"The vital goal is to make sure that everything we do is undertaken in the most sustainable way"

15 October 2021

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Suhanya Raffel, Director, M+ Museum, Hong Kong, China, and CIMAM Board Member. Published originally by Finestre Sull Arte , October 2021.

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda is a challenge for all museums, yet we must take up the task of addressing it by analyzing, planning what we can achieve, and implementing these strategies.

We need to work together internally in our institutions by focusing our resources while at the same time thinking about how best to apply them to optimize our work as museums. This work is for our communities as much as for ourselves, and consists of involving our audiences, artists and makers, professional practitioners, as well as scholars and researchers, in this work. The vital goal is to make sure that everything we do is undertaken in the most sustainable way.

Part of CIMAM's toolkit on environmental sustainability in museum practice, and part of what I've been advocating at M+, is that sustainability goals need to be an institution-wide aspiration, involving everyone and developing a plan that can actually be applied.

At M+ we have been developing a strategy for the institution that addresses this particular issue across all the departments, so that we ensure that informed specialist knowledge and expertise brought by our colleagues are jointly instrumentalized in order to find solutions and ways forward. It is not something that can be done alone or overnight, but is an attitude that must be consistent and emphasized.

In the international context, and for the first time in the museum community, sustainability is now a priority along with a number of other important issues, many of them interrelated, such as addressing diversity in staff and provenance regarding collections. It is also important to see the opportunities where sustainability objectives can take a lead in thinking about strategic planning for our future. Being pragmatic is essential, whether it is making decisions around conservation, exhibition making, exhibition length, and travel, among others.

Slowing things down is a first easy win and a very sound strategy. It extends and optimizes resources over a longer period and we can achieve some immediate gains for the institution. This will necessarily extend to educating our public about our choices and the reasons behind them. Although these are challenging times, I am very optimistic for our future given the level of involvement that I can see regarding the number and variety of institutions addressing this issue. It is true that some of us will find it more difficult than others, but the very fact that there is a global awareness of the issues and problems point to a critical first step in walking along this path of implementing a vision for sustainable public institutions.

Some critical issues that museums are addressing regarding sustainable practices include expanding the parameters regarding the relationship between collection management and conservation requirements. This, together with environmental conditions in our galleries and storage facilities, needs to be addressed with pragmatic and sincere discussion.

In tandem are important debates about consideration being given to how conservation approaches to condition requirements may be adjusted in relation to the longevity and preservation of objects. [KP1] This includes assessing the possibility of more generous bandwidths regarding relative humidity and temperature concerns as we develop more generous inclusive policies and procedures. Climatic conditions are not the same across the world and achieving very restrictive conditions is both resource hungry and restrictive, and thereby often excludes organizations that are resource poor from participating in collective cultural work.

Thus, the concept of preserving collections ‘forever’ needs revisiting. It is indeed a very critical consideration and needs to be discussed in a more calibrated and thoughtful fashion.

A further debate revolves around the longevity of exhibitions. We can, as institutions, respond reasonably fast on this front and achieve some quick wins by sharing resources, extending exhibition periods, and looking to more local and regional pooling of collection-based exhibition sharing.

This leads to the fourth discussion around travel. We maintain relationships, develop contacts, and broaden our professional knowledge base through travel. Travel is also a key aspect of research and scholarship. What the global pandemic has revealed is that we can indeed continue our networks, maintaining these as well as deepening engagement through digital tools. By examining more closely the reasons for travel, we must develop a more sustainable approach. By being more exacting and disciplined, museum travel can be made to act within sustainable parameters.

Digital platforms have expanded considerably over the past 18 months and are here to stay. These tools will not be abandoned. In fact, we will probably expand the potential of digital media and connectivity, especially in areas of academic exchange, a space that we can absolutely rely on to broaden horizons, share new research, and develop a global audience base.

Creative use of technology will expand into exhibition experience as a first step. In east Asia, China, and especially the Greater Bay area here in Hong Kong, there is phenomenal experimentation and development in the digital space that includes Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and other technologies. These are there for exploration, observation and increasingly artists, engineers, gaming specialists, and the whole spectrum of creative talents that are intersecting with this industry to look at both creative expression and to develop alternative solutions to increasing sustainable outcomes. The challenge will be to harness this innovation and bring it to the forefront of problem solving. In this context, museums can play an important role in the future as educators, commissioners, and in actively developing knowledge and research in this area.

It is through some of the functions described above that as museums we can contribute to the knowledge base of what it means to be sustainable, to be environmentally conscious, and to be alert to the climate emergency. While planning our strategies it is also important that we put these plans into action.

In a part of the world that is investing in museum building, we need to develop in tandem sustainability goals for museum construction to achieve higher efficiencies in building operations and facilities. When designing new museums, it is productive to have very open dialogs in the design-brief stage, so that architects and engineers can respond by implementing sustainable design solutions from the inception. These are necessary discourses because so many architects and engineers have expressed interest in environmental issues and in bringing greater insight regarding building codes to public attention.

The M+ Sustainable Action Plan provides a structured plan for our staff and stakeholders on how we are moving forward to achieve our sustainability aspirations in the museum. It is a plan that we will implement throughout the institution. It is an evolving responsive strategy and represents the beginning of a journey.

Advocacy through our platforms, our work, and education is critical, and by making sustainability a core aspect of the museum’s work we also bring this knowledge to our communities. Like so much of what we do, this work takes patience, persistence, and persuasion.