Strategies and networks for cultural institutions committed to fostering environmental sustainability, responding to climate change, and supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Author: Sarah Sutton
I am a museum professional who organizes cultural institutions to model and lead response to a changing climate. I am a Knology research fellow, grants manager for the Frankenthaler Climate Initiative, and the Cultural Institutions Sector Lead for America is All In. (Photo courtesy Salzburg Global Seminar 2019)
We’re entering a new climate action era in the United States. Sustainable Museums is stepping into that era with a grateful bow to some of the colleagues and partnerships that molded cultural sector climate action these last three years.
In 2017, on June 1, when former President Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, it seemed to me that those who cared about this work would keep doing it anyway. I called colleagues and clients to ask if they felt #MuseumsforParis was something they could get behind. They said yes. Once my first ten calls identified ten supporters, I knew I needed more heft: more expertise and reach than my one-woman-under-the-avocado-tree “office” then offered me.
Just days later on June 5th, We Are Still In (WASI) burst on the scene as a coalition of what I would come to know as “non-state actors”: the everyone-but-the-feds group that cared about this work and were going to keep doing it anyway. I was thrilled. The companies, the city and state governments, and higher education had come together in a fascinating way: it was integrated design for action, not for a single project or product. It seemed a near-perfect strategy. All it was missing was a place for cultural institutions.
In March 2018, Henry McGhie, now of Curating Tomorrow, organized a turning-point moment, the International Symposium on Climate Change and Museums. That’s where many museum and preservation folks from around the world met in person for the first time. We forged international connections that continue to thrive. Who knew there were so many working so completely on the role of culture in climate action: Australia, England, Scotland, US, Canada, Italy, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands…?
And then suddenly it was October and many of us were convening at the Global Climate Action Summit. There were forty or more global cultural heritage institutions meeting over two days as Andrew Potts and Julianne Polanco hosted the Climate Heritage Network planning meeting, building an international network aligned with ICOMOS. And about 200 of the 2800 signatories to We Are Still In were gathering as well. The purpose was to plan how WASI would build strength and enable climate action in the face of unrelenting dismantling of climate work by the national leadership. About 10 of the WASI participants were cultural institutions, including Monterey Bay Aquarium, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, The Field Museum, and California Academy of Sciences.
During the 2018 WASI and Climate Heritage Network meetings I came to fully realize the power of cross-sector, multi-lateral work, and the potency of alliances based on shared values and profiting from varied skills and resources.
2019 saw a big green push at ICOM in Kyoto, cultural institutions participating in Climate Week NYC, and a convergence of international friends and allies at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties 25 in Madrid. Allied efforts with Climate Heritage Network and Curating Tomorrow meant that those of us working nationally and internationally on museums, the arts, and cultural heritage in support of climate action could leverage each other for greater and broader impact.
Internationally, WASI was committed to ensuring the World knew the US was still working towards the goals of the Paris Agreement, and that no nation should step away from the responsibility. WASI participation at the COP was a demonstration of that commitment. People from around the world frequently thanked We Are Still In representatives for staying the course. There was a hunger to see the country return to this global effort.
In the US, in 2020, there were now 87 cultural sector signatories to We Are Still In. The general understanding of our sector’s role in this work was broadening but uptake was blocked by the growing pandemic. During COVID, our work focused on building internal capacities and initiative resilience. After momentarily pausing our efforts for fear of sounding tone-deaf, as Elan Strait said, we began to realize that the converging crises of climate change, health, economics and equity increased the need for action that built a more stable, healthy world for all – climate action.
We focused on our own relationships and on supporting community resilience. Sustainable Museums coordinated the sector’s letter to Congress for recovery funds that focused on multi-sector support. We strengthened muscles and developed expertise as we waited for an environment allowing us to do more. With the election of President Biden and Vice-President Harris, we knew change is coming. We Are Still In prepared to be all-in alongside the federal government.
Now, with an international climate envoy in John Kerry, and a domestic climate leader in Gina McCarthy, we, of this movement, are poised to support global and domestic advances across every sector. The people who care about this work have kept it up, converging from all sectors to support each other and drive climate action.
Every moment since beginning my work with We Are Still In, I have been proud of, and thrilled and encouraged by, the talent, selflessness, experience, and commitment of the WASI executive committee and Secretariat. These include the leadership from World Wildlife Fund deployed to We Are Still In (Elan Strait, Kevin Taylor, Ryan Finnegan, now also Tansy-Massey Green and Hannah Greenfelder); my sector lead colleagues in higher education (Tim Carter), organizers of mayors and governors (Brent Thorington and James Ritchotte, and the team at US Climate Alliance); and the representatives of Climate Nexus (Alison Fajans-Turner and Emma Hutchinson) and America’s Pledge (Carla Frisch and Nate Hultman). There are many more to name here who have committed their time, expertise, knowledge, and relationships, to build a safer, healthier, more just future for us all through climate action. Their capacity to learn, adapt, and counsel themselves and each other continuously reminds me that we are truly able to advance climate action, and that more of us will soon be able to step up, too.
