10 actionable tips for museums that strive for sustainability

Museums are still considered bastions of knowledge and they usually enjoy the unconditional trust of the public. This trust should be honored in every operation the museum fulfills. In a critical climate crisis, each museum owes its visitors accountability and commitment to reducing its carbon footprint and superfluous consumption. Cultural institutions, though, shouldn’t necessarily stop there: they all have the potential of becoming actual hubs of sustainability, fostering a sustainable and respectful engagement with the environment and with the local community. But where to start? Here are 10 actionable tips, inspired by our Ki Books.

  1. Measure your energy consumption and waste production. The first step towards reducing your impact on the environment is to measure it.

Knowing what the initial scenario is will allow you to set realistic and attainable goals for the future. Using a carbon calculator can be helpful in quantifying your footprint. Here’s a useful carbon calculator to get you started by Gallery Climate Coalition.

The next step would be benchmarking your building to similar ones to develop a plan that takes your specific situation into consideration. Julie’s Bicycle offers a useful benchmarking tool.

As for waste production, consistently take note of the quantity and types of waste produced in each office and lab for a few months to get a realistic average you can work with.

2. Cut down your energy consumption and waste production. Once you have established your goals it’s time to implement a strategy.

Start small: turn off all appliances that are not in use, use motion sensors and timers, and favor energy-efficient alternatives when acquiring new gear. Use the EPEAT registry to find the best alternatives.

Bear in mind that the most impactful voice in the energy consumption of a museum usually comes from the building itself and from the climate control established to preserve the collection. Consulting with energy experts and conservators and questioning current standards can lead to radical improvements in this crucial area.

3. Follow the 5 Rs.

Becoming more sustainable dosen’t start with buying new, more “sustainable” tools and materials. Most of the time the real advancement comes from refusing, reducing, reusing, repurposing, and only when all else fails, recycle.

Pick one R each week and focus on what can be reused or repurposed before you throw it away. And when you do recycle, pay attention to both the type of material you’re working with and the types of facilities that are present in your area.

4. Employ better materials.

While reusing and repurposing should be favored, sometimes it’s necessary to acquire new tools and materials. In those cases, try to opt for recyclable, organic, and non-toxic materials.

Some examples are corn starch foam, PaperFoam, and mycelium for packaging and bamboo viscose gloves for conservation and handling of specimens. In these cases make sure you know where and how to recycle the materials before buying.

5. Rethink transportation, travel, and residencies.

Shipping artworks and people around the world is one of the main contributors to a museum’s carbon footprint. While some of the travel is unavoidable, there are many less impactful alternatives to airplanes. Other solutions might be more specific. If you host artists in residence, think about partially virtual options as well. When lending artwork to another museum consider virtual curriers.

If you are open to a more radical approach, reduce the need for transportation altogether: make exhibitions that highlight artworks that are already in your collection, maybe the ones closed in a deposit, and lengthen the duration of your temporary shows.

6. Improve your standing in the community.

Environmental sustainability is not disconnected from social issues and a museum should not be detached from its public. Including Indigenous peoples’ knowledge and perspectives and listening to the real needs of your community is a necessity. Most museums have some connection to imperialism, colonization, and the displacement of artifacts. Taking responsibility and taking deliberate action to decolonize our institutions is no longer just a choice.

7. Get inspired by artists and other professionals, challenge your routines and dare to change your established practices.

As we already mentioned, some standards are not always applicable to every institution and might hinder progress. By joining Ki Futures, you can connect to other institutions and individuals and learn from real life examples.

Our Ki Champions are able to browse our Ki Port, populated by many professionals on the same journey towards sustainability. Ki Culture, for instance, often shares tips and tricks on Facebook and Instagram.

8. Join networks.

You can exchange ideas and resources with other institutions in your area. For example, you could use the same crates for transportation, parts of your scenography, or audio equipment for your public programs. Collaborate with your partners to share tools and avoid purchasing new ones.

9. Commit to implementing sustainability in your mission.

When environmental and societal concerns guide your mission instead of being an optional add-on every operation will benefit from it. For a real-life example of this approach, read our interview with Christopher Hobbs, Ki Champion and Curator of Sustainability at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

The new International Council of Museums (ICOM)’ definition of “museum” makes explicit the necessity to operate in more inclusive, sustainable ways. Stop accepting money from fossil fuel companies and demand due diligence on all your funders. Don’t engage in “greenwashing” or “artwashing” and be honest about your priorities.

10. Share your experience.

Talk publicly about the steps you are taking to improve your institution. Populate your website and social media with the initiatives you are undertaking (even the internal ones) to inspire other institutions and show that a more sustainable cultural sector is possible.

Don’t practice “greenhushing”. Your experience can be of inspiration for other institutions similar to yours. If you are an artist, your practice can influence and motivate other artists and institutions to do better and expand their vision on the matter.

You can visit our blog for some examples of artists active in these issues.

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Sustainability is the future. Culture is the key. We are Ki Culture.