Museums, registrars and sustainabilityMaurice Davies November 2010Good morningI’m going to talk about sustainability – what it is, what it means for museums, what itmeans for collections, what it means for loans and finally what it means for you – forregistrars2 Standard definition3 This is something we say in Code of Ethics about museums. Museums have such along-term purpose, often thinking in generations rather than decades, they are clearlyinvolved in sustainability more than many other kinds of organisation.As museums are in the sustainability business, they could think more explicitly aboutsustainability. In the UK we’ve been looking at what ideas of sustainability mean formuseums and it’s been quite exciting, helping us think differently about some things4. This is how sustainability is usually thought about. Note that its much more thanenvironmental sustainability, or going green5. But a key part of sustainability is going green so we asked people in museums in theUK how they could be more environmentally sustainable. It won’t surprise you that theseare the things they identifiedI think museums are discovering that it is simple to save the first 10-20% of resources butthen it gets really specialised – first there are special museum issues (such as protectingcollections). It also gets specialised for each individual museum building. And we don’thave that much expertise yet. The good news is that there’s plenty of expertise comingup in this conference.6. To improve their social sustainability museums identified these actions. And manymuseums are of course getting on and doing them7. One way to think about economic sustainability is simply to make sure that yourmuseum will have enough money coming in to support what it wants to do.
From this point of view, a museum is likely to be stronger, more resilient, more durable ifits money comes from a range of sources. Governments like to argue this, as it meansmuseums are less dependent on them!Most museums may not feel they’ve found the answer to economic sustainability, but thetruth is many museums have survived for a long time, so in the long term, museums maybe more economically sustainable than we sometimes think.8. But I want to look at economic sustainability in another way.Many museums have thrived by getting bigger and bigger. From one point of view thishas been very successful. Until recently museums were very confident about their roleand many were confidently building bigger buildings, getting bigger collections, reachingbigger audiences – and spending bigger amounts of money.But as we anticipate, or in some cases already begin to experience, reduced incomebecause of the global financial crisis and recognise the need to reduce our use of naturalresources, increasing public benefit through growth looks less likely to be the answer forthe next decade.So instead of trying to raise more income to keep getting bigger, perhaps we could staythe same size.Or even think about getting smaller. Then we would need less money and less naturalresources. Of course we need to pay attention to social sustainability too, as museumsmust bring social benefit9. But social benefit doesn’t come from simply doing more. There is growing evidence inthe rich countries of the world that increased wealth has not made people happier.Economic growth has certainly allowed people to have more possessions (and allowedmuseums to keep collecting more), but people don’t feel any more satisfied with theirlives. So, these are good suggestions for a sustainable organisation. The point aboutquality of relationships is important – this is a key to well being and sustainability10 So far we’ve looked separately at environmental, social and economic sustainability.Thinking about sustainability as a whole gives many more ideas about what museumscould do to be sustainable. I hope that it is becoming clear that sustainability is aboutchange.
Darwin said that in evolution the species that survive are those that adapted the best.This meant that they changed in the best way.They were flexible and did not tough it out in a hostile environment.Sustainability is not about being hard and strong and defensive. It means adapting, beingflexible and working with society, the environment and the economy. There is a need forinnovationIf we think more about sustainability, these ideas emerge11. I think that to achieve sustainability museums will have to follow these commonprinciples, or values. These points summarise the draft principles on sustainability thatthe Museums Association has devised. You can find a fuller version atwww.museumsassociation.org/sustainability.Each museum will need to use principles such as these to find what works for it, given itslocation, assets (knowledge, history, collections, buildings), audiences, opportunities,constraints and other contexts. Each museum will need to learn from others but alsochange and innovate in its own way if it is to be sustainable.12. Now, let’s think about the implications of sustainability for collections. There’s agrowing recognition that it’s not sustainable to collect for its own sake – As I’vesuggested, simply having things doesn’t make the world a better place. To bring publicbenefit, collections need to be used. They need to be researched and displayed. Aboveall they need to be shared with people, not hoarded, unseen in stores and depots. It’s nogood calling something a research collection unless it is actually actively being used forresearch. (mention Collections for the Future)Don’t you all have things in your collections that you wish weren’t there! Most museumsactually wish that past generations had collected a bit less and passed fewer things ontothem. If we are to make our museums sustainable, we mustn’t pass those same thingson to the future ‘just in case’ they want to use them. It’s a conference in itself, but Ipredict that over the next decades there will be growing discussion of the benefits ofmaking museum collections smaller if they are to be useful to future generations.Sustainability means collections need to change, not stay the sameAnother reason to think carefully about what we pass on is that by generously preservingthings for the future we might in fact be making it harder for future generations to surviveif we use too much energy and natural resources to do so and so contribute
