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Culture must not be left behind in the green transition

Museums have a vital role in our culture: they help us preserve culture, experience the past, present and future, and educate. They contribute much to society, but as the Museums Association noted, “Many museums are overstretched as they are expected to achieve more and more on flat, or declining, funding.”

Anette Parksepp / Published on 24 March 2022
Aerial view of spiral staircase showing tourists walking on different levels, Italy, Rome, Vatican Museum

Museums typically occupy energy-hungry buildings and have expanding collections that they aim to keep in tightly-controlled environmental conditions. Photo: Coto Elizondo / DigitalVision / Getty Images.

With their important societal roles and contributions, it seems almost inappropriate to speak of the carbon footprint of museums while many companies with smaller public roles continue to pollute significantly. However, in a world struggling to respond to the climate crisis and green transition, every area of life must restructure itself and rethink its governing principles in order to not further escalate environmental crises. Culture and museums cannot resist change either. More museums across the world are considering how to cut their emissions and continue their important cultural roles with a lower impact on the environment.

Estonian museums can now join the new environmental management program Green Museum to do their part. Developed by SEI Tallinn together with the International Council of Museums Estonia, the Green Museum program will give museums specific targets in order to qualify for the Green Museum title. Estonia’s largest art museum, Kumu, is now the first to have earned the Green Museum certificate and title after successfully undergoing an audit.

“Museums need to think about the energy consumption in their buildings, the choice and reuse of exhibition materials, not to mention daily waste generation, water usage, transport and work travel related to museum work,” explained SEI Tallinn Senior Expert and Environmental Management Programme Director Harri Moora. “Furthermore, museums have a unique opportunity to be a mediator and a trustworthy partner in raising environmental consciousness and knowledge about sustainability among their target audiences, but also among the society at large.”

In addition to the energy and material consumption of the institutions, the Green Museum system also takes into account the principles practised in the personnel management and content of the exhibitions.

Museums need to think about the energy consumption in their buildings, the choice and reuse of exhibition materials, not to mention daily waste generation, water usage, transport and work travel related to museum work.

Harri Moora, SEI Tallinn Senior Expert

Kumu Director Kadi Polli acknowledged that the main environmental impact of museums is energy usage, where efficiency is very difficult. “Estonian museums are located in very different buildings, many of them in historical buildings. Meanwhile, there are very strict conditions for preserving art – a specific required temperature, humidity and so on. There’s not much elbow room,” said Polli.

The Museums Association notes the same in its paper on sustainability: “Museums have a lot to consider. They typically occupy energy-hungry buildings and have expanding collections, which they aim to keep in tightly-controlled environmental conditions. They often totally destroy old exhibitions and displays and replace them with new ones, with little reuse or recycling. Quality of service and ‘excellence’ sometimes seem less important than counting the number of visitors. Tourists, especially international tourists, are regarded as desirable visitors, in spite of the fact that tourism often involves extensive, energy consuming travel.”

However, this does not mean that museums cannot introduce environmental principles in their daily operations – on the contrary. Practical steps can be taken to preserve energy, water and waste where possible. Materials used in exhibitions can be better chosen and made for reuse. Kumu plans on reusing its exhibition partitions. According to Polli, this can be done up to six times in their case.

Sustainable planning is not only a question of ethics, but there is also a business case.

“Sustainability offers great opportunities for museums,” notes the Museums Association. “It brings new ways of interpreting collections and reaching audiences, it offers new ways of thinking about old problems such as collections care, financial stability and relationships with local communities. It brings better use of all resources, improved accountability and social responsibility and opportunities for excellence, innovation and creativity. It gives a chance to provide community leadership and is increasingly important to central and local government, and other funders.”

It is important to keep in mind that when countries allocate government funding for the green transition, the culture sector cannot be left behind. Especially at a time when museums are starting to systemically plan sustainable activities and do their part, they must be included in the funding of strategic sectors that can drive change.

Museums have a very special opportunity to affect change through their role in society: by exhibiting, explaining and educating on the important issues of our time. Through telling stories of our changing environments, museums can bring us closer to sustainability as well through culture.

Featuring

Harri Moora

Programme Director, Senior Expert (Environmental Management Programme)

SEI Tallinn

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