"We can be so much more powerful if we act together, whatever our scale, or focus, or location. There simply is no time to lose"
In 2019, the CIMAM Board introduced a new working group to respond to the urgent need for museums to evolve towards more sustainable and environmentally respectful practices.
The Sustainability and Ecology in Museum Practice working group is chaired by Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, London, and CIMAM Board Member, and has since then worked following the guidelines of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, to assess those aspects of museum practice that have a negative environmental impact, and provide strategies to help achieve carbon neutrality.
Today we spoke with Frances Morris to share her vision on the current situation of museums in terms of sustainability and to present the Toolkit on Environmental Sustainability in Museum Practice developed by CIMAM's Sustainability and Ecology in Museum Practice working group, in collaboration with all the members of the CIMAM Board.
How are modern and contemporary art museums facing the challenge of sustainable transformation today? Are we witnessing a positive and hopeful outlook, or are we still at the beginning of the road?
Frances Morris: Concern about climate and ecological emergency and interest in addressing it is gaining huge momentum across the sector - internationally - and is being driven by artists, institutions or participants in culture. Although this is, of course, driven by deepening fear of the consequences of not acting, what is positive is how the emergency is encouraging a new kind of collaboration and new networks of support are beginning to be visible. While many of us feel that we are just at the very beginning of the road it is already clear that there isn’t one single pathway but as many as there are different types of institutions and practices. What works for my institution might not be the right pathway for yours.
What aspects are crucial and most urgent to analyze and address in museums to implement more sustainable practices? Are these aspects easy to achieve, or are they perhaps challenges that need to be tackled jointly with all museum departments?
Frances Morris: All of us, in our personal as well as our professional lives, can reduce our carbon impact by doing quite a lot just by changing our behaviors, challenging habits and long held conventions, by switching to greener technologies, producing less and adopting strategies of recycling, reuse and repair. All of us subscribe to certain shared protocols and we will need to tackle and amend these jointly and support each other in dismantling obsolete and carbon abusive practices. What is more difficult, but also essential, is to think about the values we espouse and measure ourselves against and whether they are fit for purpose. Climate emergency is not just about global warming. It is one of a number of intersecting emergencies where the entanglement of the planet and people over many centuries is evidenced in global inequalities: social, economic, racial and gendered, as well as an ecological disaster. What is our responsibility in the face of these intersecting emergencies, as organizations that purport to reflect and shape public understanding of culture?
The Toolkit on Environmental Sustainability in the Museum Practice presents examples of Action Plans including, Tate’s virtual courier principles and guidelines established in 2021, which aim altogether to encourage and serve as a reference for other museums to performing more sustainably. What are the most significant benefits for the environment that this new policy expected to bring?
Frances Morris: A significant proportion of our carbon footprint is generated through travel. Anything we can do to reduce the need to move around the world is therefore beneficial. Not only do these guidelines address this imperative in a practical way but they also suggest a methodology that we can develop. We have found that following these guidelines has really helped trust and collaboration and is helping us innovate in other areas of virtual activity. We have used digital technology to facilitate remote curatorial oversight of installations, conducted in depth studio visits, and delivered training modules at great distances.
Besides the practical and physical changes proposed at the museum, how important is it for museums to include the subject of climate awareness in their exhibitions and public programs?
Frances Morris: Just as institutions are taking responsibility for unlocking histories of empire and colonialism embedded in works of art in their collections so too should we strive to encourage climate and ecological awareness through works of art we hold in trust. Climate and ecological emergencies are arguably the single most important issue of our time. Artists are at the forefront of activism here and we - as trusted civic organizations have a responsibility both to them and our publics to platform the emergency, and - in my view - take a stand. The beauty and potential for arts organizations is that art can tell powerful narratives in a multitude of different voices and registers offering so many roots into understanding and engagement, exploring the past but also pointing to the future.
What would you say to CIMAM members and museum professionals to increase their commitment to our planet and encourage them to take the pledge and start changing today towards a more respectful museum functioning for the planet?
Frances Morris: Making a public declaration of climate and ecological emergency helped us at Tate to shift gear and rachet up our ambitions. Although this exposes us to certain risks it also means that we have real focus and a sense of urgency. We can be so much more powerful if we act together, whatever our scale, or focus or location. There simply is no time to lose.
In its activity, CIMAM also applies measures that help reduce its carbon footprint and waste streams.
New for 2021, the CIMAM membership card will be entirely digital. Members will be able to accredit themselves at the more than 200 modern and contemporary art museums worldwide that are part of CIMAM's Free Admission Program through their cell phones with a renewed digital card every three years. With this measure, CIMAM is committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 80%. Would you like to add any comment about this latest measure that CIMAM will implement?
Frances Morris: I am thrilled that CIMAM is not just facilitating information exchange and providing advice for members but is also taking responsibility for reducing its own omissions. I feel confident that this is a first step to pioneering best practices in other areas of its work.