourviews. They will help to shape ourthinking and future work in this area.There are questions throughout thisdocument, and for ease of reference theyare repeated at the end. Please send yourresponses and comments by1 September 2008 to [email protected] or toSustainability Consultation, MuseumsAssociation, 24 Calvin Street,London E1 6NW

1 Draft sustainabilityprinciples for museumsTo flourish sustainably,museums:1 Value and protect natural and culturalenvironments and are sensitive to theimpact of the museum and its visitorson them.7 Contribute responsibly to the social,cultural and economic vitality of thelocal area and wider world.8 Develop staff, offer satisfying andrewarding employment and learn fromtheir experience and that of others.9 Respond to changing political, social,environmental and economic contextsand have a clear long-term purposethat reflects society’s expectations of3 Acknowledge the legacy contributed bymuseums.previous generations and pass on abetter legacy of collections, information 10 Plan long-term, take full account ofsustainable development in all theirand knowledge to the next generation.activities and policies and work within4 Manage collections well, so that theyavailable resources.will be a valued asset for future11 Join with other museums, and othergenerations, not a burden.organisations, in partnerships and5 Make the best use of energy and othermergers, where it is the best way ofnatural resources and minimise waste,meeting their purpose in the long term.setting targets and monitoring progressQ4 What changes would you suggesttowards these draft principles for6 Consider the potential forsustainable museums? Which aredemonstrating and encouragingthe most important?sustainable development.2 Strive for excellence, building deeplong-term relationships with a range ofaudiences.

2 Economic sustainability:taking the long viewIf an organisation’s finances collapse, itwill be unable to serve present and futuregenerations. Museum closures can leadto dispersal, or complete loss, ofcollections, expertise, knowledge andinformation, as well as termination ofservices to current audiences. Forcedclosures are fortunately rare; museumshave proved to be adaptable and resilient.Many museums are diversifying theirsources of income to avoid over-relianceon a single source of public funding.There is growing belief in the potential ofprivate philanthropy to support culturalorganisations, complementing publicand charitable funding, sponsorship andearned income. Some national museumsattract around half of their funding fromnon-government sources, someHowever, many museums are nowindependent museums aim to operateoverstretched and financially weak andas social enterprises,7 and sometherefore vulnerable to decline. Futurelocal-authority museums arefunding can be uncertain. While someadministered by charitable trusts that findnational museums benefit fromit easier to diversify their income and canthree-year funding settlements,agree funding from their parent locallocal-authority museums routinely have toauthority several years in advance.8devote great energy to resisting proposedcuts – and sometimes are cut, occasionally ‘The arts sector in the UK isat very short notice. Local authorityover-extended and undercapitalised, withsupport for independent museumscultural organisations trying to do moreappears to be in decline. The fundingthings than they can possibly do well,system for university museums inwith both human and financial resourcesEngland is changing unpredictably.too thinly spread. Additional resources The diversion of lottery funding to theare generally more likely to result in furtherOlympics has greatly reduced theunder-funded expansion than in doinginvestment available from the Heritagecore things better The scale of activityseems destined always to outstrip theLottery Fund (HLF) until 2012 and wecannot assume that funding will everfunding that can sustain it’.9return to the levels museums enjoyedin the early years of the lottery.Museums have to work within theresources available to them. Thesustainable answer may be to do less,but do it better. Uncertainty aboutfunding leads museums to thinkshort-term, whereas sustainabilityrequires a long-term approach. ‘It is timeto move ourselves away from short-termobsessional behaviour around moneyand on to a longer-term vision aroundpurpose.’10 Museums need to be clearabout their purpose and ensure that theirmost important activities are sustained.‘By restricting activities to “core business”operating costs can be greatly reduced Certain specialist museums might dowell to consider being open on anappointment-only basis or one day aweek rather than chasing increasedvisitor numbers to cover high operatingcosts.’11It may now be that ‘in their present formmost museums are unsustainable. Themuseum market is oversaturated,operating costs are high productivity insuch a labour-intensive activity cannot beenhanced by infusions of technology – ittakes the same number of curators tochange an exhibit as it did 50 yearsago.’12 In fact it probably takes morepeople. In addition to a curator,redisplaying an object might also needinput from a conservator, a technicianand a documentation officer or registrar.Perhaps we have made some aspects ofmuseum work too complex?

