Museums: more than just a cultural environment?

Grace Dean investigates what museum can do to become more environmentally-friendly

Grace Dean
18th November 2019
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The ripples of the climate emergency and the increasing global focus on sustainability are permeating every aspect of modern culture and lifestyle, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat, from our daily commute to our choice of hobbies. But how is climate change affecting the museum sector?

This is a question currently being posed in Germany, where cultural leaders have asked the Minister for Culture to create a central task force to address how museum policy can adapt and respond to changes in our environment. The administrative body is hoped to establish tangible goals related to issues like air conditioning and lighting; because many museums are state-owned, it is up to the government’s climate policy to shape how urgently museums treat this issue.

Over in Vienna, innovative responses to the unique environmental problems that museums face are also being developed. While the Tate in London has attracted attention by recently announcing a climate emergency, the Kunst Haus Wien (Art House of Vienna) has taken much more practical measures by becoming one of Europe’s first museums to qualify for an eco-certification label. Alongside being home to the world’s largest permanent collection of Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s artwork and being one of Vienna’s most popular museums for contemporary photography, the museum is developing ways to integrate climate-friendly processes across the museum. This very much corresponds to Hunderwasser’s ideology, who is famed for his artistic ecological vision and his intention to live as sustainably as possible.

As well as an increased focus on the growing branch of climate change art, with four artists presenting shows there each year that address ecological issues, the museum has revamped its shop, restaurant, offices and exhibition spaces to reflect developments in eco-friendly technology and facilities. The restaurant now serves only vegan, organic, regional products, which come in reusable containers. Over-packaged products have been phased out of its gift shop.

While many museums host climate-themed exhibitions, they don’t necessary reflect this in their day-to-day running

In conversation with ArtNet, Director Bettina Leidl expressed her dissatisfaction that, while many museums host climate-themed exhibitions, they don’t necessary reflect this in their day-to-day running: “If, as an art institution, you take up topics such as sustainability and ecology in order to achieve an effect with the visitor, you should also critically question yourself about how you deal with them in your own organization.” Examples include The British Museum, The National Portrait Gallery and The Louvre in Paris, which are sponsored by oil companies.

Image: Pixabay

Becoming sustainable is, however, much harder than it first sounds. Some changes are easy to implement, such as switching to low-energy LED lighting and chlorine-free paper, but many museums and galleries are housed in beautiful historic buildings, which sometimes carry ‘listed’ status; the Kunst Haus is unable to have solar panels on the roof because of its old architecture. When you are an international art museum, you will always have art transport and thus worsen the ecological footprint. You cannot simply decide that you should only show local artists who will bring their paintings by bicycle,” Leidl says.

The eco-developments of the Kunst Haus Wien can be seen echoed elsewhere throughout Austria; three cities in the country are currently applying to be the 2024 European Capital of Culture, but the EU requires that all participating museums are eco-certified.
Leidl perfectly summarises the future of sustainability for museums: “A museum is also a value-producer with a socio-political mission that we have to convey to the public and to visitors. Can art change the climate? No, but art can refine our perception and change our perspective. Numerous artists combine their art with an ecological commitment and get us out of our comfort zone.”

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AUTHOR: Grace Dean
Editor-in-Chief of the Courier 2019/20, News Editor 2018/19, writer since 2016 and German & Business graduate. I've written for all of our sections, but particularly enjoy writing breaking news and data-based investigative pieces. Best known in the office for making tea and blasting out James Blunt. Twitter: @graceldean

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