With the call for signatories to the letter for America is All In, now 96 cultural institutions have signed on. (You can sign on here.) As We Are Still In adapts yet again to opportunity and need, cultural institutions will support the dual responsibilities of domestic and international examples and allies for climate action. The sector and Sustainable Museums are all in. Sustainable Museums will be proudly continuing to promote the sector’s work.
You can expect
new calls to, and resources for, measuring and monitoring action so that we are transparent and accountable, and provide ample examples for others
a focus on city-based and state-based cooperative approaches to climate action that benefit all entities
research that advances professional practice on energy, collections care, and public interactions to scale change within the sector, and
a relentless pursuit of access to funds, talent and resources that help the sector prioritize climate action.
This work must and will move ahead in ways that are mission-driven and science-based, that support community equity, and that build accountability to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement commitments.
I’m delighted to share this special issue with you all. It is freely accessible to everyone.
You’ll recognize many of the authors’ names, and meet a few new ones, perhaps: Joy Davis (our marvelous and patient editor), Bob Janes (the driver and our chief motivator), Jenny Newell, Diane Dubray, Julie Decker, Henry McGhie, Asha Singhal, Ben Sutter, Follin and Helen Arfvidsson, and the Bushfire Response Team of the National Museum of Australia.
Their material covers a range of scale and effort in the sector, with input from all around the World, that is so impressive and encouraging. It couldn’t possibly capture the degree of work happening now. But I remember when a single book needed examples from outside the sector to adequately address the potential of “sustainability” for museums. In 2006 or so, when Elizabeth Wylie and I began writing about this work, and I was Sarah Brophy, we had to find examples from other LEED buildings and other industries to make our case. When we wrote the second edition of The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice just five years later, it was one-third longer and ALL the examples were from museums, zoos, gardens, aquariums, parks and historic sites.
We’ve come so, so far as a sector, but Bob Janes’ call for alarm is legitimate and necessary. What we’ve done so far, collectively, is nowhere near enough – inside our sector and outside of it. I do know that there is much to celebrate and build on because I see it demonstrated every day among my colleagues on the Executive Committee of We Are Still In – the largest coalition of supporters of the Paris Agreement anywhere in the World. I see momentum.
I see momentum we can draw upon and contribute to. So, to Bob’s call for internal and external work to improve our field, I add the priority of cross-sector engagement. We will not solve renewable energy and clean transportation as a sector, but we can support other sectors to further understanding and adoption, perhaps even test some of the new resources for the public. We can do research that supports alternative and sustainable agricultural sectors by fostering community and Indigenous approaches. And we can work with the energy and construction sector to improve our buildings so that they last and are not a burden but an asset for the Earth.
Please take the time to educate yourself as much as possible – and continuously. And please gather your curiosity, courage, and commitment for our arsenal for helping to heal the planet. It matters so much more than most of us realize.
Three and a half years ago, on June 1, 2017, when the US President announced his intention to withdraw the United States from its commitments to the World, it seemed to me (and many others) that those of us who care, would still do the work of limiting climate change and restoring the planet’s climate and social systems to healthy conditions for human and non-human animals.
I was reassured by the response as I called clients and colleagues to see if they would join me in what was then named #MuseumsforParis, and has become @CultureforParis to reflect a broader participation from the sector. I also realized I needed allies in this – that a sector alone cannot do this work, and it should not be done without our sector. Then We Are Still In appeared on the scene. I watched what they were doing, and was so excited by their cross-sector approach. They knew that cities and states and tribal nations had to engage where the federal government didn’t, but that these place-based governments needed allies in companies (who had more money and both national and local audiences), investors, and higher education (the research pipeline with significant national infrastructure). Where there was already green momentum, these sectors came together. Soon We Are Still In adopted health, faith-based, and cultural institutions to engage more layers of direct climate impact (though building use, transit, and energy generation) but also public engagement. That public engagement is key to expanding political will to do the right, green things. The hard work of changing energy sources, generating energy, changing supply chains, and crafting new public policies must engage the public that must understand the science and the opportunities so they can make similar choices, buy the products and the energy, generate that energy or support community efforts to do so, and participate in the social, scientific and policy research that paves new ways forward.
And look at us all today. As the World’s nations update the Nationally-Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the commitments of the Paris Agreement, the United State is poised to re-enter this global partnership and officially resume its commitments and responsibilities. An important component of that Biden-Harris approach must be full engagement of cities, states, businesses, colleges and universities, cultural institutions and other key partners in the coalition effort to tackle the climate crisis. Climate action is no longer primarily the domain of scientists or policy experts, no longer the sole domain of federal governments – here or abroad. For every country committed to global climate action, the path forward engages other levels of leadership and impacted communities as partners; the cultural sector is an excellent partner for this work.
