As climate change threatens cultural treasures, museums get creative to conserve both energy and artifacts – Grist

The spotlight

There are more museums in the U.S. than there are Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. Within walking distance of the Grist office in downtown Seattle, there’s a pinball museum, an NFT museum, a Jimi Hendrix-inspired museum of pop culture, and Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, just to name a few. From tiny mom-and-pop museums dedicated to niche topics to massive institutions like The Met and The Smithsonian, museums are widely viewed as some of the most trustworthy sources of information, and also as trusted stewards of cultural artifacts.

But, in part because of the treasured objects they house, museums often have outsize carbon footprints — and they are also uniquely vulnerable to climate impacts.

“It’s because we have these really strict regulations on keeping temperature and relative humidity at certain levels in the name of preserving the collections,” said Caitlin Southwick, a former art conservator who now runs an organization called Ki Culture that helps museums transition to more sustainable practices.

As purveyors of a public good, museums, galleries, and other cultural entities have often been excused from the climate conversation, she said, and in some cases even from regulation. But, she added, museums can actually be some of the most carbon-intensive buildings in cities.

The field of cultural preservation has other environmental issues as well, like the use of toxic chemicals to clean or restore artworks. But climate control represents a particularly bedeviling problem, since more energy use contributes to climate change, which in turn causes greater temperature extremes that necessitate even more energy use to maintain a controlled indoor environment (sometimes known as the “doom loop” of AC).

As climate change increasingly leaves no city untouched, museums are confronting the reality that rising temperatures and volatile weather threaten their conservation efforts — and they’re turning to new technologies, and, in some cases, challenging conventional conservation wisdom, to stay ahead and minimize their impact.

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An exterior of a building with a large dome. A sculpture stands in the foreground.

A view of the outside of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan. Charles H. Wright Museum

When Leslie Tom first came to The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, nearly a decade ago, there was relatively little funding for sustainability efforts. She became the museum’s chief sustainability officer in 2015, as a Detroit Revitalization Fellow through Wayne State University. And, with her background in architecture and design, one of the first things she noticed was that the museum didn’t have blueprints. “The architect’s office had a fire,” Tom said, and a few other record-keeping issues meant that “there was just no accurate documentation.”

In 2019, the museum’s leaders secured funding to begin a project of digitally mapping the 125,000 square-foot space, to answer the question of documentation with modern tools. They wanted to make The Wright a “smart museum” — and Tom saw an opportunity to help lead this effort and bring sustainability goals into it.

They began with 3D laser scans of the building, which fed into a digital building information model. Then, about a year ago, using software called Tandem from the company Autodesk, The Wright created what’s known as a digital twin — a detailed replica of the building that draws on near real-time data from sensors installed around the facility.

“Being in a museum, for me, it’s like a small city,” Tom said. “And so now, to have a representation of that, it really helps us to design the visitor experience, vendor experience, volunteer experience, as we start to all work together to think about how we can layer environmental sustainability into all of our processes.”

Two side-by-side images showing the interior of a rotunda and a sensor standing on a tripod

The Wright used laser scanners to create a detailed map of the facility, shown here in the museum’s central rotunda. Autodesk

Although the team is just at the start of this digitization journey, Tom is excited about what the data can do for energy efficiency — for instance, gradually pre-heating and cooling spaces, based on models of how many people will be in the space at a given time. And while digital infrastructure does create additional energy needs for things like running servers, for Tom and the rest of the team at The Wright, the need for comprehensive data about their building, and the appeal of doing it digitally, outweighed the energy cost of the technology.

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Some museums, including the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, have reduced energy use by simply broadening the range of temperature and humidity fluctuations they’ll allow in their buildings. “They just made a decision,” Southwick said. “They said, ‘We’re gonna go from plus or minus 2 [degrees Celsius] to plus or minus 5.’ They saved 20,000 euro a month on their energy bill.” Now, the museum is recalibrating its systems to allow plus or minus 10 degree C swings, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine has done the same, Southwick said.

