By focusing on sustainability, museums can also help make their communities more just and equitable.
According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the US has about 35,000 museums. In 2019, these facilities were responsible for an estimated 12 million annual metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and that doesn’t even account for museum transportation or embodied carbon, which includes the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials. That is the equivalent of 2.6 million cars on the road, according to the Carbon Committee of AAM’s Environment and Climate Network.
Operating in a sustainable manner is not just good for the environment, it’s a matter of social justice. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s work on mapping life expectancy shows that our health, both mental and physical, depends more on our ZIP code than our genetic code. Residents in communities within a few miles of each other could have life expectancies that vary by up to 20 years because of the difference in place-based risks, such as the levels of particulate matter, lead, microplastic, or other toxic chemicals.
Museums can help build a more just and equitable world for everyone inside and outside their walls not just by serving as active learning venues but also by operating their facilities in environmentally sustainable ways.
Justice from the Outside
Museums are place-based institutions, and their actions can positively or negatively reinforce what is occurring in their communities. For example, a transit-rich community helps with scope 3 emission scoring (see “Scoping Out Emissions” sidebar at right for more information on scope 1–3 emissions). A museum with an electric vehicle, bicycle, or pedestrian-friendly infrastructure provides cleaner air to the surrounding neighborhood. A museum that hosts community supported agriculture (CSA) distribution can help alleviate food deserts, which are areas that lack grocery stores that sell fresh fruits and vegetables.
Museums also provide important exhibitions and programming that deepen understanding, facilitate dialogue, and foster empathy. These are the very tools that can help community residents prepare for and recover from the stress of climate events, such as a flood, drought, or wildfire. These tools also raise the awareness of environmental degradation, prevalence of diseases, and health burden in disadvantaged communities.
Justice from the Inside
Indoor air quality is just as important as outdoor air quality because we spend the majority of time inside. While conservators tend to be in greater contact with chemicals, all those working inside museums can benefit from lower emissions. The side effects of toxic substances and carbon emissions are associated with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Museums that strive to have healthy buildings should invest in long-term monitoring of substances ranging from carbon dioxide, particulate matter, total volatile organic compounds, and formaldehyde at a minimum. A close collaboration between conservation, exhibition, and facility staff can simultaneously lower climate risk and enhance human health.
An institution investing in healthy buildings is also one pursuing environmental social governance (ESG) goals for its visitors and employees. ESG is becoming a more prevalent business practice, as evidenced by the March 2022 proposal from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that all public companies report at least their scope 1 and 2 emissions and disclose their climate risks in their registration statements and periodic shareholder reports. If corporate investors care about such risk profiles, museum donors will soon ask—if they aren’t already—for similar risk reporting. The largest intergenerational wealth transfer in history will usher in a younger generation of donors more likely to be attuned to environmental issues.
After two years of the pandemic, equitable access to clean air cannot be overemphasized for museum workers and visitors. It is now clear that investing in improved air ventilation, filtration, and the building envelope will benefit not just the museum collection and employees but the public at large.
Museums and Climate Week
The Environment and Climate Network (ECN) at AAM helps museums become leaders in environmental stewardship, sustainability, and climate action. Every September, ECN participates in Climate Week, which coincides with the United Nations General Assembly, the annual gathering of global heads of state in New York City.
During the past two pandemic years, ECN transitioned to virtual programming during UN Climate Week, which allowed broader participation. For example, in 2020, Cecilia Lam of the Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change in Hong Kong and Jenny Newell of the Australian Museum shared how they have engaged their communities in climate action. Museums have a head start in environmental justice when they have community programming in their DNA.
In 2021, Andrés Roldán of Parque Explora in Colombia and Leonardo Menezes of the Museum of Tomorrow in Brazil both articulated the challenges of transforming the museum culture to embrace this new climate reality. “Climate change is not another layer of action but it increasingly becomes a part of the mission on how it is reframing culture, the objective, and how institutions measure their own value,” said Roldán. Those challenges were reinforced by two other guests on the program, Francis Morris of the Tate Modern in England and Massimo Bergamini of the Canadian Museums Association, who emphasized that addressing the social and equity aspects of climate change are equally critical.
Museum operations can be energy, water, and waste intensive, but if museums adopt innovative environmental strategies with a social justice lens, they will be part of the climate solution. Emerging from the pandemic, the adage “think globally and act locally” applies more than ever to museums.
Scoping Out Emissions
An organization’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are classified into three scopes:
Scope 1 emissions are direct GHG emissions that occur from sources that are controlled or owned by the museum (e.g., emissions associated with building operations and vehicles).
Scope 2 emissions are indirect GHG emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat, or cooling.
Scope 3 emissions come from indirect activities that occur in the museum’s operations, such as emissions related to employee travel, commuting, waste disposal, and purchased goods and services.
How to Get Started
Following are some tips for getting started on your environmental programming.
Invite the sustainability officer for your city or from a local university to speak at the museum during Climate Week and/or Earth Day.
Conduct a review of the museum’s utility bills and benchmark your energy using the Energy Star Portfolio Manager (energystar.gov/buildings/benchmark).
Engage youth and schoolchildren in creating museum climate web pages.
Anacostia Community Museum’s Urban Waterways
The Wild Center’s Youth Climate Program
The Wright Museum’s Treeposium
The Field Museum’s Edible Treasures Garden
Climate Week publications