Sustainable Museums is grateful for the examples set by these institutions. With the shift that is the Biden-Harris Administration, cultural institutions are ready to increase their engagement through expanded partnerships, and are signaling their interest by supporting the new declaration hosted by We Are Still In on the anniversary of the Paris Agreement: www.AmericaIsAllIn.com
You’ll find them there, and everywhere you look for sensible community climate solutions.
The Conference of the Parties 26 (COP26) was postponed for a year from now. Thinking of what we could be doing together in a safer time reminds me of what we accomplished in the last year.
Cultural institutions made an important showing at COP25 in Madrid a year ago this month. Not only were there representatives from the United States, we joined with others from the UK to fan out across the participating countries’ pavilions to spread the word that cultural institutions – museums, zoos, gardens, aquariums, history museums and heritage sites – are not only taking action on climate issues but are excellent partners with any sector tackling mitigation, adaptation, resilience, research and public engagement.
Stephanie Shapiro, representing the American Alliance of Museums, and I, representing the Cultural Sector of We Are Still In, participated in five presentations in four different ‘country’ settings. Andrew Potts, ICOMOS coordinator of the international Climate Heritage Network, was in nearly every ‘country’ during the two weeks, facilitating or joining panel presentations to spread the word. Henry McGhie was “in” nearly as many. I was delighted to join them both whenever possible.
During our time there, Stephanie and I, and our colleagues, were energized and so excited at the new or deeper connections we made with peers.
Stephanie and I left mid-way through the COP since our passes lasted only so long. We had covered as much territory as we could, presenting, listening, and connecting. We took with us a set of national and international commitments for broadening and deepening our work.
Once home we started hearing about the lack of significant national commitments on the final days. We heard that many think the COP was a failure on par with earlier meetings that failed to create or scale ambition. And if we’re honest instead of hopeful, what we saw during was a stunning lack of global nation-state leadership on climate change, the absence of which by the US administration being the worst and most shameful example.
But we were not, and are not deterred. Just as in 2017, when the US Administration announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and thoughtful Americans refused to retreat from climate action, I expect the same response globally: those who care will still do this work, and do so to fill the void from significant national ambition in their home countries. They certainly have, I can say from one year on, and with our eyes set on Climate Week NYC and COP26 in Glasgow in a year, I can confidently say that the national and global engagement for the cultural sector will be strong and meaningful.
There has been great value in the step-up that the US withdrawal triggered, but only because the abdication is soon to be reversed, and because the temporary substitute response was significant and lasting. Both must continue with strength and courage until the job is done. I am inspired and encouraged by the options before us right now.
Since 2017, The Foundation for Advancement for Conservation and the American Institute for Conservation have been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities in two research grants (one to plan, one to implement) pursuing life cycle assessments of the things we in the cultural heritage sector use to care for, ship and display objects.
It has been my pleasure to work with the AIC/FAIC staff, and my co-principal investigators Sarah Nunberg and Matt Eckelman on this project. Matt, from Northeastern University, and Sarah, a conservator in private practice, bring the science to the project. It has been a pleasure to learn from them, and now to work with NEU PhD student Sarah Sanchez, as we create LCA cases to share and a tool for lookups of the environmental, climate and human health impacts of the chemical solutions, materials and processes we use in our work.
This is research, not programming, so it takes longer to fruition than one hopes, but it will soon make it easier for conservators, curators and preparators to make better choices about the products they use – for the objects, themselves and the planet.
Leveraging Cultural Institutions in Community Recovery and Resilience
Congress is sorting through how to address the near-term and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. Planning for recovery must take place even as we cope with immediate struggles. As the country’s leadership consider those steps to a future where all Americans can thrive, cultural institutions can make an important difference.
Last last month five major professional associations sent a message to Congress that recovery requires cross-sector approaches, and ones that embrace climate action, so that all of us benefit from the recovery – right away through jobs and access to resources, and in the long-term through a safe and healthy environment and a resilient economy. By incorporating cultural institutions as community anchors in sustainable planning and recovery implementation, Congress can leverage the visibility and high level of public trust in our institutions to highlight its work to “build back better.”
This message got through thanks to the endorsement of the American Association for State and Local History, Association of Children’s Museums, New England Museum Association, California Association of Museums and the American Alliance of Museums.