unnecessarily to climate change and resource depletion. ‘There’s no point in savinghistory for the world if it costs the earth’The preservation of collections cannot disregard the need to reduce energyconsumption.. We cannot afford to control temperature and relative humidity too much. Inmost of Europe we can design and manage buildings so that they don’t need airconditioning. In part this will be about the design and fitting out of buildings – they need tobe massive so that they have a stable climate inside; many traditional building designsachieve this13 . For some time we have thought that the preservation of collections needs very tightcontrol of temperature and relative humidity. Many museums still think the ‘standard’should be this… However, there is a growing belief that this is really not at all necessary.Many types of object are fine in a much wider range of humidity and temperature. Somemuseums are now using this sort of requirement for loans And some museums are goingfurther still and designing new galleries for to this even wider design Crucially the widerranges can usually be achieved without air conditioning and so can save significantamounts of energy – over a third Of course some objects are very sensitive to changesin humidity and they can have their own microclimate, such as a controlled display case.But even then, as I said, sustainability is about change and we may come to think thatallowing things in museum collections to change appearance, to age is actually OK.Certainly views on gallery conditions are changing. The Indianapolis Museum of Artannounced earlier this year that it was widening its control of humidity and temperature inits exhibition galleries and lenders seem to be fine with the museum’s lead.I am no expert on this. But I hope you can see that with these changing views aboutcontrol of temperature and humidity registrars have a great opportunity to help andencourage these changes so that museums can be more environmentally sustainable intheir lending. A crucial thing is to update your museum’s loan conditions to reflect newthinking. I think that’s exciting and good news.14 If we reduce the energy use in exhibition galleries then that will improve thesustainability of loans. What about other aspects of the environmental sustainability ofloans? How green are temporary exhibitions? And how do they compare to other waysmuseums get collections used, for example websites.
15 The results might not always be what you expect. We imagine exhibitions use a lot ofenergy with all the travel and the aeroplanes. However, the V&A found: Exhibitions: onsite and touring – seen by 2.7 million people for just 5% of the museums carbonemissionsAnd we may think that websites are much better for the planet – quiet, clean, small.However, the V&A found that IT – including web servers – more than twice as much at11% of total carbon emissions16 Before we go on let’s remember that loans are a great thing!! In fact, they are such agood thing and as registrars you do such great work in making them happen I think youshould all give yourselves a clap…As I’ve said I think registrars have a great opportunity. To take a good thing and make itmore sustainable. As I’ve just shown, loans are already environmentally moresustainable than perhaps we thought, especially if we can have a new approach tocontrolling temperature and relative humidity. They can of course be made moreenvironmentally sustainable and this conference will show you many more ways in whichloans can become greener. You’ll be able to take back many ideas to your museumsBut sustainability is about more than just going green so also want to talk about ways inwhich loans can be made more economically and socially sustainable17. From a social point of view it’s pretty simple. As I said earlier – a collection has to beused and there’s no better way of getting it used than getting it out of store, where no oneever sees it! At the Museums Association in the UK we’ve been doing work to encouragelong loans – perhaps 3-5 years, as they are often no more work than shorter loans, andcan bring bigger social benefit for the same economic and environmental cost. There arenow many examples of museums lending things from each other for a long period – inthe case of the British Museum this is sometimes for decades, as with the EgyptianGallery they lend to in Glasgow The work to encourage collections mobility in Europe isfantastic example18. This book is part of the project Collections Mobility 2.0, Lending for Europe 21stCentury. It talks about many things, including the benefits of long loans to both lenderand borrower in long-term loans:For the borrower:1. the object can enhance the profile and significance of the existing collection2. a star piece can be the centrepiece of a collection-based display
3. new audiences can be attracted4. there can be scholarship and new research5. events or educational programmes can be built around the loan6. the work involved in the loan has long-term effects7. a long-term loan is more economical than a short-term loan or an acquisition8. new techniques of care of handling can be learned9. a long-term loan can be an alternative to restitution10. a long-term loan may be a chance to upgrade conditions in the gallery.For the lender:1. an object that was unseen or seldom seen is given exposure2. a duplicate object can be used by another museum3. an object is released from storage and frees up storage space4. the object can be seen from a new perspective5. it may be used for scientific research by the borrower6. it may be conserved by the borrower7. new information can be gathered8. the lender does not lose any rights of ownership9. the lender generally does not have to cover costs10. the loan gives the lender the chance to rotate displays.Its important to recognise that loans bring many benefits to the lender as well as to theborrower. Sometimes loans can be seen as a burden on the lender – but