It’s a somewhat radical challenge to the orthodoxy around conservation, and in the case of the Guggenheim, the changes have made at least one institution hesitant to lend its work for special exhibits — although other lenders have been supportive of the shift, one of the museum’s deputy directors told The New York Times. “The changes might result in a lengthier conversation [about lending], but the more people do it, the more widely accepted the practice is,” Southwick said. “In my opinion, It will be the standard within the next year.”

She also sees an opportunity for museums to begin acclimatizing artifacts to shifting temperatures. While some truly sensitive objects do need to be kept under very precise conditions, other materials can actually adapt, Southwick said. She offers wood as an example — when it’s kept in warm, humid environments, it expands, and then if it gets dry, it will crack. “But if you gradually increase or decrease the relative humidity over a certain amount of time, then the material has time to react to it without damaging it,” she said. This approach is already used in the course of museum loans between institutions in different climates.

The same strategy “may also be a way that we can preemptively and controllably prepare our objects for the effects of climate change,” Southwick said. While it’s difficult to predict the climate conditions of the future with absolute certainty, she sees this as an important area of exploration for conservation science. “I think that it’s really important for us to make sure we never get into a situation where we regress and we’re increasing our HVACs, or we’re increasing our climate-control programs, because that’s not going to do anybody any good.”

At The Wright, the new sensors are gathering data on temperature and humidity, and monitoring things like potential leaks, which will help the team be more responsive to environmental shifts that could pose a risk to the 35,000 artifacts The Wright has in its care.

“For any museum or cultural institution, the objects are the most sacred,” Tom said.

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Although Michigan is something of a climate refuge, The Wright has already had to contend with extreme weather impacts, like the intense storms that caused flooding throughout the Midwest in the summer of 2021. “Those floods hampered and did damage to every cultural institution in this district,” said Jeffrey J. Anderson, the museum’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. He made a decision to move The Wright’s entire collection off-site — and it was only last week that the last few items were returned.

Other cultural institutions are facing similar challenges, and figuring out how best to confront them. “Over a third of museums in the U.S. are cited within a hundred kilometers [62 miles] of the coast,” said Elizabeth Merritt, the “in-house futurist” at the American Alliance of Museums and the founding director of the organization’s Center for the Future of Museums. “And a quarter are in zones that are highly vulnerable to sea level rise and severe storms,” she added.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. is building flood gates and stormwater systems even as it evacuates the basement collection of its American History museum. In a more extreme example, the island nation of Tuvalu announced plans to create a digital replica in the metaverse to ensure its culture lives on if the physical country is subsumed by rising seas.

The Wright currently has no plans to use its digital twin as a backup for the museum itself. But it is reckoning in other ways with the role of a museum during the climate crisis — driven in part by the understanding that Black Americans and other communities of color are disproportionately impacted by climate change and targeted by environmental racism. “From our perspective, we look at this as an opportunity for us to be a leader in racial justice, sustainability, climate justice,” particularly for the Detroit community, Anderson said.

In 2020, The Wright’s board of directors officially adopted sustainability into the institution’s strategic goals. And, building on existing climate-themed exhibitions and programs, Tom said, she’s eager to explore how data from the digital twin system can be used to communicate with the public about the museum’s sustainability efforts and goals.

“Museums are among the most trusted sources of information in the U.S.,” Merritt said. Among the general public, they rank second, only behind friends and family. “So they can use that power to help communicate to the public what’s going on and what the public can do about it.” She argues that steps like revisiting policies on air conditioning are just one piece of how museums should think about a multifaceted commitment to their communities, which could also include climate-themed exhibits and even serving as public cooling centers.

Southwick agrees. Through her organization’s work, she’s seen firsthand a growing interest in sustainability, but some hesitation to project that interest outward. “Can you imagine the impact if every museum had an exhibition about climate?” she said. “It’s just extraordinary, what the power of the museum sector is.”

— Claire Elise Thompson

More exposure

A parting shot

The Climate Museum in New York City is the first museum in the U.S. dedicated to the climate crisis. The organization first launched in 2014; it currently has a pop-up space in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood, while the team continues to look for a permanent home. In this photo, director Miranda Massie stands in front of an installation called “Someday, all this,” by artist David Opdyke — a collage of vintage postcards with a somewhat apocalyptic message.

A woman gestures with her arms up, facing a wall where an array of vintage postcards are aligned and partially scattered


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