The letter highlighted seven ways to do this important work for the good of all:
1) Mobilize formal and informal education approaches for nation-wide climate literacy. 2) Support affordable broadened and intensified Internet access for rural and disadvantaged communities. 3) Support research and investment in nature spaces that are cool, clean, healthy and restorative. 4) Increase availability of clean and renewable energy to drive down operational energy costs while reducing environmental impacts. 5) Support energy generation and efficiency projects that emphasize innovation, demonstration and scaling to reduce costs and environmental and health impacts. 6) Support transportation infrastructure that provides healthy and safe, affordable, clean-energy travel within communities—directly to cultural organizations. 7) Invest in coastal, riverine, and urban stormwater management infrastructure that accelerates the removal of combined sewage overflow systems at the same time that we restore natural ecosystems and adaptive infrastructure.
Congress has the power to invest positively, renewably, in the future of all communities across the country—and cultural institutions will help.
You’ll find the full text of the letter through the link below. Thanks so much to my peers at We Are Still In who are doing this work so well, and were critical to the development of this letter. It’s just the beginning of the difference we can all make in our future.
Please share widely, and let me know what I can do to help you send these messages.
Note: This information shared during a joint webinar by Sustainable Museums and America’s Pledge on May 12, 2020. If you would like to watch a recording, you can do so here.
At a time when good news is hard to find, cultural institutions across the country have been leading by example, coming to the aid of their neighbors and cementing their status as valued and trusted community members. Even as they were forced to close their doors to visitors, institutions have not only taken their enriching educational resources online, but many have used their unique resources to offer solutions to the ongoing and unprecedented pandemic, such as providing PPE, 3D printing facemasks, converting empty parking lots to test sites, opening food banks, and turning ornamental beds into food bank Victory Gardens. They have taken to heart the American Alliance of Museums’ Code of Ethics, which states that “public service is paramount.”
This ethic applies not just to cultural institutions’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to the simultaneous crisis of climate change. Driven by the urgency of the science, the country’s museums, botanic gardens, heritage centers, zoos, and aquariums alike are leading in this space as well. In fact, over 80 cultural institutions have signed on to We Are Still In, the group of U.S. cities, states, tribes, businesses, faith groups, and other subnational organizations working to uphold the Paris climate agreement. And combined, the actions of this coalition, made up of more than 3,900 entities, add up to globally significant impact.
In fact, the latest analysis from America’s Pledge found that these subnational actors – who together represent nearly 70 percent of U.S. GDP, nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population, and over half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions – have the potential to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent over the next decade compared to 2005 levels, even without additional support from the federal government.
The same America’s Pledge analysis found that when this subnational action is combined with ambitious federal policies, the U.S. has the potential to reduce emissions by nearly half by 2030. After all, bottom-up climate action from cities, states, businesses, cultural institutions, and others can be mutually reinforcing with top-down federal action. This level of emissions reduction is in line with a net-zero emissions trajectory by mid-century, which supports the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement – namely, limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, with best efforts to keep that rise below 1.5 degrees.
Source: America’s Pledge
That is quite an ambitious pathway which undoubtedly requires significant action and engagement from sectors and geographies across the U.S., but the good news is that we are already well on our way. In fact, the actions required to realize this level of emissions reduction can be organized around a simple three principle framework, and perhaps most excitingly, cultural institutions have active projects in each.
Source: America’s Pledge
Principle 1: Accelerate Toward 100% Clean Electricity and Other Energy Supplies
Over the past decade, the U.S. electricity system has become significantly cleaner. From 2005 to 2017, the system, while generating more electricity overall, decreased the carbon dioxide emissions associated with electricity generation by 28 percent through burning less coal and oil and using more natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficient processes. And a pathway to continued progress in renewable electricity deployment, with lower electricity costs, has already been established as commercially and technically viable. The private, public, and philanthropic sectors have propelled significant progress in decreasing the power sector’s carbon intensity through policy and investment.
Courtesy, Manoa Heritage Center
For example, the Manoa Heritage Center in Honolulu, Hawaii (above), has installed its own microgrid, including solar panels and on-site battery storage, to reduce emissions and save money. When the system generates more than the site can store and use, the extra goes back to Hawai’i Electric Company for others to use. The solar panels’ output shows up on displays in the education center with a live feed. That’s accountability. The solar field at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania produces 30% of their annual needs: 2OOO MWh. Their public dashboard provides accountability as well. But we don’t all have open space, so an urban museum such as the Science Museum of Minnesota subscribes to a solar garden, which is a PV version of a community garden. This way they generate some of the electricity the museum has not quite been able to engineer out of its operations. The The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has even tucked an array into available space on the roof’s edge along the windows, out of public view on this historic structure, but shown here (below, right) from the Anthropology offices.
Phipps Conservatory and Gardens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, invited the public to switch their family’s energy provider to one with renewable sourcing sanctioned by the Phipps. Making the change during a visit gave them free admission and reduced annual membership. Since January 2017, more than 5,000 Phipps guests have switched their household electricity to fossil-free renewable energy. At the end of each year, these households will have prevented 37,000 tons of CO2 emissions. This is equivalent to annually saving 77,712 barrels of oil from being burned, or 83,289,910 miles from being driven in an average passenger car. It has been their most successful membership recruitment program to date.
