April 16, 2024


Illustration of ornately framed earth painting

The spotlight

There are more museums in the US than there are Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. Within walking distance of the Grist office in downtown Seattle, there is a pinball museum, an NFT museum, a Jimi Hendrix-inspired museum of pop culture, and Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, just a to name a few. From tiny mom-and-pop museums devoted to niche subjects to massive institutions like The Met and The Smithsonian, museums are widely regarded as some of the most reliable sources of information, and also as trusted stewards of cultural artefacts.

But, in part because of the precious objects they house, museums often have disproportionate carbon footprints—and they’re also uniquely vulnerable to climate impacts.

“It’s because we have these very strict regulations to keep temperature and relative humidity at certain levels in the name of preserving the collections,” says Caitlin Southwick, a former art conservator who now runs an organization called Ki Culture which helps museums transition to more sustainable practices.

As providers of a public good, museums, galleries and other cultural entities are often excused from the climate conversation, she said, and in some cases even out of regulation. But, she added, museums can actually be some of the most carbon-intensive buildings in cities.

The field of cultural preservation also has other environmental concerns, such as using toxic chemicals to clean or restore works of art. But climate control represents a particularly vexing problem, as more energy use contributes to climate change, which in turn causes greater temperature extremes that necessitate even more energy use to maintain a controlled indoor environment (sometimes known as the “doom loop” of AC).

As climate change increasingly leaves no city untouched, museums are confronting the reality that rising temperatures and erratic weather threaten their conservation efforts—and they’re turning to new technologies and, in some cases, challenging conventional conservation wisdom to stay ahead and minimize their impact.

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An exterior of a building with a large dome.  A sculpture stands in the foreground.

An exterior view of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan. Charles H. Wright Museum

When Leslie Tom first joined The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, almost a decade ago there was relatively little funding for sustainability efforts. She became the museum’s chief sustainability officer in 2015 as a Detroit Revitalization Fellow through Wayne State University. And, with her background in architecture and design, one of the first things she noticed was that the museum lacked blueprints. “The architect’s office had a fire,” Tom said, and some other record-keeping issues meant that “there was just no accurate documentation.”

In 2019, the museum’s leaders secured funding to begin a project to digitally map the 125,000-square-foot space, answering the demand for documentation with modern tools. They wanted to make The Wright a “smart museum” – and Tom saw an opportunity to help lead this effort and bring sustainability goals to it.

They started with 3D laser scans of the building, which were fed into a digital building information model. Then, about a year ago, using software called Tandem from the company Autodesk, The Wrights created what is known as a digital twin – a detailed replica of the building using near-real-time data from sensors installed around the facility.

“Being in a museum is like a small city to me,” Tom said. “And so now having a representation of that really helps us design the visitor experience, vendor experience, volunteer experience as we all start to work together to think about how we can embed environmental sustainability into all of our processes. “

Two images side by side showing the inside of a roundabout and a sensor standing on a tripod

The Wrights used laser scanners to create a detailed map of the facility, shown here in the museum’s central rotunda. Autodesk

Although the team is just at the beginning of this digitization journey, Tom is excited about what the data can do for energy efficiency—for example, gradually preheating and cooling spaces, based on models of how many people will be in the space at a given time. And while digital infrastructure does create additional energy needs for things like running servers, for Tom and the rest of the team at The Wright, the need for comprehensive data about their building, and the appeal of doing it digitally, outweighed the energy cost of the technology.

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Some museums, including the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, have reduced energy consumption by simply widening the range of temperature and humidity fluctuations they will allow in their buildings. “They just made a decision,” Southwick said. “They said: ‘We’re going from plus or minus 2 [degrees Celsius] to plus or minus 5.’ They saved 20,000 euros per month on their energy bill.” Now the museum is recalibrating its systems to allow for plus or minus 10 degree C swings, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine has done the same, Southwick said.

It’s a somewhat radical challenge to conservation orthodoxy, and in the case of the Guggenheim, the changes have made at least one institution hesitate to lend his work for special exhibitions—although other lenders have supported the move, one of the museum’s deputy directors told The New York Times. “The changes may result in a longer conversation [about lending], but the more people do it, the more widely accepted the practice is,” Southwick said. “In my opinion, this will be the standard within the next year.”