Sustainability has been described as‘efficiency with a conscience’13 and a keyaspect of sustainable operation is to usethe limited resources that are availableefficiently in order to achieve themaximum possible impact. However,false efficiencies (such as cuts in fundingon the basis of hypothetical ‘efficiencysavings’) can weaken organisations,making them less sustainable.Museums may need to face up to difficultquestions about who might pay for theservices they provide, and even to thinkseriously about what sort of museumsector might be funded from a smallerpot of money.It may be helpful to look beyond thesurvival of a particular museum to seewhether its services, including use andpreservation of collections, might bebetter provided to society in differentways, or by merger with a differentorganisation. ‘Surely some museumsEconomic sustainability might sometimesshould be allowed to swallow others, andbe best achieved by working in closestill others become extinct?.’15partnerships with other museums, orother types of organisation, to shareMuseums are usually seen as permanent;In the longer term there may be lessresources. ‘Financial strains on the artsperhaps some should plan to befunding available for museums, not more. sector should be addressed from thetemporary and be designed to exist for aPublic expenditure may be underpoint of view of the sector as a whole,few years, or a single generation.increasing pressure, as taxation struggles rather than on an exclusivelyQ5 Do you have examples ofto meet rising pension and healthcareorganisation-by-organisation basis.’14museums doing less, better?costs, with an ageing population.From some points of view the autonomyMuseums’ income from visitors mayof individual museums, largely free toQ6 How might better coordination,decline as competition increases in thedetermine their own priorities, is a greatpartnerships – and perhaps mergersleisure market and transport costsstrength of the UK museum sector.– between museums make theincrease. Changing patterns of tourismHowever, it can also be seen as leadingsector more economicallycould mean fewer overseas visitorsto fragmentation, duplication of effort and sustainable?(although this may be offset by moreunnecessary competition, reducing thevisitors from the UK if there is a trendpossibilities for coordinated activity,back towards holidays at home).procurement and advocacy and somilitating against the sustainability ofthe sector.

3 Environmentalsustainability: going green‘Caring about the environment is a naturalextension of museums’ primary role ofstewardship of their collections.’16 It wouldbe perverse to preserve evidence of thenatural world and human society withoutregard to the protection of the widerenvironment. Museums cannot claim tobe serving the best interests of futuregenerations if they have negative impactson the environment that will make itharder for our descendants to livesecurely on the planet, let alone to enjoymuseum collections.However, there is a potential conflictbetween the way we approach theinternal museum environment and thehealth of the global environment. Manymuseums have extremely energyintensive approaches to caring for theircollections; air conditioning is still oftenwrongly seen as a gold standard. Whilethis can be beneficial for somecollections, and may make things morecomfortable for visitors, it is not sojustifiable in terms of its widerenvironmental impact. Climate change isthe most urgent aspect of sustainabilityand the most immediate way to addressclimate change is to reduce energyconsumption.Museums need to learn how to maintainconditions for collection preservationwithout excessive dependence on theuse of energy. The answer is to primarilyregulate heat and humidity by controllingnatural ventilation and improve theinsulation of museum buildings.Museums face the challenge of how todisentangle from medium- to long-termcommitments to air-conditioned museumenvironments - something even largemuseums can ill-afford economically andsomething that may not even benecessary for the majority of collections.17It might be helpful to reviewcollection-care standards and the waythat they are interpreted and applied bylenders, funders and supportorganisations such as the governmentindemnity scheme. Flexible loanagreements and more appropriatestandards could have social,environmental and economic benefits asmore objects could be made available toa wider range of people, using lessenergy and at lower cost. These benefitsmight outweigh any potential increaseddeterioration in the condition of theobjects.Museums are already facing pressure toimprove their energy efficiency. Publicbuildings will soon be required to displaya fridge-style energy rating,demonstrating how energy efficient theyare.18 This is likely to be followed by morecoercive measures. Reducing energy useis not only good for the environment; itsaves money that can be used for otherthings. (Reducing energy use byimproving and better managing thebuilding is generally better and cheaperthan installing wind turbines or solarpanels to generate more energy.) Allmuseums should take control of theirenergy use.19 Staff understanding ofenergy consumption is an essential firststep in improved facilities management.However, some museums do not yetknow what their energy consumption isbecause their fuel bills are paid by aparent institution such as a university orlocal authority.

