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Sea Change: Innovation transforms the link between museums and water

Category: Museum Magazine
View of a splash of water with bubbles below the surface.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2014 issue of Museum magazine. A benefit of membership in AAM. 

“When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” – John Muir, “My First Summer in the Sierra,” 19111

When naturalist John Muir wrote “My First Summer in the Sierra” many years ago, he described the impact of his experiences in California’s Yosemite River Valley and Sierra Mountains. Decades later the “Butterfly Effect”–hypothesizing that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas2–became popular, and continues to underlie much current thinking and a slew of books about systems, networks, feedback cycles, tipping points, and linkages. The critical message remains the same: everything is connected to everything else.

Humanity’s dependency on water exemplifies this relationship. Water comprises 70 percent of the planet and 70 percent of our bodies. It is something we can’t live without. Unfortunately, this connection with water has become troubled. The planet is currently struggling with water overuse, contamination, and the climate change effects of drought, floods and other extreme weather events. These water issues connect to energy and what people thought was limitless fossil fuel and unlimited use without consequence. There are serious consequences for water when fracking for natural gas extraction uses 4 to 6 million gallons of water per well and leaves behind assorted chemicals underground; when oil pipelines leak into our aquifers; and when chemicals for processing coal poison our water supplies—as we saw recently in West Virginia. The ultimate consequence of unfettered fossil fuel use is the blanket that carbon and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) have thrown over the planet. Temperatures are getting hotter and water levels are rising.

In the November/December 2009 issue of Museum, we wrote a futuristic take on museums and energy availability 100 years from now. Lately, we have been considering this question: What about water and its link with museums? Our conclusion is that if museums are here forever and the environmental tipping point is now, museums had better be in the business of risk management. What is ahead and how can we plan for the challenges? How do we ensure access to clean water forever?

Museum leaders (trustees, directors, and managers) and staff (everyone from curators to educators, to retail and hospitality, and, of course, facility and site managers–well, everyone!) must look ahead, plan for and make changes to mitigate the risks of climate change. Fortunately many are doing just that with creativity, innovation, urgency, and confidence that climate awareness is mission fulfillment. Many museum staff has already recognized or dealt with the threat of water scarcity and insecurity (too little, too dirty) and water surges (too much). They have embraced adaptability through science, conservation, and sustainable or restorative design. There are excellent examples of museums using systems thinking to address water issues while educating their visitors to be water-wise. After all, one person replacing her water-thirsty grass lawn with drought-resistant xeriscaping is just a drop in the bucket. If everyone in Denver did that? That’s what we’re talking about!

Humans can live one month without food but only one week without water. How long can your collections live without water? Staff at the Denver Zoo and the Denver Botanic Gardens plan not to find out and have taken large and small steps to innovate, conserve and educate. Both institutions are departments of the City of Denver, where water is a big deal. In Colorado, 80 percent of the population lives on the Front Range (east of the Rockies), while 80 percent of the water originates from the western slope, largely from rivers and streams fed by snowmelt (also in decline–remember that GHG blanket?). Denver Water must move a lot of water to meet the demand of 1.3 million residential customers. Consider this: 50 percent of Denver residential water is used for landscaping, and 90 percent of Denver lawns are non-native species like Kentucky Blue Grass, which has a high water requirement.

That’s where the Denver Botanic Gardens come in with a big dose of education and models of good conservation gardening and landscape practices. The garden manages three sites with an annual attendance of 850,000. It is committed to water conservation as a core activity, meeting the ISO-14001 environmental management program’s water-efficiency standards. In 2008 the garden overhauled its 1970s irrigation system. The little-seen pipes, pumps and control systems that are part of the real cost of living collections care were updated for efficiency, and site managers continue to measure, monitor and look for more savings. The strong water conservation education program features water-smart garden techniques, and last year led a summit of regional leaders to look ahead at water issues for the year 2030.

Back to John Muir and the interconnectedness of everything…Colorado’s water issues are entwined with those of the other western states, complicated by a labyrinth of water rights tangled with climate change issues and burgeoning population growth. On January 17, 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to an extended drought and called on residents to reduce water use by 20 percent. The following day, Roseville’s Utility Exploration Center (UEC) posted this declaration along with conservation tips on their Facebook page and website. The UEC is an environmental learning center and is one of 25 museums that have signed the California Association of Museums’ Green Accord, a non-legally binding, institution-wide commitment to sustainable practice. The center is also supported by a civic agency, much like Denver’s zoo and botanic gardens. Increasingly, those who manage our utility infrastructure consider conservation the front line message as they work to balance demand with availability. To shift patterns of behaviors around resource (over)use, they are turning to museums as good and trusted messengers. As you look at your institution’s risk management strategies, partner with your local or regional providers to attract incentives and support and to educate the public. That’s using networks and linkages to make a difference.

