A growing number of museums are integrating advocacy initiatives in their mission and programming in accordance with a institutional philosophy of leadership and education. Embracing green and sustainable practices has led many museums to create educational programs and resources linked to their environmental efforts, and these museums are finding that through adopting sustainable practices they are able to better connect with visitors, their local community, and other institutions.
Children’s and science museums were some of the first to embrace the educational impact of green and sustainable institution choices. When interviewed for the Museum News article “It’s Easy Being Green: Museums and the Green Movement”, Carol Enseki, director of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, said “For us, what clinched the decision to go green were the educational opportunities that added benefits above and beyond the operational cost savings around energy efficiency.”
The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Program (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) created certification standards in several areas including sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and design. Sarah Brophy and Elizabeth Wylie, co-authors of numerous articles related to museum related sustainability and green thinking and the book “The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice”, present a number of eco-friendly options for museums, such as choosing flooring made from sustainable materials like bamboo, or using carpet tiles, which allows the museum to change out a few stained tiles as opposed to the more costly and wasteful re-carpeting of entire galleries or meeting areas. They also point out institutions with innovative initiatives such as The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in Los Angeles, which encourages school groups to donate recyclables in lieu of paying an admission fee for their visit. The opportunities for museums of all types to make eco-friendly institutional choices are innumerable and foster a culture of environmental stewardship.
Through their remodel, the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) evidenced their desire to open up beyond art to have an awareness of and responsibility for varied issues, including environmental concerns. With the innovative leader Maxwell Anderson at the help, the IMA recognized that their extensive land holding surrounding the museum gave them the opportunity to model green behavior to their neighboring communities and to educate visitors about sustainable practices. This shift in institutional philosophy, led to portions of their grounds being re-purposed to provide flood-monitoring services for the Geological Service. They also created the biggest green roof in Indiana, a 15,000 square foot roof over their parking garage, which reduces storm water runoff and beautifies the structure.
The California Academy of Sciences extended their interest in sustainable and green practices when redesigning their restaurant and cafe. Created with the dual purpose of being a dining venue and educational space, designers aimed to create discussion about sustainable practices through menu selections featured local, seasonal, organic produce as well as sustainable seafood and locally-sourced, hormone-free meats. In addition, the restaurants avoid unnecessary packaging and materials, provide food composting opportunities and feature educational signage, augmenting the learning experience begun in the exhibition galleries. Not satisfied with just a Platinum-level LEED certification, the California Academy of Sciences went beyond sustainable structural choices to also create learning opportunities and support local farmers and ethical fishing cooperatives.
In embracing environmental issues, many museums have developed innovative physical spaces where sustainable and green practices are explored and services are provided. Numerous museums have associated with farmers’ markets, including both Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Museum of Science and Industry, the Edmond’s Historical Museum in Edmonds, Washington, the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, and the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. Some museums have acquired land and are creating parks and green spaces, actively demonstrating their role as a community leader in environmental initiatives. For example, the Seattle Art Museum and the Trust for Public Land acquired a brownfield and adjacent lot in1999 and converted them into a park that functions as a community gathering space and contains an extension of a public bicycle trail. In addition, the park features replanted shoreline that supports salmon restoration, sculptures for public viewing, and some of the only unobstructed views of and access to Elliott Bay available in downtown Seattle.
Several foundations have begun funding green and sustainable initiatives, including the Kresge Foundation. Frequently awarding grants to museums, the Kresge Foundation lists community development and the environment amongst their fields of interest. The Foundation models these principles in recent renovations and additions to their headquarters, reflecting their green and sustainable practices, and qualifying for a Platinum-level LEED rating. As museums approach potential funders for grants, they would do well to demonstrate congruent institutional philosophy.
Museum leaders have the opportunity to demonstrate forward thinking and active interest in issues not traditionally associated with museums by placing priority on incorporating green and sustainable initiatives in their institutions. As museums consider the future implications of their present day decisions, the need to make green and sustainable choices has multiple potential outcomes. Museums can quickly see the immediate benefits of these initiatives in energy savings, educational opportunities, and support of local agriculture and natural resources. Furthermore, green and sustainable efforts have enormous potential to impact of eco-awareness in youth audiences, and the impact of reducing negative environmental damage on a global level is immeasurable.
Museums around the world are taking the opportunity to educate their visitors in matters of environmental responsibility, and through this effort museums are actively demonstrating their commitment to be vital resources for their communities, innovative members of international museum circles, and responsible stewards of natural resources. It is increasingly necessary for museum leadership to place significance, allot staff resources, and address physical, and structural concerns in areas where museums can promote awareness of sustainable and green practices.