The Natural History Museum’s (NHM’s)current carbon dioxide emissions arebelow the levels in 2000; over the nextthree years the museum aims to reducethese emissions by 5 per cent a year. Thecosts of new energy-saving technology atthe NHM’s Wandsworth store wererecouped by savings in just 16 months.The NHM is working with other museumsand organisations in South Kensington,which together aim to reduce theircarbon dioxide emissions by 7-10 percent by 2010. The V&A has a target ofreducing its energy consumption by 25per cent over five years.20 Between 2000and 2006 the National Maritime Museumreduced its use of gas by 15 per cent anduse of electricity by 12 per cent. It plans toreduce energy consumption by a further5 per cent in 2006-8.21 How much is yourmuseum going to save?In addition to energy, museums will wantto reduce waste22 and consider theenvironmental impact of other resourcesthat they consume, such as exhibitionand building materials, water and paper23.There are several sources of ‘green’ officesupplies and some manufacturers ofoffice furniture are working to minimisetheir environmental impact. Museumscould work together on their procurementand use their joint buying power topersuade manufacturers of museumspecific products and contractors to bemore environmentally friendly. The HLFhas published guidance for applicants onminimising their impact on theenvironment. These guidelines willencourage museums to consider theirenvironmental impact more fully.Visiting museums often meansenergy-consuming car journeys, or airtravel by international tourists. Reducingthe energy used by audiences will beeasier for some museums than others.Some will be able to promote greentransport alternatives, or aim for morevisits by local people and fewer tourists.However, there will always be potentialaudiences based far away. And museumvisits have many positive benefits, so thefact that they have an environmentalimpact obviously does not mean thatwe should not be making any at all.New models of service delivery mightlessen the need for expensive museumbuildings and reduce energyconsumption. Museums may offeralternatives to visiting, such as takingcollections out to users and other formsof outreach, although more objects onthe move will mean more use of energy totransport them.The museum sector needs a muchgreater understanding of the energycosts of its work. We simply do not knowwhether more or less energy is needed toget visitors to museum buildings or totake museum services to visitors.Q7 Do you think that collection-care,loan and government-indemnitystandards should be reviewed orused more flexibly, with a view toreducing energy use?Q8 How can your museum reduce itsenergy use? Do you monitor yourenergy use? What difficulties do youanticipate in reducing energy use?Q9 How might you design or adaptmuseum buildings and exhibitions toreduce your environmental impact?Q10 How might your museumchange what it does to reduce theenvironmental impact made by youand your visitors?Virtual museums already provide somemuseum services, such as learning andaccess to information and knowledgeabout collections. However, they are lessable to provide other important social andeducational museum benefits, such asdirect access to collections and civicspaces at the heart of the public realm.Online services may have lessenvironmental impact than museumbuildings, but energy is still needed –and the computer industry itself is hardlya model of sustainability being fraughtwith conspicuous consumption andunnecessary obsolescence and creatinghard-to-recycle hazardous waste.10

