Most of us have an abiding fondness for museums through memories of school or family day-trips. As a formative building block for learning more about our past as we move into the present, museums hold a pivotal place in society.
So how does the museum sector, a vehicle for preserving the past to educate and inform, sustain itself for the future? Elizabeth Marsden, a past participant in our Sustainability in the Workplace Course has driven change in this sector, specifically amongst small museums. We reflect how these changes were made possible and her journey along the way.
Elizabeth is the Collections Manager at The Sovereign Hill Museums Association, and was previously Co-Manager of the Museums Accreditation Program (MAP), a national framework for museums to operate effectively. Elizabeth has always had a passion for sustainability, stemming from a personal interest in permaculture but more importantly, her awareness that museums are key to engaging the community and preserving the future, drives her to keep sustainability on the agenda.
Sharing best practice
Energy consumption is a major part of a museum’s carbon footprint. However, the need for extensive hours of lighting collections and displays coupled with historically strict regulations in the managing of collections limits scope for change. Unsurprisingly, many museums are also located in heritage listed buildings which have strict rules around what you can and can't change. Museums Australia introduced the Museums and Sustainability Guidelines for Policy and Practice in Museums and Galleries in the early 2000’s, however the uptake of this has remained low amongst the smallest museums. Sustainability is included in the National Standards for Australian Museums and Galleries (on which MAP is based) stating that museums will manage facilities with consideration for the sustainability of natural resources.
Elizabeth was aware of potential solutions which would improve museum sustainability, including modifications to buildings, operational processes and improving staff education. There was an opportunity to retrofit buildings - particularly older ones - and implement LED lighting. Additionally, many museums were already undertaking sustainable initiatives, some unknowingly and others who were unaware of the environmental benefits; in both cases providing an opportunity to share best practice.
In 2013 Elizabeth undertook a sustainability survey of MAP participant museums and found many museums needed support to deliver sustainability objectives. In particular, her survey identified the need for an energy auditing guide for small volunteer museums who often lacked the funds required to contract private energy auditors or to individually undertake auditing training. Wanting to create a guide to assist this process, she identified her own need to develop the skills and knowledge that would help achieve this.
To this end, Elizabeth embarked on the Green Steps Sustainability in the Workplace course in 2014, focussing her workplace project on conducting an energy audit at Creswick Museum. Results showed an astounding 90% of energy use for the museum was attributed to lighting. Elizabeth's recommendation to upgrade to LED lighting was ultimately implemented and has already shown positive improvements in reducing energy consumption.
Improving staff knowledge and skills in sustainability
The success of this auditing activity provided the catalyst for Elizabeth to develop the Energy Auditing Guide for Small Museums for Museums Australia (Victoria). This was further progressed with the purchase of auditing equipment to be loaned out to museums. It was followed by further funding to create energy workshops that help Victorian museums put their auditing skills into action. Similar resources have been developed across Australia such as Museums and Galleries Queensland who developed a similar state based resource in 2015.
When discussing how the course helped Elizabeth meet her goal, she suggested that, in addition to practical auditing skills, her perception that driving the agenda was the right thing to do was tremendously validated. This came through learning with like-minded people and hearing participants from various sectors confirm it was the correct path for museums to take into the future. Elizabeth also commented that, whilst she had always adapted her approach, interacting with 90+ museums - all with differing cultures and environmental influences – the course helped her become more mindful and planned in adapting her approach.
Leading the way for sustainability in museums
Having transitioned to her new role and continuing to drive sustainability on the Australian museum agenda, Elizabeth recently led The Sovereign Hill Museums Association to become the first museum in Australasia to sign the Green Museums Accord (a pledge around 5 principles of sustainability, originating in California). In recognising the opportunity for international museums to be involved in the Accord, Elizabeth found her skills in identifying audience motivators helpful in building a successful business case. With Elizabeth’s ongoing involvement in MAP as an Advisory Committee member, she hopes signing the Accord will positively influence other museums to follow this example.
Sustainability in action: Solar panels on the Gold Museum at Sovereign Hill
Elizabeth foresees a positive future for sustainability within the museum sector, particularly now that strict regulations around managing collections have become more flexible. She is also encouraged by the news that Museums Australia (Victoria) has been awarded funding to roll out the model to other museums in 2016 and 2017. This presents a huge opportunity for progression in the journey to putting sustainability firmly on museums’ agenda. Nevertheless, Elizabeth recognises there is still a lot of work to do. Vitally, museums will need to take a holistic approach in developing a sustainability policy that is measured within their strategy, to ensure it is both practical and realistic.
To find out more about our next Sustainability in the Workplace course, click here for more information.