The Greenest Museums

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Zeitz Museum: Zeitz Museum (2018. Image by Arthur Spring/Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. Original location here.

Here is a sampling of some of the greenest museums from around the world. While this is by no means a definitive “top ten” list, it does highlight a variety of ways in which museums have become more sustainable in recent years. Take a look, and perhaps discover ways to inspire change in your own workplace!

CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES (SAN FRANCISCO, USA)

Designed by Renzo Piano (known for his sustainable architecture), the California Academy of Sciences opened in 2008 and faces the de Young Museum across a large outdoor courtyard in the middle of the iconic Golden Gate Park. The most immediate and striking feature of the Academy is its living roof, which is a lawn of rolling hills atop the building. These rooftop hills boast millions of plants, attracting local wildlife. This landscape naturally insulates the building below, reducing energy costs, and is also designed to catch rain water. As if the roof wasn’t already doing enough, it features solar panels providing the power for the museum’s lighting.

The metal structures used to construct the Academy are made up of almost 90% recycled material. It is not only the construction, however, that makes this museum a leader among green museums. Inside you’ll find a rainforest, aquarium, and countless other exhibits that teach about our natural world alongside our stewardship to care for it. It’s no surprise that the Academy is already Platinum LEED certified and aims to become the greenest museum in the world.

THE MUSEU DO AMANHà/ MUSEUM OF TOMORROW (RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL)

From the outside, Rio’s Museum of Tomorrow, which opened in 2015, looks like a prehistoric skeleton and a futuristic airship, harkening back to our past and looking forward into the future all at once. The solar panels on the exterior were designed to move with the sun throughout the day, inspired—as stated by the architect Santiago Calatrava—by the bromeliads in Rio’s Botanical Gardens.

The museum was also constructed with an air conditioning system that uses water from Guanabara Bay, on which the museum sits. As part of the process, the museum’s cooling technology cleans and then returns the water back to the bay. It also collects and reuses rainwater.

The designers have stated that the museum uses 40% less energy than conventional buildings, and it saves 9.6 million liters of water and 2,400 megawatt-hours of electricity per year. A striking difference from most other museums, The Museum of Tomorrow focuses on ideas rather than on objects. The Museum gears its exhibits toward humanity’s need to reflect and to change. The exhibits focus on our changing earth, mapping out where we came from and where our choices may lead us, making the mission of this museum one of sustainability at its core.

The Museum has also fostered partnerships with Brazil’s leading universities and global science institutions in order to track data on the climate.

TERRA—THE SUSTAINABILITY PAVILION (DUBAI, UAE)

The 2020 Expo in Dubai, a 6-month world fair covering over 1,000 acres, was postponed due to Covid-19, and just finished at the end of March 2022. The entire Expo, while not technically a museum, more or less functioned as one, focusing on the themes of sustainability, mobility, and opportunity.

One of the main areas, Terra, was the Sustainability Pavilion, which played a key role over the span of the entire event. The centerpiece of the Expo was undoubtedly the 440-foot-wide steel canopy holding 1,000 solar panels and featuring technologies allowing the Pavilion to produce its own energy, cooling, and water.

“We felt that if you can operate a totally net-zero building in one of the world’s most challenging climates,” says Andrew Whalley of the firm Grimshaw, the Pavilion designers, “then clearly it can be done anywhere in the world.” Another innovation included building most of the exhibition space below ground level, providing natural, energy-saving insulation from the unforgiving desert heat.

The Sustainability Pavilion portion of the Expo promises to have a life after the event, reusing at least 80% of the built infrastructure which, in and of itself, includes LEED Gold and Platinum-certified buildings. Terra will actually become a public children’s science center focusing on sustainability once the Expo is closed.

THE PRADO MUSEUM (MADRID, SPAIN)

While many of the museums celebrated for their sustainability are new constructions from the 21st century, it is not always possible to build new from the foundation up, nor is it often the most sustainable option. There are several museums around the world which utilize an existing structure, finding creative ways to green-up their old buildings.