What happens when there is too much water from sea-level rise (SLR) or storm surges? Plenty! On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed the East Coast hard. One hundred seventeen people were killed; millions were without power for days and, in some areas, weeks. In the storm’s wake, many leaders and policymakers began to ask if this was a climate change wake-up call. Words like “resilience” and “adaptation” appeared in rebuilding and policy statements, and restorative design discussions recalled oyster beds and other natural systems that had been killed, removed or paved over.

In New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island received a direct hit, and the entire national park’s infrasturcture–electric, water, sewer, HVAC systems, phone systems, security systems, and radio equipment–was destroyed. The statue and pedestal emerged virtually unscathed, but ancillary buildings were heavily damaged, and walkways and docks were lifted and twisted. Ellis Island flooded, along with its IMmigration Museum’s basement. The museum houses tens of thousands of archival documents and artifacts that had been happily climate controlled for 20 years. While the water didn’t reach the upper floors and the collections, the lack of power allowed mold to begin growing almost immediately. The National Park Service Emergency Response Team worked nonstop in unpleasant conditions to clean and pack the materials and hand-carry them down three flights of stairs. Six weeks and six trailer loads later, all collections were at an off-site warehouse. The estimate for park damages was $77 million.

Last year, the museum reopened with systems replaced and elevated above the FEMA floodplain following a commitment by the NPS to “rebuild in smart and sustainable ways.” To improve preparations for water risks from climate change, NPS has charged a team of scientists to study 105 coastal parks to calculate SLR and surge risks, and outline place-specific projections for formulating park-specific approaches. The NPS Climate Change Response Program uses data and other tools such as scenario planning and focuses on four strategies: “1) Using [s]cience to help parks manage climate change; 2) Adapting to an uncertain future; 3) Mitigating or reducing our carbon footprint; and 4) Communicating to the public and our employees about climate change.”Science, mitigation, adaptation, and education are tools that every museum can use to plan for and address risk on their site and in their communities. Museums are already exceedingly good at that last one–education.

Miami is often cited as the most vulnerable coastal city in the country because of threats of too much water (SLR and surges) and of too little water (salt water infiltration into the aquifer beneath the porous limestone the city is built on threatens the drinking water supply). The city is hemmed into the west by the largest subtropical wilderness in the country and the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, Everglades National Park (with its history of various assaults and fixes with unintended consequences), and to the east by Biscayne Bay formed by Miami Beach, a thin barrier island. In all, billions of dollars of residential and commercial waterfront development–and the people who use it–are at risk. Miami-Dade County established an Office of Sustainability in 2009 to begin managing climate change issues and coordinate all activities in one unit. The office is collaborating with local museums and libraries on educational exhibits on climate change and sustainability to advance effective communication and turn science into action.

In downtown Miami, on the edge of Biscayne Bay, a new eight-acre museum complex is under development and supported by the county’s Building Better Communities General Obligation Bond Program (BBC-GOB). ?This requires projects to comply with legislation to promote green building and design and uses LEED Silver minimum requirements to determine compliance. The Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) opened in late 2013, while its neighbor, the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, is still under construction. The architecture and landscape of both museums have been designed with water in mind. Science and technology education is the primary mission of the Frost. The wildly innovative building design by Grimshaw is entirely conceived as an exhibit of ecological and sustainability principles. It follows the museum’s Sustainability Platform, a useful predesign document that outlines the entire project’s triple bottom line metric: people, planet, prosperity. Water is a central educational and design concept and plays an important role in the integrated systems that support the 250,000-square-foot complex and the 60,000-gallon aquarium at the building core. Among many strategies, rainwater and gray water are collected and reused, and a constructed wetland is the museum’s front yard, designed to gather and filter run-off while educating.

Across a common connecting plaza, PAMM’s new 200,000-square-foot building (120,000 for interior programs and 80,000 for exterior community space) is adjacent to the water and sits 21 feet above sea level (FEMA projections recommend 14-15 feet) behind a newly reinforced sea wall. T/he Herzog and DeMeuron design elevate the main building on stilts, with parking beneath to accommodate flood risk. With a LEED Gold target, water-wise strategies are integral to the building design. the landscape for both Frost and Perez was designed by Arquitectonica GEO with water and resiliency in mind: from plant materials (anything exposed to storm surge is salt-tolerant) and irrigation (100 percent from harvested rainwater and HVAC condensation) to full permeability of all paths, walkways and parking areas. the projects demonstrate one of the most important landscape design strategies for resilience: always, always, always get the right plants in the right place.