Whatever your size or budget, there are clean energy options available to every cultural institution. Leaders in this space should consider which options make the most sense for their operations – whether on-site generation projects or power purchase agreements – and pursue them in earnest with the goal of sourcing all their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
Principle 2: Decarbonize End-Uses Like Buildings, Transportation, and Industry
Just as important as addressing emissions from electricity generation is addressing emissions from buildings and transportation. The approach here is primarily through efficiency and electrification, the former looking at how to reduce energy use overall, and the latter involving replacing fossil-fueled end-uses with efficient, electrically powered technologies “fueled” with increasingly low-carbon electricity.
You are probably most familiar with this work in buildings.A great example is the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. To showcase sustainability in building operations, the museum implemented added two heat recovery chillers to use excess heat energy (generated by operating the HVAC system) inside the building instead of exhausting it outside the building as a by-product. With the heat recovery system in place to reuse waste energy, and the solar garden share, described earlier, contributing 1/3 of their energy needs, the museum has reduced energy costs by $315,000 annually and paid itself back for first costs in a bit over three years. A strong, ongoing partnership with local utility, Xcel Energy, and a creative leadership team, made this achievable.
There are many examples of museums taking advantage of the combination of energy and lighting company incentives to re-lamp with LEDs, cutting energy use and staff time (for bulb replacement) while protecting collections and showing them off. The same utility mentioned above, Xcel Energy, helped Minneapolis Institute of Art re-lamp its galleries with LEDs. With an energy rebate, and part of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Sustaining Cultural Heritage Grant, they paid off the investment in the first year and are now saving about $150,000 a year, which can be reallocated to more beneficial uses, while also reducing their carbon impact. (Note – this NEH program is the only federal program specifically designed to help museum operate in a more sustainable way. Their annual planning and implementation grants are due January 14th.)
The MFA Boston has replaced 70 percent of gallery lights with LEDs to achieve significant efficiencies, too, but their work goes beyond simply lighting. Examining how we condition spaces for collections is critical. A decade ago, the sector, with MFA Boston as a key leader, and working with the International Institute of Conservation (IIC), successfully re-examined its assumed temperature setpoints of 70 degrees +/- 4, and 50 percent RH +/- 2 percent, and recommended science-driven approaches to ranges of appropriate settings for collections management goals. For many institutions, working with a conservator to identify the most appropriate guidelines for their collections and their settings can save significant energy and improve collections care. Universal adoption of these standards is the next important energy conservation work for the cultural sector.
Visitor transportation is another are for example and influence. When the Discovery Museum, Massachusetts, conducted its greenhouse gas inventory as it plotted a path to zero carbon, the team discovered that scope three emissions from visitors’ vehicles made up the largest share of their carbon impact. This is where our role as community leaders can have a real impact. Though it may feel as if your visitors’ mode of travel is beyond your reach, you can encourage clean options. The Discovery Museum, for example, has designed a solar array to shade their parking lot and offset institutional energy use. They’ll install electric vehicle (EV) charging stations at the same time. Hawai’i’s Manoa Heritage Center and Minneapolis’ American Swedish Institute offer discounts for visitors coming on bikes or foot. Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, Abbe Museum in Maine, and the Peoria Riverfront Museum all have EV charging stations placed preferentially: close by the entrances at museums in Maine and Peoria, and in the shade in Honolulu.
Transportation is another critical area for making change.Many institutions have a staff vehicle, an education van, golf carts for open space areas, or even full fleets. Choosing electric, when it’s time to replace or add vehicles, is a critically important choice. And even if you do not have the final say, you can make a thoughtful case to the purchasing department to consider changing policy.
Principle 3: Enhance Ecosystems
Finally, land use has the potential to address a significant portion of our greenhouse gas emissions. That is, natural systems play a vital role in sequestering carbon, but their status as a carbon sink is not guaranteed because of the country’s changing landscape. This has led to deforestation and fewer natural spaces in general.
Courtesy, Phipps Conservatory and Gardens
Of course, the gardens and zoos contribute significantly here for beneficial land use. The Phipps Conservatory and Gardens goes beyond its own greenery to reclaim land and create buildings and spaces that contribute to this work. The Center for Sustainable Landscapes (CSL) has won awards for the Living Building Challenge, LEED Platinum, WELL Building Platinum, SITES Platinum, and BREEAM Outstanding In-Use. The CSL building and surrounding landscape seen here (below), are built on a former brownfield.