She also sees an opportunity for museums to begin acclimatizing artifacts to changing temperatures. While some truly sensitive objects must be kept under very precise conditions, other materials can actually adapt, Southwick said. She offers wood as an example – when kept in hot, humid environments, it expands, and then if it dries out, it will crack. “But if you gradually increase or decrease the relative humidity over a period of time, then the material has time to react to it without damaging it,” she said. This approach is already used in the course of museum loans between institutions in different climates.

The same strategy “could also be a way for us to preemptively and controllably prepare our objects for the effects of climate change,” Southwick said. Although it is difficult to predict the climatic conditions of the future with absolute certainty, she sees this as an important area of ​​exploration for conservation science. “I think it’s very important for us to make sure that we never get into a situation where we go backwards and increase our HVACs, or we increase our climate control programs, because that’s not going to do anybody any good.”

At The Wright, the new sensors collect data on temperature and humidity, and monitor things like potential leaks, which will help the team be more responsive to environmental shifts that could pose a risk to the 35,000 artifacts The Wright has in its care.

“For any museum or cultural institution, the objects are the most sacred,” Tom said.

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Although Michigan is something of a climate havenThe Wright has already had to contend with extreme weather influences, such as the severe storms that caused flooding throughout the Midwest in the summer of 2021. “Those floods crippled and damaged every cultural institution in this district,” said Jeffrey J. Anderson, the museum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. He made the decision to move The Wright’s entire collection off-site – and it was only last week that the last few items were returned.

Other cultural institutions are facing similar challenges, and figuring out how best to confront them. “More than a third of museums in the US are cited within a hundred kilometers [62 miles] from the coast,” says Elizabeth Merritt, the “in-house futurist” at the American Alliance of Museums and the founding director of the organization’s Center for the Future of Museums. “And a quarter are in zones that are very vulnerable to sea level rise and severe storms,” ​​she added.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC also builds floodgates and stormwater systems vacate the basement collection of his American History museum. In a more extreme example, the island nation of Tuvalu has announced plans to create a digital replica in the metaverse to ensure that his culture lives on if the physical land is submerged by rising seas.

The Wrights currently have no plans to use its digital twin as a backup for the museum itself. But it reckons with the role of a museum during the climate crisis in other ways—driven in part by the understanding that Black Americans and other communities of color are disproportionately affected by climate change and targeted by environmental racism. “From our perspective, we see this as an opportunity for us to be a leader in racial justice, sustainability, climate justice,” especially for the Detroit community, Anderson said.

In 2020, The Wright’s board of directors officially adopted sustainability into the institution’s strategic goals. And, build on existing climate-themed exhibitions and programmessaid Tom, she is eager to explore how data from the digital twin system can be used to communicate with the public about the museum’s sustainability efforts and goals.

“Museums are some of the most trusted sources of information in the US,” Merritt said. Among the general public, they are second only to friends and family. “So they can use that power to help communicate to the public what is going on and what the public can do about it.” She argues that steps like revising policies on air conditioning are just one part of how museums need to think about a multi-faceted commitment to their communities, which could also include climate-themed exhibits and even serve as public cooling centers.

Southwick agrees. Through her organization’s work, she has seen firsthand a growing interest in sustainability, but some reluctance to project that interest outward. “Can you imagine the impact if every museum had an exhibit on climate?” she said. “It’s just extraordinary, which is the strength of the museum sector.”

– Claire Elise Thompson

More exposure

A parting shot

The Climate Museum in New York City is the first museum in the US dedicated to the climate crisis. The organization first launched in 2014; it currently has a pop-up space in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood while the team continues to look for a permanent home. In this photo, director Miranda Massie stands in front of an installation called “Someday, all this,” by artist David Opdyke – a collage of vintage postcards with a somewhat apocalyptic message.

A woman gestures with her arms up towards a wall where a series of vintage postcards are lined up and partially spread out






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