Chances are that if you work in a museum, you probably think Sustainability is a good thing, right? Getting rid of bottled water, recycling, reducing paper use, using motion detectors to turn off the lights when rooms are unoccupied – all sorts of good things like that. Well watch out, because the sustainability debate may take you to all sorts of areas that make you feel a lot less comfortable.
In an earlier post, I discussed the question of whether environmental standards for collections care should be relaxed to reduce energy costs. Manchester Museum director Nick Merriman has gone one stage further. In a recent talk at the UCL Centre for Sustainable Heritage (reported by Maurice Davies in the April edition of Museums Journal) Merriman asked the question, are big collections sustainable?
Big collections are expensive; they consume energy, both directly and indirectly. Yet the proportion of the collection that is used regularly (or at all) for research, education, and display is actually quite small. As part of an in-house planning exercise at another museum, we actually tried to quantify this. For a heavily-used collection of 400,000 specimens, we calculated that the average number of specimens examined in a day by an academic visitor is approximately 24. The number of visitor days per year is 200, so roughly speaking, around 2,400 specimens, or 0.6% of the collection, gets examined for research purposes every year. At any one time, the number of specimens from the collection that were out on loan for study at other institutions was around 400, or 0.1%. And the number of specimens from this collection on exhibit at the museum was around 250, or 0.06%.
Let’s stop and take a look at those numbers again. Research, 0.6%; loans, 0.1%; exhibits, 0.06%. Now bear in mind that this is both the largest and one of most heavily used collections of its type in the world. Also consider that use of specimens is not uniformly distributed. Certain types of specimens (e.g. types) are going to be looked at repeatedly, as are ones from areas of particular strength. And there are only a limited number of researchers in the world, so the number of visitors will not increase proportionately with the size of collection. Add these factors together and it becomes apparent that for large collections there is a fraction of their specimens (and it’s a substantial one) that will probably never be examined.
Collections are also growing. This is generally considered to be a good thing and not always for the reasons that the lay person might expect. Space is part of the holy trifecta of museum management, the other two elements being staff and money. There’s never enough of any of them, so everybody automatically wants more of what there is regardless of whether they really need it or not. Many museums engage in space planning exercises, and as part of these collection-holding divisions are usually asked to estimate the likely growth of their collections, over the next 10, 15, or 20 years. The numbers generated usually follow the formula of “as much as I think I can get away with,” the principal objective being to grab as much space as possible for your own division.
Unfortunately, you sometimes get asked to demonstrate that these numbers are rooted in reality, and to do this you need to show that the collection really is growing. Now far be it from me to suggest that people sometimes acquire collections primarily for the purpose of occupying space – but the temptation is there. Museums have tried to address this at a policy level, by setting up approval procedures for the acquisition of specimens that mandate that they should be “relevant to the institution’s mission” (or similar language). This can act as a check against, for example, an entomology curator accepting a steam locomotive as a donation, but as museums tend to have very broadly-defined missions (e.g. “to study the natural world and communicate its wonders to everyone”) most half-way competent curators can get around this. To really tackle the problem, the institution has to develop a “collections plan,” which will codify why they collect, and by extension how, when, and how much to collect. This is an enormously valuable management exercise, and is by definition the sort of thing that makes curatorial hair stand on end. I’m sure I’ll be talking about it more in some later post.
So let’s get back to the sustainability question again. We’ve established (I think) that we have big, expensive museum collections, only a tiny fraction of which ever get used, and which are continually growing, often in unplanned and unsystematic ways. This is a considerable challenge for museums as “green” institutions and is one that they should be tackling, right?
To which I say – GET A LIFE, PEOPLE! The fraction of the planet’s carbon footprint that is attributable to the growth and maintenance of museum collections is miniscule in comparison to, say, domestic fuel consumption, forest clearance, antiquated Chinese industrial plants, or flatulent cattle in the developing world. Yes, museums should be worried about sustainability, but they should be targeting their efforts towards changing people’s behavior in ways that will have a significant impact beyond the walls of the institution.
If you encourage your staff to use less paper, or avoid buying bottled water, or to carpool, then you are building onto wider movements. You are also encouraging behavior that can be transferred to families and friends. There are good institutional reasons for promoting both sustainability and collection planning, but if you try and use sustainability as an argument for collection planning, then you end up devaluing and damaging both concepts, because (despite evidence to the contrary) people that work in museums are not idiots.