Updated: Mar 14, 2019
Author: Francesca Cardinali
Museums have a duty to be sustainable because they are responsible for the care of collections and the distribution of our knowledge of the past to future generations. The amount of energy that they consume has a huge, negative impact on the planet. In recognition of this problem, museums all over the world are adopting more sustainable practices, especially in regard to infrastructure. Many examples of these improvements can be found on the dedicated page of our website.
However, sustainability is not just about improving energy efficiency; aside from making essential and attainable infrastructural adjustments, museums could use sustainability science to become more environmentally-friendly.
In the words of the UNESCO Guidelines in Research and Education, sustainability science is : “[…] a user-driven and user-inspired academic research process, building from integrated knowledge from various scientific and societal bodies of knowledge and from territories-based integrated experiences. […] The distinctive feature of this approach, however, is that often it will be implemented in teams that bring together scientists from multiple disciplines with diverse societal, non-academic stakeholders and practitioners. Such co-production of knowledge can be instrumental to leverage the vast potential of diverse cultural resources to promote sustainability in the wider community through better understanding of and contributing to knowledge, attitudes, values, life styles and narratives”.
This emerging discipline has provided a critical framework for sustainability in museums, which allows for the collection of the evidence-based quantitative data that is needed to guide sustainability governance in the cultural heritage field. The aim of this work is to facilitate the design, implementation, and evaluation of effective interventions that foster shared wealth while protecting the environment.
Sustainable practice in a museum setting requires responsible management. A museum’s commitment to the environment should be evident at all levels, from the decisions of the directors, to the composition of the collection, the regulations for all employees, and the management of the services dedicated to the public.
Sustainability science proposes a schematic approach to sustainable refurbishment projects that is comprised of the following methods:
- Strategic planning for management during the transition to sustainable practices;
- Gathering information on sustainability issues related to the transition, which tend to be both complex and interconnected. Potential topics to take into consideration include (but are not limited to):
- Organization of the floors;
- Water and wastewater management;
- Air pollution: ambient air quality management, indoor air quality management and control, etc;
- Waste management: waste reduction and minimization; recourse recovery and conservation; solid waste treatment technology and disposal; organization of paper, plastic, metal and other materials;
- Energy and resources: the use of sustainable energy can be implemented through changes in lighting, climate control, storage/depot facilities, renovations, research (analytical tools), equipment; and the usage of life-cycle assessments and environmental policy instruments;
- The creation of more avenues for communication, such as a report of sustainable activities, the sharing of data, etc.;
- Staff training: a clear environmental policy, a widespread awareness and frequent discussion of green practices;
- Museum services: improvement of the local trade; downloadable audio-guides;
e-tickets; eco-friendly supplies; the encouragement of preservation of the environment through social initiatives, etc.;
- Coordinating data; key research relating to sustainability can be sourced from many different places. A major part of knowledge structuring is the summary and dissemination of current information. Sustainability science can construct and coordinate a framework within which the vast amount of relevant data can be easily accessed and managed;
- Developing knowledge, models, forecasts, and databases, to be consistently updated;
- Reconciling the development of basic strategies with research focused on specific challenges and interdisciplinary approaches; a cooperative effort which should be integrated with cross-disciplinary coordination.
In broad terms, we can summarize all of the issues above and identify six ways to build a foundation for the sustainable care of cultural heritage and to increase environmental awareness in museums .
There is a lot of hard work to do yet, but it is an exciting challenge!
 Unesco, “Guidelines on sustainability science in research and education”, unesdoc.unesco.org, UNESCO, 2017, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000260600, consulted on Mar. 3
 Iberdrola, “How can our heritage be conserved while respecting the environment?“, Iberdrola.com, Iberdrola, https://www.iberdrola.com/top-stories/culture/sustainable-museum, consulted on Jan. 24, 2019.