Not all of us will build green-certified buildings or reclaim landscapes, but we can plant trees to shade our properties and cool our landscapes and our communities. Urban tree canopies can sequester significant amounts of carbon-dioxide. Since most of our cultural institutions are in cities, this is where we can make a difference. Historic properties have a leg up here with space availability, but if you don’t have space, you can still encourage tree planting in your community.
In Tacoma, Washington, there is a nonprofit using trees as tools for building community. Tacoma Tree Foundation partners with individuals and institutions to make sure trees thrive in this community. With mapping tools (right), they create a social approach to growing Tacoma green again, helping to make it a cool city, and a healthier city.
In Massachusetts, Tower Hill Botanical Gardens adopted the City of Worcester’s Tree Initiative to support the work to reestablish an urban canopy decimated by Asian Longhorn Beetles. The Initiative planted 30,000 trees in Worcester and surrounding towns in October of 2014, then Tower Hill adopted the program, “replacing, pruning, planting and watering community trees, forming the Stewards in the Streets program, and acting as community agents driving tree planting and care initiatives.” Like the Tacoma Tree Foundation, the goal is to plant trees where the green spaces are few, and then help residents to care for them.
Every cultural institutions can ensure that any land for which they have responsibility – literally or figuratively – is managed in a way that enhances its ability to absorb and store carbon rather than contribute to further carbon emissions. It benefits your institution and your community.
What’s Can Your Institution Do?
Hopefully, this post and accompanying webinar have provided some ideas of actions that you can take immediately, as well as how you might communicate them to your community. It may have also spurred some ideas around how you can better engage with your community around climate. That is, not only can cultural institutions educate the public about their actions, motivations, and impact across all three principles, but they can also educate the public about climate and the actions anyone can take. As one of the most trusted organizations in the U.S., cultural institutions have an important role to play in educating their communities about the science behind climate change and most importantly, actions they can take to mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
In addition to the projects mentioned throughout, we also encourage you to consider becoming a We Are Still In signatory, if you’re not already. It’s free to sign on, and it opens the door to conscious cooperative climate action. Sustainable Museums can help get you started.
Lastly, you can also work with local and state offices to advance climate action in your area. And in fact, you can contact Sustainable Museums to make your voice heard at the federal level as the country figures out how to recover from COVID-19 and build back better. Just reach out to Sarah@sustainablemuseums.net.
Note: This information shared during a joint webinar by Sustainable Museums and America’s Pledge on May 12, 2020. If you would like to watch a recording, you can do so here.
About America’s Pledge
In the wake of PresidentTrump’s initial announcement that he planned to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement in June 2017, an unprecedented number of U.S. cities, states, businesses, and universities reaffirmed their commitment to help America reach its Paris climate goals. Whether through declarations like We Are Still In or new pledges and commitments of their own, these bottom-up actors are maintaining U.S. momentum on climate action in the absence of federal leadership. In July 2017, former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former California Governor Edmund G. Brown launched America’s Pledge, an initiative to aggregate and quantify the actions by U.S. states, cities, businesses, and other non-federal actors to drive down their greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Since its launch, America’s Pledge has published annual assessments of non-federal action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on a unique methodological approach developed by climate researchers and policy experts. To learn more about America’s Pledge, please visitwww.americaspledge.com
About Sustainable Museums
Museums, and their cultural peers, have the physical and intellectual resources, abilities, creativity, freedom, and authority to foster the changes the World needs most. Sustainable Museums creates connections among leaders and innovators, providing intellectual and strategic support as cultural institutions plan to thrive as they create those changes the World needs. In 2018, We Are Still In added the cultural sector to its growing coalition, with Sarah Sutton and Sustainable Museums as the lead for the sector.
Robert R. Janes & Richard Sandell, Eds. , Museum Meanings Series from Routledge. 2019
Museum Activismis a genuine treasure trove of courageous thinkers and inspiring activist museums fostering change in communities worldwide. The research and examples will reinforce your commitment and build your bank of resources if you’re already an activist; and provide the reinforcements you may need to activate your museum’s board and leadership. And, if you struggle to find your time, place, opportunity or purpose in museum activism, you’ll surely find a path here.
The essays cover a wide variety of causes that we could label as climate, justice, and social equity, but they are also aptly described as empathy – through lessons of the past, and with struggling individuals and whole peoples; hope – for better futures, fairer worlds, and healthier spaces and places; and caring about our communities — that they are led with truth and justice, and that the organizations who could and should serve them actually do and in ways that matter.
Why You Should Read This Book
‘Activism’ is not a synonym for ‘Protest.’ It could be/should be a synonym for ‘Relevant’ and ‘Essential.’
The examples include a range of levels of and formats for activist engagement. This means there is space for any one and every one of you and your institutions to participate.
This means there is no excuse for not engaging.
