A Holistic Approach to Sustainability

International Museum Construction Congress
November 2023
By Christos Carras

At the recent International Museum Construction Congress in Antwerp, Belgium, AEA Consulting's Senior Consultant Natalia Vartapetova and Senior Associate Christos Carras, along with Fred Hagley, Sustainability Consultant with Buro Happold Engineering, ran a workshop on a ‘Holistic Approach to Sustainability Strategy in the Museum Sector’. The thirty or so participants in the workshop (kudos for being there at 9 a.m. on a cold, wet, windy Sunday!) were introduced to the Sustainability System for the Arts (SSA), engaged in work on a museum case study in small groups, and reported back in the context of a lively and well-informed discussion.

Developed by AEA Consulting and Buro Happold, the SSA is the first fully integrated methodology for guiding arts organizations in their work towards environmental sustainability. The SSA provides a framework for measuring impacts, engaging stakeholders, benchmarking, monitoring, target-setting, improving and communicating. It creates a specific yet flexible methodology that leads to a well-defined, time-bound and verifiable sustainability strategy for the sector. The key to the SSA is that it is based on analysis and research that feeds into a context-sensitive strategy addressing the core environmental, social, and governance topics of each organization based on its vision and mission. This echoes our conviction that sustainability strategies should not be an added burden on museums but insteadd enhance the impact they already deliver.

The SSA takes its lead from four basic premises:

1. Museums and arts organizations have a crucial contribution to make to global sustainability, both through their own activities and by mobilizing constituencies and communities within which they enjoy significant levels of good will, as well as actors in other sectors with whom they collaborate or who are part of their value chain.

2. The climate emergency brought home by scientific consensus and intensifying natural disasters has focused minds on emissions and global warming. However, combating the climate emergency is inextricably linked with achieving a higher level of sustainable development across many of the topics set out by the United Nations in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which represent a globally recognized ‘common denominator’ for sustainability.

3. Regulators, markets, and investors across the world are progressively establishing sustainability as a precondition for access to grants and finance. Philanthropic organizations and public funders are positioning sustainability at the core of their programs. Society today expects arts organizations to be leaders in progressive sustainability action.

4. For museums and arts organizations themselves, developing a sustainability strategy can be an important opportunity to deepen stakeholder engagement, refine vision and mission, and develop new services. The SSA is designed to bring benefits not only to the broader social, economic, and environmental contexts that each museum operates in, but also to generate significant value for the museum itself at the level of reputation and compliance, impact, connection with stakeholders and staff cohesion / motivation, and efficiency.

The System also integrates a dimension whose importance is now being recognized by the cultural sector: evaluation and reporting. The truth is that sustainability is not only about prioritizing goals and adopting attitudes that recognize the importance of an organization’s impacts. It is about undertaking specific actions to improve those impacts, and that requires understanding the current state, setting targets, and evaluating progress. Reporting is an important corollary to this process, and a high quality and substantiated report is the only way to credibly and verifiably communicate an organization’s commitment to sustainability.

The SSA makes clear and concrete connections with cultural organizations’ organizational and operational strategy, indicatively at the levels of:

  • Programming
  • A focus on decarbonization and circularity
  • Infrastructure planning, improvement and operation
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • The use of digital technologies and media
  • Fine-tuning procedures and processes
  • Maximizing intersectoral synergies

The workshop in Antwerp looked at specific sustainability topics in relation to these organizational and operational dimensions and the case study that was discussed provided an opportunity to think through practical steps to improve positive contributions to sustainability.

Although the sector recognizes sustainability as a key concern, museums often grapple with challenges related to their human, technical, and financial resources. A NEMO report on 'Museums in the Climate Crisis' published in 2022 and based on a European study of over 500 museums, sheds light on these issues. For instance, 67.2% of respondents express a lack of sufficient knowledge about the SDGs and climate action within their organizations. Additionally, 61.8% of museums lack methods or criteria to measure and assess their sustainable efforts. 64.5% of responding museums claim that the SDGs are at least partially reflected in their strategic plans but only 14% have fully integrated the SDGs into their strategic plans.

We were encouraged to hear from other IMCC participants and speakers on the vital role sustainability plays in their approach to museum planning and operation. Yet it has been recognized that many museums – and associated construction projects – are yet to begin to implement planning and mitigation strategies that would lead to overall sustainability. It is our hope that the Sustainability System for the Arts can go a long way towards improving this situation and help maximize the cultural sector’s capacity to contribute to a fair and sustainable world.

We look forward to continuing the conversation and welcome the opportunity to hear from you regarding your thoughts about implementing a sustainability strategy within your institution.

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