5 Ways to Become a More Sustainable Museum in 2023

Joslyn McIntyre

February 14, 2023

“As trusted institutions and important threads in our shared social fabric, [museums] are uniquely placed to create a cascading effect to foster positive change.”

- International Council of Museums

Mark your calendar for International Museum Day in May. In 2023, the theme will be “Sustainability and Well-being,” as recently announced by the International Council of Museums.

You may remember reading about the rash of museum vandalisms that occurred in 2022. Environmental activists smeared cream pastry across the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and splashed tomato soup on Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings at the National Gallery. These moments of activism alarmed museum staff, patrons, visitors, and the public. But while vandalism is never okay, for better or for worse, the events put museums at the center of the climate discussion.

Every organization has an ethical responsibility to become as sustainable as possible. Yet, museums endure particular pressure to promote responsible tourism. Museums are community leaders, culture-setters, and changemakers. Their efforts to fight climate change and practice responsible tourism matter. This is true from the way they consume energy to how they educate employees and visitors.

Becoming a more environmentally sustainable museum is a process. You’ve doubtless put a lot of consideration into the steps your venue could take to get there — or you haven't, and you’re ready to begin. Either way, museum sustainability is on your mind, and you may have questions about what to prioritize.

Read on for steps you can take in five different areas of your business to make strides in practicing responsible tourism.

Sustainable museum focus #1: Your building or campus

Inside the Musée d'Orsay museum
Musée d'Orsay

Musée d’Orsay began its physical life as a railway station, and the building’s architecture is an important part of its charm. But historical design is no excuse for neglectful energy practice. That's why the museum undertook a massive effort to improve the infrastructure in the 2010s.

They overhauled the HVAC system to meet the museum’s specific aesthetic and technical needs and to reduce the amount of energy used. This project included state-of-the-art, custom-built cooling towers and high-tech water system plant controls. Ultimately, it resulted in cost savings as well as energy savings. 

A first step your museum can take

Assessing your building or campus might seem like an enormous endeavor. Pandemic shutdowns provided some museums with a perfect excuse to audit their infrastructure status quo and overhaul their interiors. But if your museum missed that opportunity to audit your buildings and operational systems with a critical eye, it’s not too late. One way to start is by hiring an external consultant to assess and advise.

Sustainable museum focus #2: Exhibits

Outside view of Centre Pompidou in Paris
Centre Pompidou in Paris, France

During the pandemic, Paris’s Centre Pompidou launched internal conversations about the museum’s carbon footprint. The conversations led to a critique of the way exhibit designers orchestrate their ideas.

Directors found that by extending the length of time exhibits are up, Centre Pompidou incurs less energy expenditure. One of the main sources of museum carbon emissions comes from transporting artworks and other objects from around the world. Reducing the number of times per year this happens ultimately reduces carbon footprint.

Using more recycled materials in exhibits has a sustainability benefit as well. The “circular economy” – reduce, reuse, and recycle, in that order – inspires creators to step up their museum sustainability efforts.

A first step your museum can take

The Gallery Climate Coalition has published detailed, valuable resources for museums on how to cut back on the greenhouse gas emissions associated with shipping. Read it here; perhaps it will spark ideas.  

Sustainable museum focus #3: Education

In 2020 the Prado Museum partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to launch a creative marketing campaign. This campaign coincided with the UN Climate Summit, held in Madrid that same year. The Prado Museum "redesigned" four masterpieces from the museum’s collection to take place in contemporary times – climate change and all. 

“The Parasol” by Francisco de Goya thus took place not in a pastoral countryside spot but in a crowded refugee camp. Joaquín Sorolla’s “Niños en la Playa (Children on the Beach)” is depicted not as a lovely beachside scene, but as boys playing among dozens of dead fish. The visuals are striking and quite disturbing, but also effective. The campaign was reported by such lauded museum publications as Smithsonian Magazine and ArtNet. (More on this type of press in the next point.)

A first step your museum can take

Museums have more creative talent at their disposal than the average business. Sustainability messaging is a powerful way to channel that spirit of innovation. The first person to suggest “changing” the paintings at the Prado Museum probably got some funny looks. But this offbeat idea paid off smartly in terms of sending a clear message about climate change. Who within your museum might have visionary ideas for marketing campaigns? Are you in the practice of listening to every voice on your team?

Sustainable museum focus #4: Public recognition

Greenery outside the sustainable Casa Batlló
Casa Batlló. Photo by Ruggiero Calabrese on Unsplash

In 2020, Casa Batlló became the first world heritage site to be awarded the Barcelona Sustainable Tourism Award. In 2022, the museum obtained a Biosphere Certificate ratifying its solid sustainability plan and commitment to green practices. This award celebrated the museum’s adoption of energy-efficient protocols, responsible consumption, efforts to prevent food waste, and promotion of social and economic growth in general.

Striving for public recognition in the form of press, certificates, and awards is not just a matter of ego satisfaction. It also serves to educate your patrons and visitors, demonstrating that you’re invested in museum sustainability and willing to take concrete steps to affect it. Like our first point — messaging – press can’t be the only thing you do, but it can be an authentic and valuable step. 

A first step your museum can take

Do some research to find out what kind of local, regional, national, and international awards and other types of recognition your museum could strive to achieve. Many of these achievements won’t happen if you’re passive. Award-givers and reporters expect museums to speak up about their efforts and sometimes even apply to be considered for recognition.

If you have a PR specialist on your team — or have the means to hire one – great. But even if your marketing team is small, prioritize tooting your own horn. The more you are recognized for your achievements, the more success you’ll eventually find as a sustainable museum.

Sustainable museum focus #5: Your messaging

How you communicate your museum’s sustainability efforts comes last. Once you’ve made real strides in putting sustainability measures in place, think about how you talk about those efforts in order to inform and educate visitors, partners, and the public.

Take a cue from the MoMA in NYC, whose sustainability mission reads, in part:

As a thought leader, the Museum embraces the responsibility and opportunity to raise awareness on the ways our collective choices impact the environment. To tackle the climate crisis, we believe that a holistic approach to sustainability is essential.

A sustainability mission doesn’t just define your messaging. It helps you prioritize the ways in which you’ll invest in sustainability both within and beyond your organization. It communicates your ethical values to your visitors and the general public. It also attracts partnerships that will aid you in creating real change and education.

A first step your museum can take

When it comes to sustainability messaging for your museum, how do your website and other marketing materials read? Do they mention it? If not, it might be time to rethink your promotional materials, both digital and analog.  

Museum sustainability sometimes starts but never ends with marketing. If it’s your museum’s entire environmental effort, you’re guilty of greenwashing: using a shallow marketing spin to make it seem like your organization cares. For this reason, it’s important to keep going (and reading) when it comes to your sustainable museum efforts.

Be on the vanguard of sustainable tourism

Armed with these ideas, you might start by gathering a small team of stakeholders to brainstorm how your museum can become more sustainable and make a bigger impact on climate and society. 

These are by no means all of the areas your museum can tackle to make a difference with sustainability. But you have to start somewhere, and in the case of climate change, there’s no more time left to waste.

For more tips on the topic of museum sustainability, download the Sustainability e-book: 10 Tips to Use Today at Your Museum or Attraction.

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