Early sales at the Dallas Art Fair prove even a solar eclipse can’t overshadow Texas’s hot market
April 4, 2024
Glorious Blooms Erupt in Nidhi Mariam Jacob’s Meticulous Fantasy Garden Paintings
April 7, 2024
Early sales at the Dallas Art Fair prove even a solar eclipse can’t overshadow Texas’s hot market
April 4, 2024
Glorious Blooms Erupt in Nidhi Mariam Jacob’s Meticulous Fantasy Garden Paintings
April 7, 2024

British museums ranked the highest globally in a new study examining sustainability in arts organisations by the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. But the report also found that cultural institutions have lagged behind in promoting sustainability, and that their commitments frequently do not translate into action.

The authors of the report, whose findings were published in an academic journal in late February, surveyed 206 leading museums, theatres and opera houses around the world. Of these, 43% were museums. They examined environmental sustainability—with criteria such as their contribution to biodiversity and fighting climate change, energy use and waste—and social sustainability, with categories such as diversity and inclusion, access, and learning and inspiration.

While the Sydney Opera House emerged at the top of the ranking, four British arts organisations were among the top ten, including the National Galleries of Scotland, which took second place, and the Tate in ninth position. Three other museums also made the top ten—Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery Singapore and a third that did not explicitly agree to being named publicly.

The UK’s performance “hints at the importance of the specific national and sectoral context in that country”, write the authors, Martin Müller and Julie Grieshaber. They attribute Britain’s relatively high ranking to the Arts Council’s mandatory sustainability reporting for all the organisations it funds. “It’s one of the few countries that did this very early on,” Müller tells The Art Newspaper. “There are also NGOs which are very active in militating for sustainability and offering services to cultural institutions. The same doesn’t exist in many other countries.”

The authors write that cultural organisations “are poised to be trailblazers in championing sustainability causes”. They point out that arts institutions “enjoy high visibility and public trust”, and are well positioned to play a key role in promoting sustainability values. In 2022 the International Council of Museums changed its definition of a museum to highlight this role, saying “accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability”.

But for now, arts organisations are trailing far behind other sectors, Müller says. More than half of the institutions surveyed scored poorly (below 30 out of a possible 100) on both environmental and social sustainability. “For corporations, it has been an issue since around the early 2000s,” Müller says. He adds that universities followed a few years later but, in the cultural sector, sustainability has only emerged as a management issue in the past five years.

Arts institutes are often operating with limited resources, and that has contributed to slowness in establishing “green teams” and employing sustainability officers, Müller says. Larger institutions were more likely to score well in the survey than smaller ones, suggesting that resources and staff are key.

“Many of these institutions are already at the upper limit of what they can do; employees are working overtime and weekends,” Müller says. “And sustainability is a complex issue. It’s not something that you do in your spare time, or when you have half an hour on a Friday afternoon.”

Aside from the paint- and soup-throwing episodes of the past two years, museums have faced little pressure from the public to clean up their acts, Müller adds. “If the corporate sector moved early, it’s because they had NGOs and other watchdogs on their heels,” he says. “There hasn’t been very systematic pressure on arts institutions on the whole.”

Team effort

The report found that having an internal “green team” is the most important factor in higher sustainability scores, an indication that in-house initiatives to involve staff at all levels and across departments can drive sustainability in organisations.

“A museum is like a village,” says Sara Kassam, the climate champion trustee at the Museums Association and a former sustainability officer at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “They are so hectic, and they cover so many different areas. Everybody has their own expertise, and they have a better idea of what could be possible in their area than sustainability co-ordinators. You need people on the ground as eyes and ears.”

Growth in cultural tourism, rising visitor numbers and blockbuster shows “are at odds with the imperative to reduce energy and material consumption to combat climate change”, according to the report. Particularly in the case of museums, new buildings tend to be anything but sustainable, Müller says. This has recently been a subject of controversy in Berlin, where plans for a new museum of Modern art have undergone major changes over the past year after the design was criticised in media reports as a “climate killer”. Amendments to Herzog & de Meuron’s original design include added solar panels and a reduction in the size of the outside doors. Interior space has also been reorganised to ensure that only the exhibition halls will be climate-controlled to museum standards, cutting energy use by around 20%.

“The issue is the spectacular architecture that many clients want with these buildings,” Müller says. “So much of this architecture is not at all geared towards minimising the footprint; it’s geared towards maximising attention in the age of social media and short attention spans.” He is surprised that none of the big architecture firms have been promoting sustainable museum buildings. “The technology is there,” Müller says. “It’s just not a priority.”

In the long term, the exponential growth in museum space of the past few decades is not sustainable, Müller adds. Museums may need to look more closely at opportunities to repurpose existing buildings instead of building eye-catching new ones with airy atriums that consume an enormous amount of energy to heat or cool, he says. The National Gallery Singapore, for instance, is located in the converted former City Hall and Supreme Court building.

“Even if those extensions and new buildings are extremely sustainable ecologically and follow the latest energy standards, they still consume additional energy, they still consume raw materials—concrete and steel, et cetera,” Müller says. “The most sustainable museum is the one that doesn’t get built.”

One surprising finding in the study is that museums scored poorly on learning and inspiration, Müller says, with just 33 points out of 100. This, he says, suggests that “there’s still lots of work to do also in terms of undertaking the transformation from a museum as a place where you conserve objects and do research on them to a place where you bring in the public and you reach out”.

First appeared on…

Comments are closed.