The Challenge of Changing Hearts and Minds – Meet PIC-Green: The Environmental Sustainability Proponents of the American Alliance of Museums

Guest Post by Luke Leyh**, current co-chair PIC-Green & Coordinator, Museum Services, United States Holocaust Museum and Sarah Sutton*, past co-chair PIC-Green, Principal, Sustainable Museums

The professional landscape is blooming with affinity groups furthering sustainability. As more develop or morph to keep up with human understanding of climate change response, we’d like to share our story and build alliances.

It’s so important to have partnerships with organizations such as the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. Alliances improve the work we all do and help us scale it to levels of significant impact worldwide.

Early Years

Almost a decade ago, at an Annual Meeting of the then American Association of Museums (AAM) eighty or so museum professionals came together to create PIC Green – the Professional Interest Committee (PIC) on Environmental Sustainability.

pic logo-03

Today you’ll hear someone ask another “were you in Denver?”, and talk about how a roomful of people, with all the energy, excitement, and resources you can muster in the field, came together to create the first new professional group for AAM in the 21st century. Today our parent organization is still called AAM, but it’s the American Alliance of Museums; and PIC Green is considered a Professional Network. We love the sound and connotations of “PIC(K) GREEN!” so we keep our old name as we forge ahead.

The Sustainability Excellence Award

Our Sustainability Excellence Award (SEA) is highlighting the best work in the field. All types and sizes of museums, of any nationality, are invited to participate, and you need not be an AAM member. The SEA award recognizes innovative examples of museum programming, design, and operations that were created or re-imagined with environmentally sustainable best practices.

PIC Green tour of Southface Energy Institute, Atlanta

The SEA was first awarded in 2014 and has become an annual showcase of institutions’ leadership within their larger communities. SEA is a way to take a moment to shine a light on projects that embody this. Past winners include The Field Museum, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, the Wagner Free Institute of Science, and the Museo Interactivo de Economia.

Sustainability Standards

The other big push has been to establish expectations of best practice for the field. Between 2013 and 2015 PIC Green hosted three Summits on Sustainability Standards in Museums at AAM conferences. It is clear from the field that museum professionals crave Standards, or Best Practices, Characteristics of Excellence, whatever we eventually call them, as guidelines and support for moving ahead with sustainability at their institutions. We published a white paper on the proceedings, then hosted a series of national web interviews that widened the discussion so that we could learn about the value and challenges of standard-setting from leaders in museums, zoos, and gardens; museum association leaders; and leaders of sustainability membership associations outside our field. As a result, AAM invited PIC Green to develop Characteristics of Excellence for environmental sustainability (expected in 2018).

What We’re Hoping For

As a current co-chair (Luke), I hope to see environmental sustainability added to the AAM Accreditation process. In the meantime, it has been exciting and inspiring to learn of all the Museum employees independently incorporating these issues to their work.

Museum visitors are influenced by both the content of museums and the experience of their visits. Great strides are made for this important issue when sustainability is at the foreground of museum employees’ thinking.

Museums educate and inspire every day. They teach us about our past and can be the setting for the imagination that leads us to the future.

As a past co-chair (Sarah), I have the privilege of focusing on one area of interest, and that is sustainability standards in the US. One of PIC Green’s roles is to set expectations and provide continuing support in achieving those expectations.

Roger Chang presenting to the Nature Conservancy’s ‘Adopt an Acre of the Northern Rockies’ program.

As we do this we are looking at other organizations: How have they set expectations?  What museums are setting the bar high for themselves, and giving us all a glimpse of excellence?  Our museum peers are creative, collaborative, committed folks – just what we need on a team addressing climate change.

The process of building PIC Green and moving the field forward has felt like slow going for most of the time.

At some point in the future, someone may look back and think either that this was easy for us to do, or expected, or a natural progression; they will not see how complex it is to change hearts and minds, to introduce new practice in entrenched professions, and to be innovative in the face of resistance.

To do that work, takes the brainpower, experience, and support that comes from the members of committed affinity groups such as PIC Green and the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. It makes all the difference.

Sarah Sutton

*Sarah Sutton is principal of Sustainable Museums, a worldwide consultancy for museums, zoos, gardens, and historic sites addressing environmental sustainability and climate response. She is the author of Environmental Sustainability at Historic Sites and Museums, and co-author with Elizabeth Wylie of both editions of The Green Museum, a Primer on Environmental Practice. You can find her using @greenmuseum on twitter, and “sustainablemuseums” online and on fb.

image1 (1)
Luke Leyh

**Luke Leyh is a Museum Services Coordinator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Luke is constantly amazed by the incalculable value added to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by the Volunteers. When he is not working with his extraordinary volunteers, Luke is walking his dog, Lady. Lady is his BAE and it is probably best not to get him talking about her because he may drone on for some time. Come visit Luke and he will show you around but please be mindful that if you get him talking about his dog, he may not stop. Reach out to him at

Leave a Reply