The Prado in Madrid is an excellent example of this. In 2015 the museum partnered with la Fundación Iberdrola to create a more sustainable lighting system. With the installation of LED lights, the Museum was able to cut down its energy use by 75%, cutting CO2 emissions by 320 tons each year.

As a fine art museum, not traditionally focusing its collection and exhibitions on sustainability, the Museum got creative in order to spread this message through art. In 2019, coming out of the UN COP25 held in Madrid, the Prado partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to digitally alter four of its masterpieces in a project titled “+ 1,5ºC Lo Cambia Todo”, (+ 1.5ºC Changes Everything) illustrating what those painted scenes might look like in a world ravaged by rising temperatures. What if Goya’s woman from The Parasol (1777) was actually a displaced refugee in a tent encampment? Or perhaps Velazquez’s Felipe IV a Caballo (1635-36) might find himself and his steed not on a hill top, but within a flooded ravine.

The Prado’s recent efforts make the museum a fantastic example, using its strengths and existing resources to create more sustainable practices and also to bring more awareness to the public without new construction.

THE HERMITAGE (SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA)

The Hermitage is another example of a historical structure which has managed to change its practices to become one of the greenest museums in the world. Once home to the great Tsars of Russia, the palace now houses an art collection rivaled by few.

By square footage, it is one of the largest, as well as one of the most visited, museums in the world and, perhaps due to its size, is now one of the greenest. Just by switching out the old lighting system for energy-saving bulbs, the museum was able to reduce its overall energy costs by nearly 60%.

NINGBO HISTORY MUSEUM (NINGBO, CHINA)

Chinese architect Wang Shu, known for his firm’s sustainable designs, completed the Ningbo History Museum in 2008. While this museum was a new construction, Wang created the building out of rubble gathered from demolition sites in surrounding provincial villages. Wang used the traditional rammed earth technique to create the walls, but instead of using freshly quarried earth, as is done traditionally, he used millions of brick fragments, roof tiles, bamboo and other salvaged architectural fragments from buildings recently flattened. This design is not only more sustainable, but it also literally preserves pieces of architectural traditions from past decades within the museum walls.

Wang’s firm won the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2012 for the Ningbo History Museum design which resembles an upside-down mountain, symbolizing the Museum’s mission to explore the natural and cultural histories of the region. While practical and sustainable, Wang is also critiquing China’s common practice of architectural demolition and renewal; he is demonstrating a new, greener way forward.

ZEITZ MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART (CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA)

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art opened on the V&A Waterfront, Cape Town in 2017, the first museum of its scale dedicated to contemporary African Art on the continent, situated on the banks of a city which may soon be underwater due to the climate crisis.

The building was originally a grain silo, built in 1924, but stood closed and vacant since 2000. The architect, Thomas Heatherwick, incorporated much of the old silo structure, which saved a huge about of money on materials and also lowered many other costs; think of all the trucks driving back and forth, the building supplies hauled from one place to another, the energy to break up old construction and then carry it out, depositing it into another location. To further drive home this point, we can compare the cost to create the Zeitz Museum (30 million GBP) and the cost to complete the new Tate Modern building extension in London (270 million GBP).

The museum also takes advantage of natural light and natural ventilation aided by the seawater cooling plant which serves the entire waterfront district in Cape Town, using cool water from the ocean. Additional sustainable efforts include a water monitoring system that uses low-flow plumbing fittings to minimize water use and the use of non-potable water for tasks such as window washing.

The decision to turn the old silo into a museum not only saved money, resources and energy in construction, but it also preserved some of the history of the community. Architect Thomas Heatherwick makes an interesting point when quizzed on the building’s sustainability. He said architecture “tends to just get judged on how much energy usage is saved, and how little water is used... The real meaning of sustainability is far more complex. It includes the human dimension, and assessing how much possibility a building has for working in 100 years from now.”

(See all the museum images in the April-May 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 89, p. 6-9)

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Here is a sampling of some of the greenest museums from around the world. While this is by no means a definitive “top ten” list, it does highlight a variety of ways in which museums have become more sustainable in recent years. Take a look, and perhaps discover ways to inspire change in your own workplace!
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