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Why are museums reluctant to go green?

Why are museums reluctant to go green?

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Museum sustainability consultant Sarah Brophy talks about why going green is risky for museums and why she advises against 'green bling.'

Sarah Brophy is co-chair of the American Association of Museum’s Professional Interest Committee on Environmental Sustainability and principal of bMuse, a firm that focuses on sustainability in museums. Brophy teaches a green museum graduate-level class at George Washington University. I talked with her last week about why museums feel that going green is risky, and why she advises them against “green bling.”

Describe the landscape of museum greening today.

It started with the Madison Children’s Museum in Madison, Wisconsin, around 1998. They wanted to create exhibits that were safer for children, who crawl on the carpet and put things in their mouths. So they started creating green exhibits.

Children’s museums and science museums were the first to implement green practices in buildings—from recycling to composting to paper use. Children's museums were interested in protecting the future of the earth through the future of children, and science museums were interested in climate, the environment and giving people information they could use in their own lives. Zoos and gardens already had a conservation effort. But the art and history museums didn’t see a direct [environmental] connection to themselves.

But when you sit down and think about it, a museum is part of a community and should be contributing to the health and welfare of the community, and they should be more thoughtful of their consumption because they are using charitable gifts. Any money they save on energy, they can put back into their core practice.

Today, I get frequent announcements that museums have been LEED certified. Instead of saying they are the first in the state, they have to say they are the first type of a museum at a certain level in a certain part of the state. Which is a good thing, but we need to get to a point where [getting LEED certified] is just expected practice.

You mentioned earlier that the greening of museums is losing momentum. Why?

My theory is that the recession came at a point when we were going to accelerate. The recession means not just less money, but more stress on an institution, which leaves them less brain space to explore environmental sustainability.

Also, museums don’t tend to be very good risk-takers. Green is a risky choice—and not just because your largest supporters are often of an age that may not support investment for sustainability. Also the speed of adaptation and change makes it seem like you are behind the curve, because it takes several years between idea and unveiling. By the time it’s unveiled, it almost looks old, and no one wants that in their building.

It takes a courageous person who says this is what makes the most sense and then does it, knowing there will always be people who won’t get it, or don’t support it.

Thoughtful greening: Next week, the Wagner Free Institute of Science will receive a Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia for a project that combined an urgently-needed boiler replacement with systemic changes to improve air quality and environmental conditions for visitors, staff, and the Institute’s valuable collections.

Why is becoming more sustainable more risky for museums than other buildings?

I’m not sure it’s more risky, but museums feel it’s riskier for them because they’re donor –dependent and they have to--understandably—be very good stewards of the money they're given. They don’t tend to risk that by testing new technology or being the first to do something, unless that’s part of their culture, like the California Academy of Sciences. But as a field, I would say there’s more museums that are risk-averse than those that enjoy taking risks.

This is one way we can show we [as museums] are learning to be more nimble. We should be a location for some of the experimenting, knowing that we might experiment with something and it may not work, and that that’s an education and we’re learning something.

What are some stepping stone things museums can do that aren’t huge risks and have the most positive benefit?

That’s they key—find the stepping stone things to do. Do spot testing of something—do a new finish on an existing wall in a small exhibit, and if it doesn’t work, then you change it for the next exhibit. But the problem is that these are such small steps, museums tend to not talk about it, and then nobody learns about it. If we all do that together and share information then we can move the field forward instead of anyone feeling like they have to take all the risks for the field.

People think you’re either “green” or “not green.” We’re so afraid of being criticized for being not green. I have to say repeatedly, “Nobody goes all green and nobody goes green all at once.”

In the early years, people only considered bringing green along when you built a new building. Things like a solar array or green roof—it’s big and flashy, and they make an announcement about it. It’s green bling. Green bling should not be the focus.

Have you seen projects begin and then they’re called off because of funding?

I’m not aware of any. What might be more common are that green parts were axed from a project. Someone saw an unaffordable price tag and then took them out. Of course I think that’s a flaw in the planning. It’s a false choice: If you’re pulling out a green aspect because you think it’s more expensive , then you might not have done a life cycle analysis or you are looking at it in isolation. A green idea is never a stand-alone concept. It’s a web, not a silo. If you do it thoughtfully, green has positive impact on a lot of areas.

What’s an example?

Say you are interested in a green roof. You look at the cost, and it’s X, and you think you can’t afford it, because the traditional one costs X-2. But if you take away that roof, you take away the extra insulation on the building, you take away capturing rainwater to use as greywater, which helps the flow rate of water and storm water systems. The concept of synergy is so important with any decision. The trick is to find the green thing that effects other areas positively.

I’m working with the Detroit Zoo, and we’re talking about how to deal with water on site. We’re designing guidelines and we’re establishing an expectation that water should be used twice and sent off cleaner than it would be typically after its primary use.

Zoos use a lot of water in animal exhibits, so that’s the first use. Ideally it should be processed physically through a filter system or through a natural system like a wetlands to be used for some other non-potable purpose like watering plants. Or maybe it runs through a natural habitat area or a public area where they are keeping plants watered for ornamentation or decorative ponds. And then it goes through a wetlands area before it’s released. So you don’t dump dirty water into the sewage system. That’s hard and complex, but it’s the way all institutions need to go.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure