The True Costs of Collecting – Museums, Climate, and Carbon

Today’s Guest Post is by Erin Richardson, currently pursuing doctoral research focusing on the cost of collecting in U.S. museums, and Douglas Worts, culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada.

How much energy is required to maintain temperature and humidity levels inside a museum?

Museum interior
Unsplash / Anthony Delanoix

Because of the wide-ranging realities of museum environments, it is likely that no such aggregation of data has taken place. However, many individual museums have begun to ask penetrating questions about the carbon intensity of their operations. The links between environmental controls, energy and carbon emissions are both real and strong.

A major component of the carbon intensity of museums is related to storage, care, and use of collections (which applies 24 hours a day, 365 days a year).

In recent years, some of our colleagues, like Coalition member Sarah Sutton, have been encouraging and supporting museums in the development of responsible operations and actions that reduce carbon intensity. Collections care is seen by museums as central to their missions, while being a source of carbon emissions.

Collection-related activity therefore requires a close review of the assumptions underpinning this traditional museum function, including meeting optimal environmental standards, the necessity of objects in the museum, and the need to continuously expand.

Environmental Standards

Fine art and object conservators have recommended optimal environmental standards to preserve materials as long as possible.

Hygrothermograph in Museum
Hygrothermograph, Internet – no suggestion of copyright.

At least for institutions in the West, these standards call for a stable environment of 70 degrees (f) +/- 2 and 50% relative humidity (RH) +/-5%. Such standards demand considerable energy to operate HVAC systems in areas where collections are kept, including storage facilities, galleries and special exhibition halls, as well as whenever in transit.

A large percentage of museums operate at these strict levels of environmental stability – believing that it is their professional duty to ensure that sector-wide standards are met.

Since a borrowing museum’s gallery and storage climate readings are always considered by the lender when approving a loan, many museums feel that without adherence to sector-wide climate standards, loans will be routinely denied.

There are museums, however, that do not adhere strictly to these standards – either because their collections are very robust and are not as sensitive to climatic shifts as materials made with paper, textiles, and organic materials; or, because they simply can’t afford to retrofit their buildings (often historic structures) with energy-efficient systems.

The Necessity of Objects

Traditionally, collections are seen as fundamental to museums – both by museum professionals and the public. It is true that material culture can be a powerful way to nurture the ‘muses’, thereby enabling citizens to feel connected to the past in ways that are relevant for both the present and future. However, objects don’t always have this effect, thereby raising the question of how public value is measured in museums and whether the exhibition of objects is the best way to generate public cultural value.

Most people will agree that museums hold a ‘public trust’. However, it is no small feat to define exactly what the nature of that public trust is, as museums strive to protect the material history of our pasts, while ensuring relevance to present communities.

Culture is Relationships - 2018
Culture is Relationships diagram, by Douglas Worts, updated 2018.

There is an assumption, at least within museums that are supported by public funding, that the work of museums must contribute to the public good, which, like ‘public trust’, is also a vague notion. By fostering the ‘muses’ of creativity, insight, and innovation within the public sphere, museums and their communities have the potential for constant self-reinvention, so that they operate in timely and relevant ways amidst constantly changing cultural realities.

The only way for this approach to public good to be effective is to gauge impacts beyond the museum, using feedback loops that are rooted in community. If museums engage the wider public in processes of reflection, dialogue and action related to the issues and forces that are shaping our personal, local, and global worlds, then consideration of carbon emissions, both for the museum and the larger society, would indeed be relevant.

But what evidence exists that the larger public is engaged through museums in thoughtful reflection, dialogue and action related to the issues that are shaping culture? Where is the research on public impacts of museum operations, aside from institutional visitation and revenue?

For the past 35 years or so, the field of museum audience research (not necessarily market research, which often is quite different) has matured in wonderful ways. Researchers have helped museums to think more concretely about the public impacts of collections, exhibits, and programming.

There have been some great hubs of museological experimentation and insight that have pursued the vision of ‘continuous improvement.’ The International Laboratory for Visitor Studies, the Visitor Studies Association, the Institute for Learning Innovation, the AAM’s Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation, as well as many private audience research firms are just some of the ways that the museum world has striven to improve public impacts. Sometimes seen as disruptors, because evaluation can threaten some traditional ways of operating, audience researchers have helped museums ask bigger and more relevant questions about the organizations’ potentials.

Unsplash / Samuel Zeller

Other museological forms, such as the ecomuseum, do make use of collections without necessarily needing to centralize objects deemed to be of cultural, historical, or scientific importance, in the physical plant of one charitable organization.

By having community members own/keep objects of significance, and make them available for the benefit of the community, ecomuseums demonstrate that institutionalized collecting is only one means to an end (i.e. meaningful and/or transformative experiences), not an end itself.

Collections Must Grow

Building centralized facilities to store and exhibit an ever-expanding collection of things is a recipe for continuous growth. Many museum leaders see this growth as their organization’s purpose.

But what happens when museums with large holdings representing the past 200 years are confronted by a sea change in the cultural reality of the place in which they now exist? Cities around the world are experiencing population growth, urbanization, pluralization, and globalization.

Unsplash / Bianca Isofache

Consider, for example, an unnamed art museum, with large collections of European and North American art, finding itself being offered a huge additional collection of European and North American art. This gift seems perfectly aligned with the museum’s Euro-North-American collecting mandate. But now consider that the acquisition would require a massive capital campaign to house the collection, especially because the donor required that the collection be kept intact, in galleries of their own, and fully displayed. And, to complicate this scenario further, imagine that the composition of the city within which the museum exists has transformed radically, through migration and settlement, to the point that European ancestry has become the minority background of citizens, when until recently it had been the majority.

The question is, what are the opportunity costs of potential cultural relevancy for the museum considering this acquisition in light of the current/future needs of the living population as it evolves?

By centralizing collections, are museums creating an oversized and potentially narrow, misguided commitment to a material past, at the expense of the present and future living culture?

The pressures surrounding cultural organizations are significant, and it is important to ensure that the impacts of these organizations are clearly examined. The unintended consequences of building ever-larger, centralized collections are becoming clearer.

Not only are the buildings expensive to build and operate (and it has been a classic museum situation to embark on new building projects without calculating and planning for the operation of these facilities), but they are also having deleterious impacts on the environment – of which increased carbon emissions is one example.

How Do Museums Have the Greatest Cultural Impact?

If museums want to have the greatest cultural impacts, then they will need to develop much clearer mechanisms to gauge how individuals, groups, communities, organizations, and the society-wide systems that lock our realities into certain patterns of behaviour, are all affected by community engagement strategies.

California Academy of Sciences
California Academy of Sciences – a state of the art building designed to reduce energy use to a minimum, reduce emissions and generally produce a light ecological footprint. Public Domain image.

Decoupling our lives from the production of carbon emissions is a huge challenge that is forcing business, government, and individuals to rethink their attitudes and behaviours.

In some ways, this crisis is offering humanity a golden opportunity to redesign our societies so that human wellbeing on a finite planet is part of our future, not only our past. If we, museum professionals, do not consider the environmental, as well as the cultural, impacts of our field-wide collecting practices and internal climate control standards, we may find that we are myopically and foolishly contributing to the destruction of our planet. If this happens, we will truly be missing the culture/forest for the object/trees.

Erin Richardson

Erin Richardson has worked with museum collections for over twenty years. She holds MA in Museum Studies from Cooperstown Graduate Program and is a PhD Candidate in Leadership ad Policy at Niagara University. Her doctoral research focuses on the cost of collecting in U.S. museums.


Douglas Worts is a culture & sustainability specialist with WorldViews Consulting, in Toronto, Canada. Douglas approaches culture broadly, as ‘how we live our lives’, seeing museums as potential facilitators in forging an emerging ‘culture of sustainability’. His professional work combines a 35+-year career in museums with over two decades exploring how culture shapes and directs the prospects for global human sustainability.

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  1. Stephen Topfer

    I feel that this article is almost entirely misplaced in its emphasis on the need to reduce carbon emissions and therefore museum mandates. The connection is tenuous at best. Indeed we need to address our carbon footprint and hvac systems form a part of that as do the materials we use such as ethofoam and coroplast etal. But to suggest that the museums way to address climate change is to not collect objects is simply nuts. In fact to follow this logic the most effective way to limit greenhouse gas would be for museums to simply lay off their staff, cut their programs and close their buildings for good. There are environmental measures museums can take to lessen their carbon footprint, coasting hvac systems, recycling more effectively, designing and building for efficiency and consolidating resources for storage, exhibits etc. The challenge of global warming will be met by reworking the power grid and rethinking how and why we consume materials and construct our lives, to suggest that museums contribution to this process should be to rethink our use of objects is throwing our the baby with the carbon emissions.

  2. Douglas Worts

    Thanks for your reply Stephen. The intention that Erin and I had in writing this article was to generate discussion about the ways that museums have meaningful and relevant impacts on individuals, communities and organizations. Meanwhile, the Coalition’s FB group is specifically focused on the potential of museums to have measurable impacts on climate change and climate justice. Our contribution shines a light on the role that collections play within the dynamic between museums and the public. I appreciate that you have stepped up and contributed thoughts and ideas to help further the discussion.

    Erin and I have not said that museums should simply stop the process of collecting, but rather have suggested that museums develop an effective framework for collecting that is guided by a plan for public impacts, specifically related to the most relevant forces and trends that are defining the living culture. When collections can be woven into specific plans for public engagement, with a considered and articulated spectrum of potential cultural outcomes, then museum collecting makes sense. What we have challenged is the widespread tendency across the museum community that assumes that collection-building is a core purpose. Our assertion is that collecting is not a purpose, but a strategy, in the service of addressing the cultural needs of our ever-changing society, in a constantly changing world. We are also questioning the pervasive practice of museums collecting the what donors what to donate – especially when these collections have not been considered and assembled with cultural impacts and public relevancy in mind. Museums collection-building around niche interests related to an academic discipline, ends up being a self-referential exercise, not one that is measured against public impacts.

    I am quite aware that many whose professional identity is anchored in the traditional practice of museum collection-building and exhibit development will likely view this approach as antithetical to what museums are designed to do, according to their mandates – or, as you say, is “simply nuts”. But we exist in a time when many organizations are fundamentally re-thinking their traditional assumptions. Whereas business has classically been committed to maximizing profits, using traditional assumptions about revenues and costs, a sea-change is occurring that has progressive businesses defining business models in terms of generating not only economic value, but also social and environmental value at the same time. It is true that many businesses have a hard time trying to think differently about their assumptions regarding their values, behaviours and impacts – but the progressive organizations are showing the way forward. Within museums, I do think that there are many museum professionals who are pushing the boundaries of our field. Certainly it will be important for those who know museum collections best have a great opportunity to think differently about how existing collections can be used to maximize public impacts around relevant, topical issues that are shaping our living culture within a world that has distinct limits (especially biophysical limits). They can also help to imagine how cultural objects that are held by individuals across the community can be leveraged in new ways – ways that better lead to relevant public impacts. An example Erin and I used is the ecomuseum – which utilizes cultural materials that remain in the community. This approach requires planning for public engagement in ways that push beyond traditional metrics of attendance and revenue, into the territory of understanding how individuals engage with not only the collections, but the ideas, assumptions, questions, and so on that connect the collections to the cultural issues of our day. Museums have developed almost no tools for this sort of analysis.

    If museums are going to embrace the challenges of climate change and climate justice, they will need to do a lot more than address the carbon emissions of existing facilities. And if museums aim to be facilitators of cultural experiences and impacts that are relevant within our living culture, as opposed to simply producing what many see as ‘cultural products’, for consumption within leisure time, then they will need to take a hard look at mandates, traditions and existing operations.

    Thanks for your comments Stephen, and I hope that it helps to stimulate others to join in the discussion.

  3. Robert Janes

    I thank Stephen Topfer for his practical suggestions on how museums can reduce their carbon footprint when managing collections. I think he is missing the essential message in Erin and Doug’s post, however, by rising to the defense of our most sacred cow – the permanent collection. In short, it is mistaken to claim that there is no connection between carbon emissions and museum mandates, especially with respect to the economic and environmental costs of collections care. Happily, various museum leaders, staff and academics are not only assuming responsibility for this connection, but they are also doing something about it. I refer Stefan and all museums workers to a new book that examines the role of collections in innovative, creative and constructively critical ways.

    This book is Active Collections, edited by Elizabeth Wood, Rainey Tisdale and Trevor Jones – See: Museum professionals and scholars from disciplines as diverse as psychology, education, and history critically explore the question of stewardship through the analysis of a broad range of issues, including questions of “quality over quantity,” emotional attachment, dispassionate cataloging, and cognitive biases in curatorship, as well as the psychology of compulsive hoarding.

    The museum enterprise is in dire need of thoughtful reflection, critical thinking and bold action. Richardson, Worts and the contributors to the above-mentioned book are pointing the way. It is time for all of us to question traditional museum assumptions and practices, and together create a new future for our institutions, our communities and the planet. My thanks to Stephen for joining the discussion.

  4. Trevor Jones

    Thanks for this well written and engaging article. In my work with we’re seeing a major change in the field in terms of looking at creating leaner collections focused on greater impact. However, we still lack good metrics on the true costs of collecting, and most US museums do not even routinely calculate what it costs to store their collections. On a nationwide level, we lack solid data on how many collections we are taking in vs. how many we are deaccessioning. The best information I have comes from Nick Merriman’s work in the UK suggesting that we take in 500 items for every one we dispose of. If anyone has other figures to share, please pass them on as I think this is low for US museums. However, no matter what I do not see how a 500:1 ratio could be considered sustainable for our field.

  5. Erin E Richardson

    Thanks to Stephen, Doug, Bob, and Trevor for your comments thus far. Indeed, the purpose of this post, as Doug pointed out, was to generate meaningful discussion about the impacts of our collections. I have noticed that many museums have confused the means with the ends in terms of collecting activities. The purpose of the museum is not to collect, but to generate cultural impacts with the collection. A good percentage (as much as 90%) of museum collections never exit the storage area, and are not used for research, exhibition, education, or any other purpose. Right now, the primary impact of a good amount of museum collections is their use of resources, not the generation of any type of value for the organization or community. If museums are going to talk about climate change, we need to identify the ways in which we contribute to carbon emissions and challenge ourselves to think differently about that – in the same way we ask ourselves as individual humans to reduce waste, compost, recycle, etc. Museums’ collecting purpose is not more important than our environment’s health. The big question is, if we cannot sustain life on our planet, what or who, in what future, are these warehouses of objects for?
    There is also a misconception that everything in a museum’s collection is of value (monetary, cultural, heritage, or scientific, etc). The truth is that museums have not been “professional” organizations for very long in the scope of human history – for only about 100 years. Often collections were started haphazardly by untrained staff and those materials remain in collections alongside items of true cultural value. Collections, if they are to be sustainable in the future, must be tighter and more purposeful in their current or potential impact on our society.

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