The True Cost of Collecting- Museums, Climate and Carbon

Reposted with permission from the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice Blog 

Today’s Guest Post is by Erin Richardson, currently pursuing doctoral research focusing on the cost of collecting in U.S. museums, and Douglas Worts, culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada.

How much energy is required to maintain temperature and humidity levels inside a museum?

Museum interior
Unsplash / Anthony Delanoix

Because of the wide-ranging realities of museum environments, it is likely that no such aggregation of data has taken place. However, many individual museums have begun to ask penetrating questions about the carbon intensity of their operations. The links between environmental controls, energy and carbon emissions are both real and strong.

A major component of the carbon intensity of museums is related to storage, care, and use of collections (which applies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year).

In recent years, some of our colleagues, like Coalition member Sarah Sutton, have been encouraging and supporting museums in the development of responsible operations and actions that reduce carbon intensity. Collections care is seen by museums as central to their missions, while being a source of carbon emissions.

Collection-related activity therefore requires a close review of the assumptions underpinning this traditional museum function, including meeting optimal environmental standards, the necessity of objects in the museum, and the need to continuously expand.

Environmental Standards

Fine art and object conservators have recommended optimal environmental standards to preserve materials as long as possible.

Hygrothermograph in Museum
Hygrothermograph, Internet – no suggestion of copyright.

At least for institutions in the West, these standards call for a stable environment of 70 degrees (f) +/- 2 and 50% relative humidity (RH) +/-5%. Such standards demand considerable energy to operate HVAC systems in areas where collections are kept, including storage facilities, galleries and special exhibition halls, as well as whenever in transit.

A large percentage of museums operate at these strict levels of environmental stability – believing that it is their professional duty to ensure that sector-wide standards are met.

Since a borrowing museum’s gallery and storage climate readings are always considered by the lender when approving a loan, many museums feel that without adherence to sector-wide climate standards, loans will be routinely denied.

There are museums, however, that do not adhere strictly to these standards – either because their collections are very robust and are not as sensitive to climatic shifts as materials made with paper, textiles, and organic materials; or, because they simply can’t afford to retrofit their buildings (often historic structures) with energy-efficient systems.

The Necessity of Objects

Traditionally, collections are seen as fundamental to museums – both by museum professionals and the public. It is true that material culture can be a powerful way to nurture the ‘muses’, thereby enabling citizens to feel connected to the past in ways that are relevant for both the present and future. However, objects don’t always have this effect, thereby raising the question of how public value is measured in museums and whether the exhibition of objects is the best way to generate public cultural value.

Most people will agree that museums hold a ‘public trust’. However, it is no small feat to define exactly what the nature of that public trust is, as museums strive to protect the material history of our pasts, while ensuring relevance to present communities.

Culture is Relationships - 2018
Culture is Relationships diagram, by Douglas Worts, updated 2018.

There is an assumption, at least within museums that are supported by public funding, that the work of museums must contribute to the public good, which, like ‘public trust’, is also a vague notion. By fostering the ‘muses’ of creativity, insight, and innovation within the public sphere, museums and their communities have the potential for constant self-reinvention, so that they operate in timely and relevant ways amidst constantly changing cultural realities.

The only way for this approach to public good to be effective is to gauge impacts beyond the museum, using feedback loops that are rooted in community. If museums engage the wider public in processes of reflection, dialogue and action related to the issues and forces that are shaping our personal, local, and global worlds, then consideration of carbon emissions, both for the museum and the larger society, would indeed be relevant.

But what evidence exists that the larger public is engaged through museums in thoughtful reflection, dialogue and action related to the issues that are shaping culture? Where is the research on public impacts of museum operations, aside from institutional visitation and revenue?

For the past 35 years or so, the field of museum audience research (not necessarily market research, which often is quite different) has matured in wonderful ways. Researchers have helped museums to think more concretely about the public impacts of collections, exhibits, and programming.