lending is awonderful thing, and museums could do more to promote their lending. When Tatelaunched its annual report this year it made headline news by talking about how muchlending it does and what good it does.I’m sure some of you have been involved in this book and the European collectionsmobility work that it builds on. It combines ideas about collections mobility with muchpractical information and makes many of the points I have done – that collections need tobe USED and that lending is an excellent way of achieving that. It also talks about theimportance of taking an economically sustainable approach to loans and keeping costsdown19 Freda Matassa: ‘There are many financial considerations when planning a loan butthere are many ways of reducing costs’ ‘While the real costs have to be paid bysomeone, asking for a loan fee for what is essentially the normal work of a museum isnot in anyone’s best interests. Any public collection has a duty to lend’
There are many suggestions for areas to reduce costs of loans in the collections mobilitybook. At the Museums Association we are doing our version of collections mobility andone part is called Smarter Loans. We want to set out the key principles of lending (muchas the European book does) and then help people think intelligently about what thatmeans for each loan they make. In terms of reducing cost, a basic principle is that thelender should not benefit financially from a loan. Lending is not a commercial businesstransaction; see it as a partnership between lender and borrower to create public benefit.Suggestions for reducing costs (from Encouraging Collections Mobility and from SmarterLoans) • only require essential conservation/preparation/framing and keep charges reasonable • only require essential photography and documentation • reuse existing frames, crates, etc; use standard frames where possible • rent equipment, crates, etc., instead of creating new ones • consider part-loads or shared shipments instead of exclusive-use vehicles • to allow this, be flexible with dates • use couriers only when essential and share them with other museums • for insurance, keep values low and justifiable • trust the borrower • don’t ask for higher standards of temperature and relative humidity than you provide in your own museum • be willing to consider lower standards for less vulnerable items, especially if the loan brings wider benefits (I’ll talk about that more in a moment)Also, think about what is being borrowed and lent – is there a smaller alternative, orsomething similar closer to homeNote that many of these will improve environmental sustainability, tooI have a worry that because higher quality crates and trucks are becoming available thatfurther reduce the risk of damage to items, the costs of lending might in fact be going upwhen they should be going down. However, for sustainability we need to think carefullyabout whether there really is a benefit in going beyond basic levels of environmentalcontrol and transport quality. we need to have transport requirements appropriate to thesignificance, value and vulnerability of the item(Of course, the same is not true of security where continually improving standardsusually does make sense).20. Registrars can have a key role here in having intelligent, well informed discussionsabout what is appropriate for each loan. I worry that registrars have a difficult job where itcan feel like you have all the responsibility if anything goes wrong but none of the creditfor the success of exhibitions.
Registrars have a key role to play in making museums more sustainable. Lending is avery high profile activity and making it more sustainable will encourage people in otherparts of museums to be more sustainable. This conference is a fantastic initiative and Ihope you all take practical ideas from it back to your museum. But more than that I thinkas registrars you have an opportunity to lead some of the thinking in your museums. Youare much more than collections managers or loans organisers. You can take a lead ingetting collections used more and in improving access.And of course, with the knowledge you’re going to get at this conference you can take thelead in making lending more sustainable.Registrars often know more people in other museums than other staff, so are in a greatposition to build partnerships, and put other colleagues in touch with each other – thatmakes museums stronger and more sustainable.But I think the most important thing will be for registrars to become experts in thinkingabout and managing risk. Again there is a whole conference in this, and I have just a fewminutes left. So very briefly, we have thought for too long that we need to minimise risk,or even eliminate it. But thinking about sustainability shows what we need to do is to thinkboth about the risks and the benefits of a loan. Some risk is justified because of thepublic benefits that come from lending. If thousands of people will see an object thatwould otherwise be stuck in store for decades then perhaps it is OK if it deteriorates alittle, or is slightly damaged. The risk of a little change to the object is justified,, becausethe public benefit of keeping the object locked away is very small. To feel a little betterabout it we could say we are simply allowing the object to age a little, to naturally changeas it grows older.Thinking about sustainability suggests that as long as the financial and environmentalcosts are reasonable, the most important thing is the pleasure and learning that seeingthe object brought to people. That’s what really matters.Thinking like this is a real challenge to museums who have got used to seeingpreservation and minimising risk as so central to what they do.. But I hope I have shownmuseums need to change the way they think and what they do in order to improve theircontribution to economic, social and environmental sustainability.
This conference shows registrars are ready and able to lead thinking in museums andbring beneficial change. My challenge to you during this conference is to think about therole you play and what you can do to change what museums do to support sustainability.