We’ve lost the right to be pessimistic: The time to act is now

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Zeitz Museum windows. Photo by Martyn Smith/Flickr (2017). Licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Marina Herriges
IIC Associate Editor for Reframing Conservation Through Sustainability

I normally open the newspaper for a quick glance while I have my breakfast. One recent morning a particular headline drew my attention: “We’ve lost the right to be pessimistic.” This article discussed a well-known outdoor brand and the founder’s perspective on the fast-approaching climate crisis, its impacts and how important and overdue our individual and societal answers to this issue are.

Energy efficiency and sustainability are major issues in today’s economically challenged climate. They are particularly relevant to our energy-hungry museum and gallery sector. It is interesting to see how the global majority is changing its perception by adjusting museum environments in relation to their local climate, therefore tackling climate change.

David Saunders, during the 2022 AGM Talk, gave a brief overview of the historic changes in the preventive conservation of collections and museum environments going from guidelines-based decision making to sustainability-based decision making—a shift which we are now experiencing as heritage workers. David highlighted how important it is today to keep sustainability at the centre of our thinking, giving as an example how museums in less temperate climates are shifting environmental requirements to follow their local climate, promoting a more passive and energy efficient system.

One year ago the Victoria & Albert Museum (UK) published its sustainability plan, which includes an action plan to “adapt our buildings so they are fit for future climate scenarios, safeguarding appropriate environments for people and objects”. The museum has an environmental monitoring system to understand the climate across the buildings and enable the Museum to study the temperature shifts through the seasons each year (which can vary from 10 degrees Celsius in winter to nearly 30 in summertime). This system is expensive and energy consuming, but it enables the Museum to understand the mitigation measures that need to be done for the near future.

The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Germany revised the climate standards for its own collection last year. Following the IIC and ICOM-CC Joint Declaration on Environmental Guidelines, and based on the idea that there are seasonal periods in which cooler conditions and relative humidity are more economical and sustainable to produce, the new moisture band control allows a seasonal drift of the relative humidity. Their results showed a reduction of 15% humidification in the Henkel Gallery, which resulted in 1,000 euros of yearly savings. The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen is also adapting its own standards for outgoing loan contracts enabling project partners to implement similar measures.

The Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is an award-winning museum that demonstrates the use of local resources to decrease energy levels and improve efficiency. In 2017 the museum was awarded Best Innovative Green Building for its innovations in capturing solar energy and use of water from Guanabara Bay for the air conditioning system and its water mirror. This is possible because the Museum was built for purpose with a sustainable approach.

The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art in Cape Town, South Africa, adopted principles of efficient energy use by re-using materials and by using natural light and natural ventilation. The climate control system for the gallery spaces makes use of a ventilation system that harnesses a seawater cooling plant which serves the entire commercial and leisure district along Cape Town’s waterfront. This system uses cool water from the ocean to assist in climate control, improving efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of the museum.

These are a few examples of how cultural institutions have been leading the change towards a more environmentally friendly world. However, it is important to acknowledge that some of these implementations require significant financial investment which is not always available.

I spoke with Ogechukwu Elizabeth Okpalanozie, a researcher and art conservator at the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria (NCMM). Oge, as she likes to be called, explained to me that NCMM uses a passive method of climate control, and by deciding to change their approach, shifting away from European perspectives, they now take into consideration Nigeria’s seasonals patterns and have a holistic approach to climate control. In her view, by following the local climate, and knowing that the majority of the collection objects have been in the museums at least 50 years, they can relax their environmental measures and still maintain long-term preservation of the objects. This decision has allowed them to reduce their carbon footprint, improve their energy efficiency and save financial resources to be invested in other areas.

I had a similar experience working on a museum project in Brazil where the temperature and humidity levels in the storage room were very difficult to regulate. The museum with which I was working is based in Rio de Janeiro; it is located on the beach and has only a small budget allocated for equipment. At that time, the museum was trying to track the average environmental levels and establish an equilibrium the museum could sustainably hold. It was far beyond the Western standards. However, for that museum it worked very well, despite concerns about pest infestation.

In relation to my work in Brazil, my initial curiosity in talking with Oge was about pest infestation, as I expected this to be a shared concern in her similar tropical climate. To my surprise, Oge explained that pests are not as problematic for museums in Nigeria as might be expected. They work on a holistic integrated pest management approach, in which all museum staff are allies and work together to mitigate this issue. The Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen also acknowledges that close cooperation across departments has a positive contribution to the protection of the museum environment.

We should all embrace a collaborative approach in our work tackling climate action. There is a statement from the American Alliance of Museums which emphasises that “We [mu-seum workers] design the commitments; we decide how to highlight the value of cultural institutions in this important work [addressing the climate crisis].” With this in mind, there is no reason why we should not all be moving beyond potential to action right now.


Marina Herriges is an object and textile conservator based in Bristol, UK. Marina is a guest visiting lecturer and research assistant at University of Glasgow. She researches embedding sustainability for active learning and student engagement in conservation. Marina has a particular interest in sustainable practices in conservation ethics as well as conservation education. Marina has worked in a range of different heritage and conservation organizations in Brazil, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom.

(Read the article in the April-May 2023 "News in Conservation" Issue 95, p. 48-51)

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I normally open the newspaper for a quick glance while I have my breakfast. One recent morning a particular headline drew my attention: “We’ve lost the right to be pessimistic.”
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