Thursday, July 1, 2010

Museums in a Climate of Change - Part I

Weather, Money, Collections and, oh yes, The Plus/Minus Dilemma

If you’re in the museum field, your world is being rocked – probably violently.

If you are responsible for collections stewardship, then you’re following the Plus/Minus Dilemma discussions.

If you are a zoo, garden, aquarium, then you’re examining Climate Change and its affect on your species’ futures.

If you’re a museum, then you are interpreting, or figuring out how or why to interpret, Climate Change for your audience.

If you are an historic site, then you are monitoring the future of Save America’s Treasures.

If you are in the Gulf, then you’re following Deepwater Horizon and are fearful for your budget.

What’s a professional to do when the basic tenets of practice are challenged repeatedly and intensely? We do what the museum field is good at: share what we know so that we can all learn from each other.

A number of talented, dedicated people are working together, nationally and internationally to address these really big problems and they are sharing their discussions with the rest of us. So do yourself, and your museum, a favor and take the time out of your daily museum practice to read from these links. It will inform your practice and remind you that we all can and will tackle these huge challenges – but that no one has to go it alone. The field is behind us all.

There’s so much excellent work going on, though, that smashing it all into one post is a waste. So I’ll post the first set of links here and in the coming days put on the rest in segments.

Let’s start with the Plus/Minus Dilemma:
Many others are going into this, so I shall pass on the information for you to make your own decision, but I clearly vote for more flexible parameters that provide acceptable ranges for types of materials so that we can save energy for the planet. It’s complicated, yes; but certainly more collections appropriate and energy efficient.

Rose Daly, who is doing her own good work on collections their climate management, has provided a recap of the most recent meeting on this issue of what to do with the age-old tradition of collections climate parameters widely assumed to be 70˚ Fahrenheit and 50% Relative Humidity plus or minus. The video at

Her article also has a link to the transcript of the first of the International Institute of Conservators’ Dialogues for a New Century series. The IIC President, Jerry Podany, whom I had the great good pleasure to finally meet at AAM, is a champion’s champion.

Along with the important T/RH discussions there’s a great discussion of physical climate events affecting heritage resources. You’ve seen the maps of what New York City will look like with sea level rise, well the Noah’s Art Project presentation has images of how European regions’ heritage resources will be affected by humidity, heat and biomass changes.

James Reilly (who was a part of this first IIC discussion) and Richard Kerschner of The Shelburne Museum are on the agenda for Environmental Management: Stewardship and Sustainability at the Folger Library sponsored by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in July. I would kill to go but, alas, will be on the road. PLEASE will someone take notes to me – or archive it on video?

In between those two Dialogues, there was a meeting at the MFA Boston (US) on climate control. And here’s a link from Rachel Madan’s newsletter (UK) to the American Institute of Conservators’ blog called Rethinking the Museum Climate with a recap of the Boston meeting called Rethinking the Museum Climate, plus useful links and a topical bibliography:

This is really complex stuff, hence the various links, voices, meetings and recommendations. This is a big chunk of our core work, so there will be a lot of churning. We each must be responsible for keeping informed and contributing whatever we can to help with this incredibly important field-wide discussion.

Please, please, please take the time to pay attention.


  1. I would really, really like to see someone calculate the total net carbon savings if every museum in the world adopted the new, flexible climate control guidelines. While it is an admirable (and practical) effort, I suspect the answer will look like the proverbial drop in the...ocean. Then contrast to the carbon impact of domestic and international tourism by car, by plane. What is the environmental effect of financial strategies based on promoting such travel?

  2. Sustainability is about balance. Right now the goal is to mitigate impact as we work our way to net zero. It takes everyone to get to net zero so even if all this good green museum work turns out to be a drop in the bucket, then it's still part of a major contribution.

    The argument about +/-, like many green situations, has all sorts of synergies because museums are part of the economic ecosystem as well as the social and environmental ecosystems.

    Energy consumption is very likely to be the greatest direct environmental drain by each institution and the greatest expense. This makes it an opportunity to save money to spend instead on saving cultural and natural resources. It's not just about calculating carbon footprints, but balancing many bottom lines. There's the job factor, and the public enjoyment - there you go quadruple bottom line starting with purpose - saving natural and cultural resources. So the net compared to tourism may be poor, but I believe the net compared to overall contribution is way positive.