There have been some great hubs of museological experimentation and insight that have pursued the vision of ‘continuous improvement.’ The International Laboratory for Visitor Studies, the Visitor Studies Association, the Institute for Learning Innovation, the AAM’s Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation, as well as many private audience research firms are just some of the ways that the museum world has striven to improve public impacts. Sometimes seen as disruptors, because evaluation can threaten some traditional ways of operating, audience researchers have helped museums ask bigger and more relevant questions about the organizations’ potentials.

Unsplash / Samuel Zeller

Other museological forms, such as the ecomuseumdomake use of collections without necessarily needing to centralize objects deemed to be of cultural, historical, or scientific importance, in the physical plant of one charitable organization.

By having community members own/keep objects of significance, and make them available for the benefit of the community, ecomuseums demonstrate that institutionalized collecting is only one means to an end (i.e. meaningful and/or transformative experiences), not an end itself.

Collections Must Grow

Building centralized facilities to store and exhibit an ever-expanding collection of things is a recipe for continuous growth. Many museum leaders see this growth as their organization’s purpose.

But what happens when museums with large holdings representing the past 200 years are confronted by a sea change in the cultural reality of the place in which they now exist? Cities around the world are experiencing population growth, urbanization, pluralization, and globalization.

Unsplash / Bianca Isofache

Consider, for example, an unnamed art museum, with large collections of European and North American art, finding itself being offered a huge additional collection of European and North American art. This gift seems perfectly aligned with the museum’s Euro-North-American collecting mandate. But now consider that the acquisition would require a massive capital campaign to house the collection, especially because the donor required that the collection be kept intact, in galleries of their own, and fully displayed. And, to complicate this scenario further, imagine that the composition of the city within which the museum exists has transformed radically, through migration and settlement, to the point that European ancestry has become the minority background of citizens, when until recently it had been the majority.

The question is, what are the opportunity costs of potential cultural relevancy for the museum considering this acquisition in light of the current/future needs of the living population as it evolves?

By centralizing collections, are museums creating an oversized and potentially narrow, misguided commitment to a material past, at the expense of the present and future living culture?

The pressures surrounding cultural organizations are significant, and it is important to ensure that the impacts of these organizations are clearly examined. The unintended consequences of building ever-larger, centralized collections are becoming clearer.

Not only are the buildings expensive to build and operate (and it has been a classic museum situation to embark on new building projects without calculating and planning for the operation of these facilities), but they are also having deleterious impacts on the environment – of which increased carbon emissions is one example.

How Do Museums Have the Greatest Cultural Impact?

If museums want to have the greatest cultural impacts, then they will need to develop much clearer mechanisms to gauge how individuals, groups, communities, organizations, and the society-wide systems that lock our realities into certain patterns of behaviour, are all affected by community engagement strategies.

California Academy of Sciences
California Academy of Sciences – a state of the art building designed to reduce energy use to a minimum, reduce emissions and generally produce a light ecological footprint. Public Domain image.

Decoupling our lives from the production of carbon emissions is a huge challenge that is forcing business, government, and individuals to rethink their attitudes and behaviours.

In some ways, this crisis is offering humanity a golden opportunity to redesign our societies so that human wellbeing on a finite planet is part of our future, not only our past. If we, museum professionals, do not consider the environmental, as well as the cultural, impacts of our field-wide collecting practices and internal climate control standards, we may find that we are myopically and foolishly contributing to the destruction of our planet. If this happens, we will truly be missing the culture/forest for the object/trees.


Erin Richardson

Erin Richardson has worked with museum collections for over twenty years. She holds MA in Museum Studies from Cooperstown Graduate Program and is a PhD Candidate in Leadership ad Policy at Niagara University. Her doctoral research focuses on the cost of collecting in U.S. museums.


Douglas Worts is a culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada. Douglas approaches culture broadly, as ‘how we live our lives’, seeing museums as potential facilitators in forging an emerging ‘culture of sustainability’. His professional work combines a 35+-year career in museums with over two decades exploring how culture shapes and directs the prospects for global human sustainability.



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