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Since the launch of this column nearly two years ago in spring 2022, there’s been a marked uptick in environmental awareness among art institutions worldwide. A significant number of museums and galleries are now monitoring their carbon emissions, appointing specialist curators, programming a plethora of green-themed exhibitions and putting a range of measures in place to grapple with the climate and ecological catastrophe that faces us all.

But while progress has undoubtedly been made, these initiatives have been largely uncoordinated and dependant on the will of a handful of determined individuals, rather than institutions, who have been prepared to stick their necks out and push for change. “The climate and ecological emergencies and the pollution of air and sea add up to an existential threat to us all… but in museums we have said and done relatively little about this until recently,” says Nick Merriman, chief executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens in south London, which four years ago broke new ground in the sector by unveiling a climate and ecology manifesto.

Last November, Merriman was again at the forefront of environmental action as the chair of the first UK Museum COP, held by Britain’s National Museums Directors Council (NMDC) at London’s Tate Modern. He hoped to achieve a more united commitment from British arts institutions to take collective action. “Because of the strong public trust in museums and their moral authority as institutions over the long term, it was really important that there was an overwhelming consensus from the leaders of the UK’s major museums on the need to accelerate action around the climate crisis,” he states.

To this end, museums and funding organisations from across the UK, along with representatives of the Bizot Group of international museum directors, gathered for this event where, according to Tate director and host Maria Balshaw, they all agreed upon a series of “vital actions to reduce the environmental impact of museums and to show how they can inspire positive action for our public.”

These measures are largely immediate and practical. They include incorporating sustainability into learning and development programmes and recruitment, developing a mentoring scheme to share knowledge, and setting up a cross-organisational carbon literacy training programme—with all of this to put in place this year. To help organisations implement the best environmental practice in their day-to-day running, a new centralised institutional “toolkit” will also be launched online in the months to come, which will provide clear information on carbon calculation and clarify best environmental practice for organisations large and small. “Our members wanted actions rather than words, but because so many actions have been piecemeal there’s been a lot of duplication and with so much advice out there it can be overwhelming and confusing,” observes Merriman. “We wanted to remedy that with a centralised recourse.”

Another crucial collective action to emerge from the UK Museum COP is the commitment from all NMDC members to roll out a “greener option first” principle across all areas of museum practice. Significantly this means prioritising the transport of works of art by land and sea rather than air and the implementation of more intelligent, lower energy environmental conditions for museum displays and collections. As Merriman points out: “We now have an unsustainable situation whereby standards developed originally for paintings in London in the 1960s have become blanket environmental conditions worldwide.”

This “green first” principle is already gaining wide international traction, having also been ratified by the Bizot Group of museums last September as a key plank of their updated Green Protocol. All Bizot Group members are currently expected to implement this principle, and it has additionally been adopted by a number of other national organisations. As well as NMDC in the UK, these include the more than 200-strong Association of American Museum Directors (AAMD) and the Council of Australasian Museum Directors (CAMD).

Representatives of many of these bodies were also in attendance at the symposium “What does Sustainability Mean for Museums?”, hosted by the Mori Museum in Tokyo on 6 December last year. Here museum directors from Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, the US and the UK highlighted the carbon intensity of the art sector in relation to its size, discussed what environmental actions museums should be taking and also zeroed in on the very particular geographical predicament of Japan as an archipelago off the edge of East Asia which can only be reached—including by all of the symposium delegates—by air.

Another crucial art world conundrum under discussion was the industry’s continuing commitment to expansion: “Museums have a stark choice here,” declared Tate Modern’s director emerita Frances Morris. “Should we not be questioning the last decades of unbridled growth?”

This essential unsustainability of a museum sector that is measured, assessed and valued on principles of growth is also one of the key challenges raised in an important new book, Museums and the Climate Crisis, edited by Nick Merriman and published this month. As Merriman points out, the often unspoken assumption of museum boards and staff, funding bodies, politicians and other stakeholders over the past decades has been that a healthy museum is one that is constantly growing its collections, its visitor numbers, its digital interactions, its staff and its budgets. All of the metrics by which museums are measured are quantitativeones, with professional reputation based on size and growth, and the expectation that business plans will project annual increases across the board. As Merriman observes, “no one is ever rewarded in the museum sector for making the collection or the estate smaller, even if this might be more sustainable.”

For museums, the art world—and indeed the world in general—to provide any meaningful response to the climate and biodiversity crisis there therefore needs to be not only a systematic shakeup of current practices but also a radical re-examination of expectations around this model of unbridled growth. New measures of success need to be constructed that are based around other criteria such as quality of visitor experience, diversity of audiences and sustainability of operation. However, the fact that museum leaders worldwide are now at last acknowledging this existential incongruity while also conspicuously joining forces to implement significant practical changes in their practices and procedures can only be a good thing.

Merriman echoes this cautious optimism by declaring: “It is better to start the journey and be accused of being hypocritical and imperfect, rather than waiting to be perfect and doing nothing.” Thankfully, the world’s museums now seem to be waking up and sallying forth.

  • Nick Merriman (ed), Museums and the Climate Crisis, Routledge, 272pp, £35.99 (pb)

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