Imagine A Truly Sustainable Museum…

By: Adrienne McGraw

Imagine a truly sustainable museum…

  • It will be for everyone, whether in person, online, or to simply benefit from by its existence in the community
  • It will be self-aware and systems-aware
  • It will embrace institutional-wide values
  • It will lead by example and be trusted
  • It will possess beauty
  • It will excel at problem solving and be nimble
  • It will anticipate outcomes and consequences
  • It will maintain closed loops for resource use through a cradle-to-cradle design philosophy
  • It will convey multiple perspectives
  • It will be part of an integrated community/region/globe
  • It will be supported by a diverse and thoughtful financial portfolio

This was the vision developed by the participants at the JFKU Museum Studies Sustainability Colloquium. A group of experts and students drew on their own knowledge and desires for a better future for the planet – and museums.

Sarah Brophy, co-author of The Green Museum (Alta Mira Press, 2008) rang a keynote with her presentation about where museums are now and where they are going in the future to be more sustainable. She reminded us that, “if we want to be part of something bigger, we have to change. We have to keep up.” She suggests that change happens at the intersection of domains, so we need to seek out those spaces. Being creative about solutions is necessary. Social media is going to make all of this work easier, faster, more meaningful, and with greater long-term benefits.

But she also talked about the barriers to change and adopting more sustainable practices. Most notably – museums are risk-adverse. We tend to think that green is risky because not every stakeholder believes in it and it can be perceived as off mission. And with so much new technology and information constantly coming out, whatever you choose, there will be something newer and potentially better very soon.

For each of us, Sarah suggests that we embrace our power as change agents, enjoy the work we do to be more sustainable, and just go with it! She encourages us with, “your best effort for the field will be greening your area of expertise, and sharing that new knowledge with the rest of us. When you get good at that, you will begin to see the space between domains where YOU become the innovators.” Sounds good!

So what were some of the specifics that we talked about to get us there?  Where can our sustainable practices thrive?

With Communities

  • Listen to your neighbors on their terms, form advisory groups
  • Offer free admission as a welcoming sign to everyone
  • Offer daycare during programs and evening hours
  • Strive for universal design in everything you do
  • Offer community services (legal, educational, etc.)
  • Model green citizenry
  • Work for policy solutions

In Programs

  • Take interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches
  • Reuse and recycle exhibit materials
  • Have multiple languages in exhibits, programs, and through staff & volunteers
  • Encourage people to see nature in their immediate surroundings – even in cities
  • Help people answer the question “how can I make a difference?”
  • Reach people’s different intelligences: emotional, social, ecological

In Operations

  • See nature as your guide – What Would Nature Do?
  • Not just have and utilize renewable energy sources, educate your audience about it
  • Share resources and expertise with other museums and institutions – collaborate!
  • Serve sustainable food in café and at events
  • Promote accessibility through transportation systems
  • Flatten the organizational chart, empower staff

In Finances

  • Work with local business
  • Invest in the community
  • Embrace diversity

In our Jobs

  • Start where you already are
  • Lead from behind and by example
  • Start small and at the personal level
  • Suggest alternatives
  • Show how money, time, resources can be saved
  • Backcast – where do we want to be in the future and how do we get there from here
  • Understand that not everything can be a “win/win” solution, sacrifice is necessary
  • Map your workspace like an ecosystem: who are the decision makers, your allies
  • Look for points of disturbance – change happens there
  • Have persistence, patience, and courage

The day was intense and hopeful. It was inspiring to be part of conversations that included the enthusiasm and energy of graduate students and the expertise and wisdom of experts who have been working on sustainability issues for years. Thanks to the experts who facilitated these conversations:

Sarah Brophy, Author & Thought Leader

Tracy Perkins, Environmental Justice Advocate

Carolie Sly, Center for Ecoliteracy

Geoff Willard, California Academy of Sciences

And JFKU faculty Lisa Eriksen, Lydia Johnson, Margaret Kadoyama, Adrienne McGraw, Elizabeth Peña, Susan Spero


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