5 Simple Things Museums Can Do to Help the Environment

In recent years, there has been a large focus on what individuals can do to help the environment. From switching energy suppliers to shopping more sustainably, people have been advised to change their everyday habits. Responsibility has been shifted away from governments and organisations to the individual, and in response, individuals have tried to shift the blame back to them when they fail to address the issues themselves. I think there is definitely a middle-ground to be had, and a ‘trickle up’ effect to be triggered. I am optimistic that if individuals within larger groups, communities and organisations make changes to help the environment, it will set a precedent that will force governments and transnational communities to listen. In museums, there are of course some limitations; certain artefacts and collections have to be kept at a particular temperature and humidity so that they do not deteriorate, for example. However, the following 5 actions are reasonable, feasible ways in which a Museum Professional could make their workplace more sustainable:

  1. Recycling bins: This may seem obvious, but this simple change could dramatically reduce the amount of material sent from your museum to landfill. Even if you already have recycling bins in your museum, think about how they are used. Are they available to staff AND visitors? Is there a clear guide near each bin about what is and isn’t recyclable? Are the bins easily locatable?
  2. No plastic bags: Museum shops often provide more rigid plastic bags than supermarkets, for example. Whilst this may encourage some visitors to reuse the bags, they are often also made in unhelpful sizes, designed specifically for postcards, pencils or other miscellanea, and are therefore left unused or put in the bin. Some museums now only offer paper bags, which is a better alterantive. I think museums should not encourage the use of ANY plastic bags; they are unneccesary and known to be damaging for the environment, taking much longer to decompose than other recyclables (if they are, indeed, recycled). The Horniman Museum has eradicated single use plastics from its catering – no plastic bottles, no plastic food wrap – but believes that paper bags are more expensive than plastic ones. Why not… insist that people bring their own, or SELL paper bags?
  3. Link collections to environmental issues: This is something that, as a museum volunteer, I have seen in practice. The MAA in Cambridge has linked its Pacific Islands collections to the environment by directly linking information about Pacific Communities to the effects of pollution and climate change on their livelihoods. The museum has also run events with a specific focus on global warming. The same has been done in several natural history museums, such as the collection at the Bristol Museum, who veiled animals that would become extinct as a result of global warming.
  4. Join a group or community that wants change: Culture Declares Emergency is just one of many communities of Arts & Heritage organisations that are fighting for the environment. Art not Oil is another. There are plenty of groups out there, and even if the museum you work for doesn’t want to declare itself a member, there’s nothing to say that you can’t and go on to enact small changes as a result.
  5. Incentivise sustainable travel: Whilst more difficult for smaller, rural museums to enforce, city or town museums could easily do this. Incentivising the use of bicycles, buses and trains over car travel, to staff AND visitors, may well reduce the environmental impact of visiting your museum.

Of course, there are larger things that can be done by museums to act in favour of sustainability, but they require meetings with operations teams, managers, directors, and so on. Small changes – if done well, advertised, and shouted about within the community – could well encourage bigger dicussions to happen. There is already a large eco-warrior community within the Arts & Heritage sector… let’s keep that trend going!