4 Social sustainability: localand global communitiesAs part of the public realm museumshave always contributed to society by, forexample, helping to create a sense ofplace. In recent years, UK museums havestrengthened their relationships withsociety. Their work is audience-focused,they are accountable and most consultwidely, considering the concerns of localpeople alongside those of experts. Theyengage with many communities andactively develop new audiences.Museums can increase their socialsustainability by deepening anddiversifying these relationships, aimingto reflect the diversity of society in all thatthey do. Museums need to have along-term attitude to audiences, forexample by valuing repeat visitors. Inparticular, they need to find ways tomaintain relationships with newaudiences beyond the limits of ashort-term audience-developmentproject. Funders need to pay carefulattention to this, but it is perhaps alsoa matter of attitude on the part of themuseum. Museums can become moreresponsive to people’s interests andneeds if they take fuller account of marketresearch: ‘audience research that is fullyintegrated into the programme-producingcycles of museums remains rare.’24Some people believe that operation as atourist-orientated visitor attraction is atthe expense of a deeper social role.‘Museums must return to being learninghubs, not destination attractions. Onlythen will they be sustainable.’25 ‘One ofthe keys to long-term sustainability ismuseums becoming more sociallyresponsible.’26 Social responsibility hasbeen described as organisations’ efforts‘to improve society and undo harm whereharm has been done’.27To some commentators, museums have‘a tremendous opportunity to play a vital,new role as cultural facilitator but notwithout fundamental changes in theirmandates, activities and organisationalstructures.’ In this view, ‘moreprogressive’ museums could have anambition to ‘rebuild depleted stocks ofhuman and social capital throughinteractive, community-led activities’ thatwill strengthen society. In this way somemuseums have great potential tocontribute to creating sustainablecommunities, ‘places in which peoplewant to live, now and in the future [that]embody the principles of sustainabledevelopment at the local level’28 andinclude ‘a strong local culture and othershared community activities’.29Other museums ‘that continue to operatemainly as object-centred touristattractions may find it difficult to beinvolved in sustainability work. Their bestoption might be to highlight historical andcontemporary examples of socioeconomic and ecological sustainability’.30This is discussed further in section six.Consideration of social sustainability hasled to renewed questioning of the role ofmuseums: ‘What is the objective of themuseum? Is it to promote culture, aparticular scientific discipline, its curators’scholarship or tastes, another way forcultural consumption or for leisure? Or isit one of the most effective educationalinstruments for community development,which draws its strength and life from thecommunity, uses the cultural and socialcapital of the community, opens windowson the outside world, and listens to its realproblems?’3111

Museums can strengthen theirrelationships with society by becomingsocially responsible enterprises that havea positive impact on the lives of peoplewho work for them, who provide servicesto them and who grow or manufacturethe things they consume or sell on (thegoods in their shops, the food in theircafes). By their behaviour museumscould become demonstration models fora sustainable society.Museums can consider their place in thelocal economy as purchasers of goodsand services, perhaps seeing benefit inusing local suppliers. Some museumsfocus on local distinctiveness in the shopand cafe, as well as in the displays. Staffwho live locally are a link between themuseum and its immediate community.Museums can also consider theirrelationship to society globally. ‘Museumsare better suited than any other publicentity to help us explore connections ofthe local to the global Museums canplay a critical role in moving thecommunities they serve towards a moresustainable future.’32 They may need tothink harder about balancing the needs ofpeople in the UK and people across theworld. Most museums rejectillegally-exported objects and recognisetheir responsibilities towards communitiesthat originated the collections they hold.How far does international responsibilityextend: To using fair trade coffee in thecafe and selling fair trade goods in theshop? To supporting former colonies,from which cities or private benefactorsderived their wealth? Do many museumshave international touring and lendingpolicies that serve a broad educationaland cultural purpose rather than primarilyaiming to raise income from rich countriesthat can pay handsomely?Q11 How does your museum aim tofoster long-term relationships withaudiences and communities? Doesthis conflict with acting as a visitorattraction?Q12 How could your museum be asocially responsible enterprise?Q13 How might your museum domore to contribute to and enhancethe local economy?Q14 How far might your museum aimto meet internationalresponsibilities?Generally museums have a positiveimpact on society and their mainchallenge is to ensure that they delivertheir social benefits in ways that areenvironmentally and economicallysustainable. ‘Being sustainable is notabout stopping what we do; it’s aboutbeing more thoughtful, more creative If we look closely, sustainability offersmassive opportunities.’ 33The next two sections of this paper lookat what ideas of sustainability mightsuggest in some museum-specific areas:public education and collections.12

