Expert’s Corner – Sustainable development in the museum sector
As France Muséums publishes its social and environmental policy, Zélie Roche, Institutional Affairs and Sustainability Manager, shares her insights on the evolution of the museum sector in terms of social and environmental responsibility and outlines the work carried out by France Muséums to achieve this policy.
How can we move sustainable development forward on a large scale in the global museum sector?
Because of their public utility, museums have, until now, been subjected to few regulatory constraints relating to sustainability. Despite this, many museums have taken the task in hand by setting up sustainable development strategies. Although French museums such as the Louvre, Universcience and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle have been actively addressing the issue for several years, our colleagues in the English-speaking world have sometimes taken the lead in the concrete implementation of their strategies. The Natural History Museum and the British Museum in London, which have both established climate change roadmaps, recently announced their goal to be Net Zero Carbon institutions, while the Guggenheim and Australian museums have made robust social commitments via ethical charters and awareness-raising workshops and regularly communicate on their initiatives.
Through the network of museums that it continues to develop, one of the essential missions of France Muséums is to show that the social role of museums is inseparable from their cultural, scientific and educational functions. In other words, our task is to highlight the positive contribution of museums to the community at large. The visitor experience fosters open-mindedness, contemplation, learning and curiosity about the world around us. Without being moralistic, the museum, its exhibits and spaces can play a key role in raising awareness of social issues, sharing knowledge, preserving cultural heritage and fostering tolerance. Museums are living places open to all, and our role at France Muséums is to make them accessible to broad and diverse audiences.
In addition, from an environmental standpoint, the temporary and mobile nature of exhibitions and events raises important questions about the use of resources and energy required to instal them. Every step counts, and the approach is systemic: selecting and shipping exhibits, designing the exhibition layout and interpretive tools, constructing the physical environment in which the works will be exhibited, crafting the visitor journey…all the phases involved in creating an exhibition have environmental impacts that must be anticipated. The project design phase is decisive: determining the number of artworks and foreign loans and defining the floor area to be occupied and the duration of the exhibition are all decisions that affect the value chain. While adding environmental criteria to supplier specifications can have an impact, it will always be significantly less effective than in-depth thinking about the provenance and number of exhibits and the duration of the exhibition at an early stage. As the coordinator of all our project stakeholders, France Muséums acts as a key mediator,making it possible to place environment-friendly approaches at the core of all our projects. Our fundamental intuition, which has developed during many years organising exhibitions abroad, is that taking account of these challenges as early as possible does not detract in any way from the scientific richness of our projects or from the visitor experience—quite the contrary, in fact.
By developing robust partnerships, fostering collaboration between stakeholders and taking account of the constraints within which they operate, we can encourage change and innovation and move towards more sustainable practices.
As well as fostering best practices, grouping stakeholders together makes us better able to exert leverage on public authorities. Focusing as a group on the constraints and requirements of the sector makes it possible to support transition by creating the appropriate tools, implementing new rules and obtaining subsidies. The government takes account of feedback from organisations and institutions, just as it needs to know how willing the public is to embrace new cultural practices so that the appropriate steps can be taken. Once again, this is a systemic approach.
Last but not least, increased social impact and reduced environmental impact cannot be achieved without robust governance. This strategic orientation must be embraced and shared throughout the sector’s value chain. To deliver lasting benefits, implementing a sustainable development strategy must be beneficial to the organisation. Resilience to climate change, however important it is, will only be applied when it delivers concrete benefits. These may be financial (savings and reduced costs) or relate to human resources (e.g. talent retention). Defining a sustainable development strategy thus requires a certain amount of creativity in order to rethink professional approaches and in-house processes. It is vital to set ambitious goals and be prepared to take risks if we are to foster best practices and encourage innovation.
At France Muséums, we first worked within our organisation to reduce our environmental impacts and increase our social impacts; we then focused on the projects in which we are involved, taking care to maintain the cultural and scientific excellence that is our constant goal. Sustainable development is an essential aspect of our activity and has become a fundamental part of the way we support museums. We strive to improve our procedures by learning from our mistakes. There are many solutions available, and it’s up to us to apply them as creatively as possible.
 “sustainability »: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Reference: https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/sustainability
 « Net Zero » : net zero means cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, by oceans and forests for instance. Reference: https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/net-zero-coalition