Sustainability in Museum Operations – are we doing enough?

By Eric Dorfman, Executive Director, Eklektus Inc.

12 January 2009

As the state of the planet’s climate, oceans, and terrestrial ecosystems decline and the world runs steadily out of oil, living lighter on the earth becomes increasingly vital, and the concept of sustainably is becoming progressively more engrained in public philosophy. Museums have had the traditional function of storing, organising and interpreting the world’s artefacts. However, they are now being given the additional role of safeguarding the world from which these objects originate, protecting ‘intangible natural and cultural heritage’. And this is not merely a moral obligation – visitors are increasingly demanding it.

More than any other sector, museums have the ability – and the ethical responsibility – to lead the field in building public capacity around sustainability. They can do this through innovative design, education, and informed debate, uniquely combining academic credibility with high entertainment values. The public listens to museums, and believes what they hear.

Late last year I was asked to contribute a global review as a keynote speech to a conference in Taipei organised by the National Taiwan Museum, called Challenges and Perspectives: New Roles of the Natural History Museum in Response to Global Changes.   The papers from this conference will be available in book form later this year.

Writing the paper was a big job, having to scour the net, pester my contacts and read countless business planning documents for information about who was doing what with regards to working more sustainably. What fell out of this search was information about efforts in three main areas: building design, day-to-day operations, and the creation of exhibitions (both in concept and execution).

What I found was disturbing, if not wholly surprising. While some museums are making great strides towards reducing their ecological footprints and enabling others to do so too, there is still much to do before this represents the norm. Large, well-provisioned institutions have, of course, a far greater chance of paying the premiums necessary to make sweeping reforms to buildings and exhibition design than do smaller institutions, which might be struggling to stay open and maintain their collections. However it’s not just capacity – the will has to be there as well.

My conclusions were that to be effective, sustainability needs to be an integrated approach stemming from a whole-of-organisation policy. Leadership, staff and visitors should be involved, and green values need to permeate physical spaces as well as activities. For these values to be effective across the global museum sector, the evidence-based practice carried out currently by the most proactive institutions needs to evolve into ‘practice-based evidence’ – guidelines that are empirically tested, freely available, and applicable across a wide range of institutions.

New Zealand is known internationally for leading the way in conservation, especially eradication of feral pests and island restoration.  As I was writing the paper, I asked myself what more could the New Zealand Museum Sector be doing to become sustainable. And instead of answering that, I’ll leave it open ended. Are we doing enough?


  1. Prompted by a comment from a Venture Taranaki Sustainability seminar TATATM have raised the level of the lawnmower.
    Why you may ask? We have more than trebbled the area of grass leaves that are absorbing carbon dioxide from the air.
    About 1/3 of the grass area is not mown in the spring but is left to grow long and then cut and baled for hay.

  2. 18 Jan 2009 20:08 UTC
    Museums and galleries are big consumers of energy- internal climate control and artificial lighting. We are trying to look ways to refurbish our building to be ‘greener’ which also should help reduce operational costs over time
    -however we are about to encounter a problem- how to instigate measures that respect the architectural integrity of a listed historical structure yet counter problems such as excessive heat loss/solar gain and too much natural light flooding into a display gallery from a clerestory

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