The Greening of Museums:
An Environmentally Friendly Approach to Art, Science and History Institutions

January 16, 2011 No Comments

As the notion of “going green” permeates most every aspect of 21st century life, more and more museums are finding ways to play a part in the movement. And for most of the “greenest” museums in the country, playing it ecologically safe also means saving money. At the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, Pa., the small staff is dedicated to recycling. “We re-use paper for making copies,” explained Meegan Coll, coordinator of the annual glass auction, one of the museum’s major fundraisers every fall. She admits that while packing and shipping art, especially fragile glass for which the museum is best known, requires dense materials, the museum has taken steps to reduce and reuse paper products within the office setting. The Old City destination, just footsteps from Independence Hall, also recently converted all of its fluorescent light bulbs into energy-saving alternatives. Coll said the new eco-friendly light bulbs not only last longer, but they use less energy, so the museum ends up saving money.
At the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vt., plenty of eco-friendly changes have taken place over the last few years. Steve Smith, director of animal care and facilities for ECHO, said the “incredible software and mechanical systems we have in the building minimize our natural gas and electric energy consumption.”
He said the internal mechanics of the facility have all been adapted to cut down on energy use, including the lighting controls.
Similar steps are being taken in Harvard, Mass., at the Fruitlands Museum. “We want to be green,” said Mike Volmar, curator of collections, “and strive to be greener.”
The museum recently conducted an energy audit that showed how Fruitlands could start conserving energy and lessening power consumption. “We started replacing light bulbs with more efficient versions,” said Volmar, “and we actively recycle.”
He said the museum, dedicated to New England heritage, is also taking an active interest in alternative energy, which is currently being built into the new master plan for Fruitlands. He expects the changes to take shape in the next few years.

Windy City Momentum

At Illinois’ prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, Erin Hogan, director of public affairs, is committed to green and sustainable practices. “The Art Institute started implementing green procedures fairly early,” she said. “In 2000, the museum installed what was then the largest solar array in the Midwest on the roof of its Rice Building, which produces electricity to light the galleries.”
Hogan said that the newest addition to the building, the Modern Wing, is also now LEED Silver Certified, in part, because of its innovative lighting system and use of local materials. “The museum has long had recycling programs and an extensive re-use program for materials, such as cases and display vitrines that are used in the galleries,” explained Hogan. “We have also increased the amount and percentage of green spaces around the museum with our gardens and tree-planting programs.”
She said, like many art museums, going completely green can be a challenge. “The Art Institute has strict requirements for temperature, humidity and light levels,” said Hogan. “We try to meet these requirements using as much sustainable technology as possible, but there is certainly a limit to which we can cede control of these conditions.”

The Science of Saving

For some museums, the implementation of greener practices comes down to a science – literally. “Our green philosophy is based on one of the core values of our organization,” explained Sonya Wolen, assistant director of the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond. “We employ green practices and harness innovative technology to positively impact the environment.”
With a small staff of only five full-timers, everyone manages to pitch in to do their part. “Our current janitorial practices are green certified in order to minimize our impact on resource use and the environment,” explained Wolen. “Our cleaners are all green and our soap dispensers have all been switched to the foam-style to reduce waste.”
She said many of the Science Museum’s programs also incorporate re-purposed and recycled materials, like yogurt containers for paint cups, paper towel rolls for roller coaster tracks and old calendar pictures for animal habitat projects.
“We have multiple locations for the recycling of aluminum and plastic drink containers,” said Wolen. “The aluminum cans are given to Habitat for Humanity or used by some of our after school students to raise money for their annual party. The plastic bottles are used a couple times a year for projects designing water bottle rockets or for kaleidoscopes. The bottle lids are used as lip-gloss pots for birthday party activities.”
The green initiatives at this museum also extend outdoors. “The seasonal butterfly garden,” said Wolen, “is maintained without the use of any artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.”
There are some challenges associated with being located in a historic district and with one of the museum’s buildings being on the National Register of Historic Places. “For example, the solar panels installed on an adjacent building – and interpreted in our gallery – cannot directly feed into the energy needs of our buildings due to current configuration of the electrical systems,” said Wolen. “Also, any change that alters the exterior appearance of our older building is prohibited, so we have been unable to install a rain barrel system to collect rain water, though we have an enormous roof capacity and the barrels ready and waiting.”

Making History in Pittsburgh

When the Senator John Heinz History Center in downtown Pittsburgh, Pa., expanded its new Smithsonian wing six years ago, Betty Arenth, the center’s senior vice president, started spearheading a green building initiative. “At that point, we made our newest addition,” said Arenth, “a Silver Level LEED-certified green building.”
Since then, the forward-thinking vice president also took steps to implement several other eco-friendly features. “The History Center has successfully introduced a recycling program for our business side and for our visitors,” she explained, “and we have successfully switched to green cleaning products.”
Arenth is also working to raise funds to switch the center’s storm water disposal from a combination sewer line to a dedicated storm water line.
“The History Center has also been actively improving the overall energy efficiency of our facility, including projects such as sealing windows, switching lighting fixtures, etc.,” she said.

Building Green Momentum

Cathy Frankel, vice president of exhibitions and collections at the National Building Museum, said that while the museum may not have adopted a formal green philosophy, it has been the subject of special exhibits for the past decade.
“We recognized immediately that we could not just talk green, but that we had to be green,” explained Frankel. “Our work toward making the museum more green ranges from simple changes, like making sure that there are garbage cans for recyclables in both our public and non-public spaces, to reusing materials whenever possible when we are building our exhibitions.” The museum also uses no-VOC paints, and has installed bamboo flooring. It’s also switched to energy-efficient lighting.

Going Green Means Saving Money

The cost of energy pushed Mass MoCA into the green space in North Adams, Mass. “We believe our financial sustainability and our environmental sustainability are inextricably linked,” said Katherine Myers, one of several museum directors.
Occupying a massive 19th century mill complex, energy costs are a major factor in operating the facility. “Both previous occupants were driven out of business in large part because of uncontrollable and rising energy costs,” said Myers. “We believe that being a leader in energy independence will also help promote opportunities for green industries to establish themselves and thrive in North Adams.”
Since Mass MoCA opened in 1999, its expenses for heat and electricity have risen from $200,000 a year to a peak of $800,000 a year, while the operating budget has remained the same at $5.8 million. “We’ve taken dramatic steps already,” said Myers, “with major investments in scheduling and setback controls for our heating, ventilation and air conditioning, plus new variable air handling fans and water pumps.”
The museum also installed a solar photovoltaic array, one of the largest in New England, which cuts electricity by 25 percent and heating by about 13 percent. “We’ve also hosted several high-profile art projects intended to educate our visitors about solar and wind energy,” explained Myers.
Currently the museum is participating in the Massachusetts High Performance Buildings Program. “We’re now investing significant resources in an overhaul of our lighting systems to introduce the most energy-efficient fluorescent, metal halide and LED technologies in many areas of our campus,” said Myers. “We’re also designing a more efficient heating system using sustainably harvested wood pellet fuel that will greatly reduce our natural gas consumption.” She said these steps should further reduce electric consumption by 10 to 15 percent and cut natural gas use by as much as 75 percent, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by nearly half.
“Beyond this current set of activities, we are also developing plans for a much larger investment in solar photovoltaics on MASS MoCA’s rooftops, and we hope to further demonstrate the potential for wind energy,” said Myers. “We will continue working to highlight the various aspects of the museum’s energy work and its commitment to conservation and alternative energy so they become an increasingly visible part of the museum visitor’s experience.” -

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