While it is unlikely  Miami will restore the natural mangrove shoreline, the museum of the future can participate when there are regional commitments to reversing decades or centuries of development that have adversely affected ecosystems. Sometimes that means removal, rehabilitation, and restoration to get the right plants in the right place. The leadership at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum, a historic estate on the shores of Narragansett Bay in Bristol, Rhode Island, understands that its traditional museum role as educator/conservator extends increasingly to waterfront open space and shoreline viability. Through a Comprehensive Master Planning (CMP) process, the museum’s team created a waterfront plan that included rehabilitation of the shoreline, which had been over-run by invasive species. The plan calls for replacing the quarter-mile barrier of poison ivy, loosestrife, bittersweet and other invasives with salt-tolerant shoreline plantings, then adding an accessible marsh path. By reconnecting the historic house and its designed landscape with the natural waterfront, the CMP honors historic lifeways at the estate, reintroduces high habitat value, improves stormwater management, educates visitors in sustainable property management and responsible development in their communities, and supports the regional commitment to shore health. Blithewold Executive Director Karen Binder is in her second go-round on the Town of Bristol’s Comprehensive Planning Review Committee. This time, the planning process considered “the whole force and impact of coastal climate change on Bristol Harbor,” and is adapting its zoning rules accordingly. Four years earlier, climate change was not part of the committee discussion.

Museums are finding that educating visitors and helping them to understand environmental consequences and make better choices is a win-win. In 2013, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) began a three-year program to educate ists guests about the impacts of single-use water bottles and is working to eliminate them onsite. In response, sales for the year dropped by 24 percent from 75,000 to 57,000 bottles, representing about $11,500 in lost revenue. Though the zoo considered this a cost of doing business, losses are somewhat offset by income from sales of logo-branded reusable bottles, and by avoiding costs associated with the sale of disposable plastic bottles. the DZS Green Team and sustainability staff began by installing water bottle refilling stations in key interior and exterior test sites and is planning to install more this year. Existing fountains had filling points added; new stations are both drinking fountains and bottle-filling stations. Through point-of-sale education, staff encourages guests to skip bottled-water purchases and use their own refillable bottles or buy the zoo’s BPA0free recyclable, USA-made versions. The staff will continue to tweak the educational and promotional campaign to accelerate change. The effort has drawn extremely positive responses from the board and community, and nary a grumble among guests.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is the 10th largest museum in the country, with an encyclopedic collection of 54,000 objects representing all periods and material types. They also steward 52 acres of designed landscape and 100 acres of untamed woodlands, wetlands, a lake and meadows adjacent to the White River. A former gravel pit, the 10  Acres site was naturally renewed and opened as an art and nature park in 2010. Following a 2005 expansion, the museum received Energy Star certification and boasts a long and impressive list of sustainable practices across all areas, including water conservation. Indiana has had its fair share of water issues. The summer of 2012 saw the worse drought in 25 years; in 2013 the state was in low drought condition. IMA horticulture staff is fortunate to have historic wells onsite for all irrigation for the designed landscape and they work hard to continue to find water savings in all areas. On 100 Acres the new Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion by Marlon Blackwell sits lightly within the natural environment. It is elevated just enough to allow floodwaters to pass beneath and is permeable enough for rain to flow through its large, elegant canopy and deck. LEED certified, the building utilizes geothermal for heating and cooling, and water-efficient fixtures draw well water. Creative messaging about sustainability is evident at 100 Acres, where artists and designers demonstrate respect for the environment and can communicate ideas about nature and the urgency of climate change in ways that charts and graphs and data sometimes cannot.

Climate change awareness is moving rapidly, and some leading-edge museums have taken a seat at the head of the table. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh has just taken its Epiphany System live. It’s the first permanent installation of its kind–anywhere. Onsite treated sanitary wastewater from Phipps’ new Center for Sustainable Landscapes, a LEED Platinum and Zero Net Energy building, is transformed into pharmaceutical-grade distilled water. The water has any number of uses but is a necessity for supporting some varieties of their orchid collection. Six satellite dishes for the process are replacing the existing, energy-intensive traditional distillation system. Turning wastewater into good water reduces Phipps’ use of municipal potable and wastewater resources and infrastructure. How did they figure it out? Director Richard V. Piacentini heard about a system being created for use in developing countries where villages lack fresh water. He invited the designer to collaborate. Now Phipps has a working prototype and the designer has tests demonstrating excellent results. Piacentini not only solved his museum’s conundrum, but facilitated a low-energy solution for health and safety for vulnerable populations worldwide. This is how we tackle the future.

Are we in some ways like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous Ancient Mariner, who was freed from the burden of the albatross around his neck only after he honored nature? Those museums that embrace environmental sustainability as integral to their mission seem to break free of the albatross–a kind of trope for short-term thinking. Those who are free look ahead into the future, charting a course with innovation and creativity as handmaids to science, mitigation, adaptation and education. More than a drop in the bucket, sustainable museums can make a difference.

Sarah Sutton Brophy is principal, Sustainable Museums, and Elizabeth Wylie is executive director, The Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation Inc. They are co-authors of The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice (Altamira Press 2nd ed., 2013)


  1. Muir, John. “My First Summer in the Sierra.” Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA, 1911.
  2. The origins of this description of the concept vary widely but most cite: Lorenz, Edward Norton. Untitled address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 29, 1979.
  3. National Park Service, Climate Change and Response Strategy, September 2010, (accessed January 28, 2014)

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