Any one of these is a good place to start:
“Embrace” the “non-linearity” of activist activities because they address complex issues with multiple causes and effects. They are the wicked problems, the ones most challenging to resolve and those most in need of museums’ varied resources to do so.
Question, and then actively examine, the role of your museum in your community to the point of discomfort due to the unknown and unexpected you encounter. The exploration will or should change you and your work immeasurably.
Examine your institutional history, its founding, its founders. Re-evaluate the appropriateness of the cause, purpose and intent of that time given today’s concerns. Identify where change is either required or enabled. Then act.
Advocate for a program or exhibit or voice that actively addresses challenging community issues without trying to answer all the questions, be all the voices, or simply capturing interesting exit feedback.
Most importantly, shift organizational resources to engage in genuinely collaborative activities for the benefit of community members and organizations: Davis Renz, 2006: “For the most critical and substantive of our community issues and problems, the single organization is no longer an appropriate match to the scale of these issues and problems. We’ve found it increasingly essential to develop alliances and coalitions – extra organizational entities – to address the multi-faceted of these critical needs and issues.” (Noted in the essay “Posterity has Arrived,” Janes & Sandell).
Long ago, our most valuable and valued museums stopped being simply collecting institutions. Their educational roles expanded and are still developing layered, faceted adaptations. They are using their distinct abilities and positioning to create lasting change where so many other kinds of entities cannot. Thoughtful, responsible, progressive museums are emphasizing their roles as community resources. That process earns them the badge of relevance that will sustain them and their communities.
What I Found in Museum Activism
The editors divided the material into three sections: Nurturing Activism, Activism in Practice, and Assessing Activism. Every voice, every editorial step, emphasizes honesty, transparency, curiosity and courage. Each acknowledges the struggles and unknowns, while describing successes and possibilities. This is still early days of museum activism, unfortunately, but the depth and breadth you will find here demonstrates its strength and persistence.
One piece struck me most powerfully: Jennifer Bergevin’s “Narratives of Transformation, stories of impact from activist museums.” It examines “the landscape of longitudinal research on the museum and heritage sector” and the need for a transition from accepting the sufficiency of exit-interview level impacts, to understanding how to create conditions for lasting change and then documenting it. She writes that indicators of action are related to the visitor’s prior knowledge, purpose, and interest in visiting the exhibit or program; in the visitor’s opportunity to reexamine and share the experience during or immediately following the experience; and in the immediacy of availability of platforms for action after the experience.
Much of Bergevin’s material supported the value of “nudges” in moving individuals to action: that mix of conditions, learning, feelings, and opportunities which, together, stimulate sufficient motivation and opportunity for action. Her material makes the case for museums as part of the constellation of institutions within a community working for change.
For me, it follows that if the success of our exhibits, our education, our collecting, and our engagement only comes when the museum is part of a constellation of nudges that drive visitor action, then a museum’s success and value is inseparable from the health and well-being of its community.
By Karl Kusserow and Alan C. Braddock. Princeton University Art Museum, 2018
When is a landscape painting not a landscape painting? When viewed from the present vantage point in the Anthropocene.
As we all who have read this stunning work report, Karl Kusserow and Alan Braddock have rewritten American art history, doing so deeply, broadly, beautifully and honestly. James Christen Steward, Director of the Princeton University Art Museum writes in his Foreword that this is a re-examination of “the history of American art in light of ecology and environmental history.”
Nature’s Nation: American Art and the Environment is an overtly-interdisciplinary approach to examining the human relationship with nature, in what many now call the United States. It is ecocriticism the study of the ecological significance in artistic practices. It examines, in this case, how visual art is viewed, interpreted, and managed, all through, and in, artistic depictions of the land, people, and their unequal relationship, from the time of the English colonies until now with the recognition of the climate crisis.
I craved reading Nature’s Nation for its case that art and art history can be allies to scientists and climate change activists seeking engage a broader public in recognizing the Anthropocene (and the need to shift the narrative from destruction regeneration). Others will be drawn to the stunning art historical record revealed and reinterpreted here, and the precedent-setting case for ecocriticism’s value in recognizing man’s critically complex relationship with nature.
Each of the study’s three sections, Colonization and Empires, Industrialization and Conservation, and Ecology and Environmentalism, opens with two or three absorbing scholarly essays by the Kusserow and/or Braddock. They are followed by focus essays from among the nine contributors to the volume. The broad ranging research of each of Kusserow and Braddock’s essays makes each worthy of a stand-alone publication. The deep-dives by their contributors provide reinforcements in high relief.