5 Sustainability as amuseum messageA focus on sustainability can provide atopical way of interpreting collections andsites. Possibilities include, for example: ina design or industrial history context, thelife cycle of products;34 in natural historydisplays, the historic effects of a warmerclimate; in social history or world culturesgalleries, alternative more sustainablelifestyles, such as indigenous peoples or‘make do and mend’ in the Second WorldWar and other forms of reuse andrecycling;35 or in science displays,renewable energy or the contribution ofimpervious paving to flash flooding duringheavy rainfall.36Museums can also use collections toresearch environmental change. Thisis most obvious with natural historycollections, but there are many otherexamples such as palaeoenvironmentalresearch on archaeology collections andresearch into historic weather patternsusing ships’ logs, or landscapepaintings.37Through its Turning Green initiative, theRural Museums Network wants to ‘plugthe rural museum sector into perhaps thekey issue of our time engaging andinvolving visitors in the subject ofsustainability’ thereby ‘bringing a newtopicality to rural museums.’38 Thenetwork is also supporting basicassessments of rural museums’ carbonfootprints.Some argue that sustainability is such animportant issue that museums shouldshow leadership in their displays,exhibitions and programmes. The formerarts minister, Estelle Morris wrote thatmuseums have a ‘unique position inbeing able to raise awareness andstimulate the public’s interest’ insustainable development.39 TheDepartment for Culture, Media and Sport(DCMS) says that museums ‘have apivotal role to play in showing theconnections between the social,economic and environmental aspects ofsustainable development, and makinginformation about the issues more widelyavailable.’40 The Natural History Museumwill ‘bring objective evidence to theattention of our visiting public and presentsuch evidence in such a compellingmanner that individuals will make theirown informed choices about theirpersonal response to [climate change].’41A former director of the InternationalCouncil of Museums has written‘community museums and heritageeducation are among the best means ofbringing people to the consciousness oftheir personal responsibility in theconservation and balanced utilisation oftheir environment and naturalresources.’42 Museums Australia believesthat museums can ‘promote individualand collective engagement with the ideasand issues of sustainability People willbe challenged to envisage a sustainablefuture so they will know what to aim forand can think through the consequencesof their actions and behaviour.’43Culture Northwest suggests that culturalorganisations are well placed to influencepeople’s behaviour because they ‘are wellused to communicating with diverseaudiences – it’s a core part of thebusiness They have the skills and thephysical spaces to communicate with.[They can] help engender a sense ofempathy with other communities,nationalities and countries – includingthose in the “firing line” of climatechange They are in a position todemonstrate to both the public andpolicymakers the values and ease ofsustainable living As a first step culturalorganisations and their funders mustmake environmental responsibility apriority. Funders and policymakers mustalso ensure that cultural organisationsknow their role in creating a sustainable,viable society.’4413

‘Museums could take advantage of theunique position they occupy between theacademic world and the general public tohelp move humanity onto a sustainablepath.’45 ‘Above all, we must strive to bringtogether the skills and knowledge ofscholars in the human and naturalsciences with the talents of museuminterpreters, designers and crafts

Lottery Fund (HLF) until 0 and we cannot assume that funding will ever return to the levels museums enjoyed in the early years of the lottery. Many museums are diversifying their sources of income to avoid over-reliance on a single source of public funding. There is growing belief in the potential of private philanthropy to support cultural