Steps to Environmental Sustainability at Museums & Historic Sites

April 12, 2017

Last week Four Rivers Heritage Area staff participated in a StEPs Lab webinar, “Steps to Environmental Sustainability,” offered by the American Association for State and Local History. Now we would love to share with our partners some steps you can take to implement environmentally sustainable practices while improving your relevance within the community.

So what is “sustainability”? According to webinar leader Sarah Sutton, sustainability means caring for today’s resources so future needs can be met and present life conditions improved. It is about conservation and protection, so museums and heritage sites are well-positioned to be leaders of this initiative.

In order to be effective and useful, environmental sustainability should be translated through your organization’s mission, helping you identify which green choices must be prioritized. It is also important to prioritize local concerns, taking into consideration what is imperative to your region and your community. For example, a community in Arizona might prioritize water preservation while a community in Maryland may be more concerned with water pollution and runoff into the Chesapeake Bay. Some museums have prioritized purchasing and promoting sustainably sourced products in their gift shops, while others have cut water bottle usage by replacing existing water fixtures with filling stations. Priorities do not have to be mutually exclusive, but do allow for a focus or strategic starting point. This approach also helps encourage increased local support, a necessity for small museums.

Sustainability is not only an ideological goal but can also be practically and financially motivated. Many examples of environmental sustainability involve energy and waste initiatives. Energy bills tend to be an organization’s largest expense after staffing, so saving money in this area can make a significant difference in a non-profit’s budget, leaving more available funding for mission-based activities. For example, new LED lights, called Edison bulbs, are appropriate for historic homes.

Take the opportunity to learn from others and share stories and experiences. Museums already including sustainability as part of their organizational strategy include:

  • Abbe Museum, ME
  • Worksman Temple Homestead, CA
  • Dumbarton House, DC
  • American Swedish Institute, MN
  • Hanford Mills Museum, NY
  • Wyck Historic House, PA
  • Wing Luke Museum, WA
  • Putnam County Museum, IN
  • Andalusia Farm, FL
  • Strawbery Banke Museum, NH
  • Glensheen Mansion, MN
  • Montgomery County Historical Society, MD

The following  steps can be taken to improve the environmental sustainability of your organization:

Step 1

  • Conduct an energy audit, which will help to improve your organization’s energy efficiency. BGE maintains a list of Building Performance Institute (BPI) certified contractors here.
  • Change out lights in exit signs to LED (as these are the only lights that tend to be left on for 24 hours a day).

Step 2

  • Include sustainability in your strategic plan, understanding that all sustainability plans are unique and will change over time depending upon resources and needs.
  • Sustainability should become a core component of your museum’s interpretation. Sustainable practices were a common part of daily life in the past, as resources were scarce and had to be optimized. It is not a new concept. Make that part of your story, especially if you are a historic house with interesting examples to share with visitors.
  • Consider sustainability not only in terms of the environment, but also your institution, including proper care and long-term maintenance of structures.
    • National Endowment for Humanities has grant opportunities for organizations looking to sustain their collections and resources.

Step 3

  • Consider LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) LEED-certified buildings are resource efficient. They use less water and energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More information on the process can be found here.
  • Look into utilizing Energy Star Portfolio Manager to measure and track your energy and water consumption or benchmark your performance against other organizations. Energy Star even has a category for museums. The category is currently underutilized, but the more who register the better the available data and benchmarks.
    • A list of LEED Certified historic houses and museums can be found here.

For more information, and other relevant topics, you can find additional StePs Labs offered in coordination with AASLH’s Standards and Excellence program for History Organizations.

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