International Museum Day, which has happened every year around May 18 since 1977, is becoming a pretty big deal. According to the IMD website, over 35,000 museums in more than 140 countries did something to celebrate it last year. This shows how pervasive museums are as cultural institutions, and why having a special day for them is important.
This year’s theme -- “Museums for a sustainable society” -- is directly in line with a number of long-standing and recent RSM exhibits and programs, as well as our current focus on ecomuseums. But it’s not a new idea. The notion that museums can, and should be encouraging more sustainable forms of development has been percolating through the museum community for many years. From 2001-2005, for example, with support from the Canadian Museum of Nature, I was part of a national working group that put on museums and sustainability workshops as part of the Canadian Museums Association annual conference. Many ideas and projects were catalyzed by that work, and by similar discussions at the provincial level, in other countries, and around the world. So, why is it still a good theme?
I suspect that part of the answer is: sustainability issues haven’t gone away, and they’re not likely to. Issues like climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and widespread poverty are often described as “wicked” problems, because they reflect conditions and relationships that are always changing and may be hard to recognize. This makes them difficult to address, and potentially impossible to solve.
Another reason has to do with museums themselves. A 2008 report from the UK Museums Association called “Sustainability and Museums: Your Chance to make a Difference” points out that many museums are housed in an “energy-hungry building” with expanding collections that require “tightly controlled environmental conditions.” They face challenges around reuse or recycling as they replace or update exhibits, and there is a tendency to assess performance by using visitation and other measures that have little or nothing to do with sustainability education.
The internal issues that museums face in this area are complex, but they not as “wicked” as the larger sustainability challenge itself. Hopefully, as more institutions share information about their work and gain profile through things like the IMD, more of the potential that museums have around sustainability education will be realized.