Climate Change at the Museum?

By Alanna Casey and Julianne Fontana, NRF-US/ICOMOS Graduate Interns

Protect. Prepare. Conserve.

For obvious reasons, discussions about climate change and the built environment often begin with places where visible impacts can be seen and marked. Following Hurricane Katrina, iconic Gulf Coast restaurants from Mary Mahoney’s in Biloxi to Katie’s in New Orleans marked the high water line on the wall. In Mississippi, monuments dedicated to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Camile memorialize the victims in the fabric of the community. Following Superstorm Sandy, the high-water line has similarly been embraced as part of the story of New York City and New Jersey. These storms have become part of the historic fabric of these places. While climate-related events are memorialized in our communities, how do the institutions charged with saving our cultural heritage tackle these issues?

From a very practical point of view, museums are now finding themselves in the business of protecting their buildings and collections from climate-related threats. When climate change does breach the museum’s walls, it often spells disaster. In July 2016, the Louvre famously had to move 157,000 collection items from its lower floors during extreme flooding. Conservators in art, history, and science museums are now looking to care for collections through “preventive conservation,” rather than waiting for a problem to develop before treatment.

While climate change conservation and management literature is not a significant body of work yet, it aligns perfectly with the philosophy of preventive collections care. From a collection manager’s perspective, climate change planning could mean raising climate control systems above flood lines, budgeting for more air conditioning or dehumidifier run-time and repairs, or installing dehumidifiers for the first time. It may also mean developing an emergency evacuation plan for objects in case of natural disasters, as defined here by the American Museum of Natural History. 

Climate change is also working its way into the exhibition experience. In fact, entire museums exist dedicated to climate change, notably those the Climate Museum in New York and the Museum of the Future in Dubai. The Canada Science and Technology Museum has a travelling exhibition on climate change that brings the topic to a wider audience. But many more museums, beyond science and technology centers, may be able to tell climate stories through their collections. In 2013, Concord Museum exhibited Early Spring: Henry Thoreau and Climate Change, which told a story of climate change through Thoreau’s historical objects and writings. As the field of climate heritage expands, should all museums interpret how climate change will impact their collections, or should this conversation be limited to climate change exhibits?

Beyond their collections, what can museums offer to climate change conversations? The answer may lie in the stories at the core of what they do. Many museums and historic sites interpret the histories of mills, homes of steel and coal magnates, and historic automobile parkways — sites that contributed to modern climate change. What if tours and exhibits linked climate change to human actions? For instance, tours at Fire Island National Seashore in New York could highlight how the Army Corps has changed site management strategies to respond to increased storm events, including Hurricane Sandy. Or interpreters at Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland could highlight coal-burning during Civil War battles as part of the continuing legacy of fossil fuel use and climate change. Are these choices political (and potentially fraught), or are they part of an unfolding narrative about one of the most consequential events of our time?

Information in this post came from many sources including conversations with Ingrid Neuman, Conservator at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum (March 2, 2017) and Kristen Costa, Curator at the Newport Restoration Foundation (March 14, 2017).
For more information:
Ford, Patricia. Ipi’s Guide to Sustainable Preservation Practices for Managing Storage Environments. Rochester, N.Y: Image Permanence Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology, 2012.
Hebda, Richard J. “Museums, Climate Change and Sustainability.” Museum Management and Curatorship, vol. 22, no. 4,2007, pp.  329-336, DOI: 10.1080/09647770701757682.
Saunders, David. “Climate Change and Museum Collections.” Studies in Conservation, vol. 53, no. 4, 2008, pp. 287–297.,