Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Book Review - The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice

The Green Museum by Sarah S. Brophy and Elizabeth Wylie is one of the best museum books I've read all year. First published in 2008, Brophy and Wylie released an updated version in 2013. The Green Museum's book cover touts it as "the leading handbook for museums seeking to learn ways to implement environmentally sustainable practices at their institutions, whether they are planning new construction or want to find out how to green their day-to-day operations." Once you read it, it's easy to see why this claim is made. It is inspirational. And I don't use this term lightly.

We often say that museums have no idea how powerful they really are, and the authors encourage museums to use this to their advantage. "As environmental sustainability becomes mainstream, museums are finding they have an expanded role in education about environmental issues and connecting them to their institutional missions. Showing visitors the consequences of overconsumption and poor environmental practices, while also showing them alternatives to those behaviors, is a way to stimulate collective action." Too often museums take a "just the facts" approach rather than championing healthy change that will benefit society as a whole, but "if we cannot lead by example, then why should people listen to what we are saying?"

One of the premises that weaves through the book is the notion of the quadruple bottom line; that in everything the museum does it should consider people, the planet, profit (financial sustainability), and program (tying everything back to the mission statement). The many, many case studies featured include some wonderful quotes from the individuals who have embraced the idea of "being the change". One of my favourite examples of from the Madison Children's Museum:
"Museums are agents for social change and cultural content shapers in their communities. As such, they have an incredible obligation to help positively shape local and national agendas, and thus our children's futures. ... Museums are in a unique position to lead by example and proactively address these challenges in a non-threatening, educational, and public way - through the topics we choose for exhibits, and, more importantly, through the way we do business."

Brophy & Wylie focus a lot of attention on the preliminary work such as policy development and planning. To be honest I expected that their version of "starting small" and assertions that their book was for museums of all shapes and sizes would fall flat; that the "small" museums would actually be much larger than the small museums of Nova Scotia. But, I'm happy to say I was wrong. The ideas and tips run the full spectrum and even encourage an approach of climbing the ladder towards bigger and better green activities. First steps include picking the low-hanging fruit of energy reduction through the use of energy efficient lightbulbs, reducing paper and water consumption, and using green cleaning supplies. This is often stuff that we are doing at home, so just need to extend those practices into our work lives.

Another underlying theme of the book is that we should be seeking gradual improvements and be celebrating these changes when we communicate with our community. Planning is key, as is monitoring. Not everyone will have a green mindset at first, and it's important to be able to demonstrate positive impacts. For instance, some museums report a drop of 15-30% in electricity bills when they switch to LEDs. That's something worth bragging about!

There are so many good suggestions...too many to share here. So here's a quick list to pique your interest:
  • Establish a Green Team - coordinate efforts and ensure 'green' is worked into strategic and other plans and projects
  • Recycle, compost, and provide visitors opportunities to do the same, identify local sources for food and program supplies, turn off computers & lights at night, carpool/bike/bus to work, print sparingly, switch to green cleaning products, avoid packing in gift shop items, don't sell bottled water, ban styrofoam, use zero-VOC paint only, use occupancy sensors in exhibit rooms and task lighting in work areas.
  • Remind people about your green practices - put statements at the bottom of your e-newsletter and email signature that these are green, tree-free communications, and to please consider the environment before printing emails or attachments.
  • Create an alternative admission fee where visitors can bring in CFL or LED lightbulbs, or other green supplies to help cover the costs of switching to sustainable practices and lower the museum's energy consumption. Or offer a discount when people arrive by foot, bicycle, or public transportation. Think of all the green street cred you'll get!
  • Brainstorm to figure out the best way to share the local climate changes you're seeing to tie in with the bigger story. Studies show that 75% of people would like to know more about climate change.
  • Incorporate best practices around effective environmental education, including being learner-oriented, using discovery-based approaches, placing learning in the context of the local, being action-oriented, and focusing on relationships (more listed in the book)
  • Have a Home/Building Energy Audit conducted, results & recommendations can be worked into long-term plans with other bigger ideas/plans like tankless water heaters, geothermal energy, green or cool roofs or living walls, aerators and low-flow toilets, monitoring system, fuel cells and photovoltaic panels, etc etc. 
  • Refer to industry leaders' websites for tips and resources - Energy StarLEED Canada (info on certification or just use the checklists in project planning as goals)
  • Get inspired by what other museums are doing - check out the Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit, Green Parks PlanGreen Tips,  Only Local Toolkit, Property Care White Papers, Shades of Green Guide
Richard Piacentini's remarks at a "Green Museums" symposium session just might say it best:
"It is very important that we operate our buildings and programs so that they are consistent with our missions, visions and values. We are creatures of habit and tend to do the same things the same ways over and over again. Too often our actions are not consistent with our values. It is easy to let some of the little things slip through the cracks...but people can see through that and we can lose credibility when everything does not align. That is why, as trusted public sources of inspiration and knowledge, it is essential for museums to walk the walk - to not just talk about sustainability but to make it a part of everything we do."

I hope this whet your appetite. If so, be in touch and borrow the book so you can learn even more about public expectations, funding options and positioning, change management, and a myriad of case studies to help you see how to implement green practices at your museum.