Kusserow and Braddock’s Introduction, is a tutorial on ecocriticism is an art history/ecology/environmental humanities (because that’s what ecocriticism rolls up together) essay that every student from now forward will, and must, read to prepare them for their work as curators, art historians, and environmental humanists. Here is a micro example of that: in an exploration of two comparative, late nineteenth-century works by Thomas Moran and Grafton Taylor Brown depicting scenes in Yellowstone National Park, they write:
…the Anthropocene prompts reevaluation of long trajectories of human activity. …the National Park Services acknowledges growing evidence of climate change at Yellowstone as a vector already altering seasonal temperatures, annual snow accumulation water flows, plant and animal growth, and more. Indian removal brought an end to the Indigenous peoples’ historical efforts of managing forests and wildlife through periodic burning, resulting now in the dense growth that has exacerbated wildfires. Human and other biotic traffic through the park over decades since 1872 has introduced numerous exotic species that have transformed the Yellowstone ecosystem in other ways. Wildlife regulation and management during the park’s history has entailed protection of species such as bison and wolves, where were deliberately exterminated by rangers in the early twentieth century only to be reintroduced later. Though not manifested in Moran’s or Brown’s pictures, these manifold ongoing changes further debunk the pristine myth about Yellowstone and other parks.”
Kusserow and Braddock conclude that we must “look askance today at idealistic interpretations that read Moran’s work simply as a neutral document of Yellowstone’s timeless purity. Given the scale of ecological challenges moving forward – and their entanglement with issues of visuality, materiality, and creativity – we foresee ecocritical art history playing an increasingly important role in scholarship and public discourse.”
Now, just try and tell me yet again that climate change issues don’t make sense for art museums.
When you’re deep in the woods, unsure of which way is forward, what guides you: the direction of the sun, the needle on the compass, the sounds of civilization (or silence). These are reference points that help you choose where to direct your steps based on your goal.
When you’re deep in disruption, as we are now, the plans we made a week ago no longer suffice. Those presentations we’d scheduled, those trips we arranged, those purchases we’d saved for, all make less sense, if any.
Until recently I lived a sort of life-outside-my-life on the island of Oahu. By 2016 decisions I had made to leave behind my previous life, plus some natural changes, had me unmoored, with no dependents and no anchors. The only constants at the time were love for my family and friends, the work contained within my computer, and a commitment to cultural institutions and the environment. In the absence of any expectations, how could I choose my next acts of responsibility or fulfillment?
How would you choose what to do next when you are fortunate enough to have a choice?
The only guideposts, then, were the ones inside me. They were the only clear, positive signals I could find in the new void. So, the choices were in line with those guideposts, my values. I value the natural world, Indigenous ways of knowing, and a diversity of people and places where culture is visible and vibrant. I value a more mindful life than the East Coast encouraged, one with less congestion and more natural spaces, and one with fewer selections at every turn. So I went to Oahu.
After an extremely challenging transition over more than a year, I found I was able to live and learn in the setting of a Native community, to be in nature (but with an office) all the day, and to swim with the sea turtles in the afternoon after a mountain hike in the morning. I learned how to paddle and race a six-woman outrigger canoe. I owned a machete and knew how to use it. I ate from trees with avocados, mangoes, and palmelos (sp?). I found lilikoi on my walks, and bought fresh fish off the back of pickups. I learned Native words, crafts, history and attitudes. I lived and worked with a smaller footprint. And I also ate up my savings, and I began to travel more for climate work: 1.25 tons of CO2 every time I left the island.
Pursuing my values became unsustainable in that place for me after three years, so I let my values choose again for me. This time the Pacific Northwest. I would be with family, could afford to live there, could still race canoe and be on my beloved ocean, and adopt a stunning view of Mt. Rainier. I could support a local farmer’s CSA, buy clean energy, see Native culture all around me. And, I would be closer to the work of We Are Still In, allowing me to be more engaged and productive on behalf of the planet.
Now, we’re all faced with no clear path, but in a different way: how do we survive and find ways to thrive in these COVID-19 conditions? Well, while planning is hard, thoughtful choices remain viable, ones that create space for stronger comebacks post-COVID, ones that make us and our communities and economy and biosphere resilient.
I hope that as you make choices, where you are able, you can listen for the sounds of what you value – places, people, practices, actions, attitudes – in case there are signals there that help.
How am I making choices this time? Well I’m not moving again, that’s for sure. So that means making choices using this mantra:
This means that I choose to be as generous as possible, and patient and compassionate where that is all I can offer; that I am pursuing only the positive and hopeful: the co-benefits of those choices are far greater than those from pessimistic ones; and that I am aggressively searching and advocating for only those responses and solutions, of whatever size or scope, that embody a regenerative approach to life on Earth. So Carbon Over Culture, my work focus for the year, will continue, and with new emphasis on a regenerative recovery for our sector and any others focused on regenerative choices.
We cannot afford to make choices that return us to status quo or make a repeat of this mess worse.
So, when planning makes no sense, choosing with forethought is paramount. I/we won’t always be able to, but where we can, we must.
I hope you are able to do this more and more in the coming weeks.