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How sustainable are Germany's museums?

Nadine Wojcik db
December 12, 2019

There are plenty of exhibitions with a focus on nature and climate change in Germany, and they are popular with visitors. Few museums think green, however, and are changing practices and structures.

Museum für Naturkunde Berlin - upper part of a huge globe
Image: Museum für Naturkunde Berlin/Carola Radke

One day in March, Johannes Vogel joined the students demonstrating at a Fridays for Future demonstration at Invalidenpark in downtown Berlin. Vogel heads the city's renowned Natural History Museum, just 200 meters down the road. As he observed how the young people were showing a great interest in the scientific approach to climate change, he spontaneously decided to invite the students to visit the museum after the protest, he told DW. The practice has turned into a tradition. Every Friday, the museum offers the young climate protesters free workshops led by experts on climate matters. The director has already booked the participating scientists for 2020.

Read more: Berlin breaks ground on a new museum for 20th-century art

Johannes Vogel, instruments in the background - Fridays for Future
Johannes Vogel has become a regular at the Fridays for Future demonstrations Image: Museum für Naturkunde Berlin/Hwa Ja Götz

"For Nature" is in fact the Berlin museum's new motto. Unlike fine arts museums or collections of classical antiques, the museum is linked to the issue by its very nature. Director Vogel and his team, however, see the museum as a political institution that not only invites politicians to climate policy events, but that plans to publish its own position papers on climate change. The museum has begun to save resources, too. "Our entire ventilation system is operated by a geothermal system, which means that, with the exception of the pumps, we run almost CO2 neutral," Vogel says. The 19th-century building that houses an incredible 30 million objects has already been partially modernized.

Air conditioning and artworks on loan

Few institutions in Germany think as comprehensively as the Berlin Natural History Museum. "If you ask a museum how much energy it actually uses, you won't get a satisfactory answer," says Stefan Simon, director of the Rathgen Research Laboratory at the National Museums in Berlin. "I really don't know of a single museum in Germany that can call up a complete CO2 balance of its physical presence and operation," he adds.

Accounting for the museums' ecological footprint are fundamental operational aspects, such as heating and air conditioning systems that ensure an optimal indoor climate for historical paintings and often are operated around the clock, as well as lighting, the curators' air travel, waste management and, last but not least, loaning works of art to other museums, which involves elaborate packaging and flights around the world.

model Modern Art Museum
The planned new Berlin museum is modern, but not very innovative in terms of climate protectionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Kalaene

Simon also takes a critical view of the current museum building hype. The founding director of the Institute for Preservation of Cultural Heritage at Yale University has calculated, among other things, the energy efficiency of museum buildings. "Even if a new building is built to state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly standards and can be operated with minimal energy, the "grey energy"contained in the construction — steel, glass, cement that all have to be melted, burnt, produced — takes many decades for the energy balance of the new building to counterbalance that of an existing building," he told DW.

Bureaucracy blocks climate protection

How can an ecological footprint be reduced if you don't know its dimensions? Since a large number of German museums are owned by the state or the municipality, and run by public associations or foundations, politicians need to be involved, too.

In early November, artists, researchers and directors of leading museums including the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Hamburger Kunsthalle and Kunsthalle Düsseldorf wrote an open letter to Monika Grütters, Germany's Minister of State for Culture. They call for the creation of a task force that would advise museums, formulate goals and come up with measures for a more sustainable public art sector.

Easier said than done, says Museum Ludwig's director Yilmaz Dziewior. "Our air conditioning systems, for example, have to be replaced, he told Deutschlandfunk radio. "We face so many bureaucratic situations." Dziewior hopes greater involvement by the state could help to dismantle these hurdles.

Museum Ludwig building
Museum Ludwig would like to be more sustainable, but grapples with beaurocractic hurdlesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O.Berg

"We're also sending a message to other museums," says Stefan Simon, one of the letter's signatories. "For many museum directors, climate change and climate protection are very far removed from the reality of their daily challenges, as if they were happening on another planet," he argues.

Sustainability for relevancy

Christopher Garthe, a consultant for sustainability in museums and exhibitions, agrees. "All in all, Germany is still in the early stages," says Garthe, who is currently designing an exhibition on extreme weather for Klimahaus Bremerhaven. Climate protection is not just a nice-to-have bonus, he adds. "If museums want to remain relevant in the future, they must consider sustainability as a core value," he says. "Museums use taxpayers' money, so they must show how they can contribute to a sustainable future and how they assume social responsibility."

Sustainability is about more than climate protection, it is all about meeting the needs of today's generation without compromising the opportunities of future generations — the "grandchild factor," according to Garthe, who lists the four pillars of sustainability in museum operations as ecology, economy, social affairs and sustainable programming.

two African bronzes
Sustainability includes determining how to deal with colonial-era art in German museumsImage: WDR

Experts on sustainability face a host of issues: Is the museum open to all population groups, is it barrier-free? Where do collections come from, under what circumstances did the museum acquire them? How sustainable are the working processes within the museum, how dependent is it on subsidies? Even Germany's largest and most renowned museums don't have such experts, Garthe says.

Digitalization offers opportunities

Basically, it's a matter of new structures. To that end, Berlin's Natural History Museum has come up with convincing plans, and will be receiving €660 million ($732 million) in federal an state funds for new construction, renovation and modernization. Digitizing the collection, for instance, has already helped reduce the museum's ecological footprint. Every year, the museum loans out 400,000 exhibits that are carefully packed and sent around the globe. Thanks to digital technology the number loans of hymenoptera (a large order of insects, including bees, bumble bees and wasps), has already fallen by 80% since 2012 — impressive savings.

Virtual data seem to work well for scientists around the world, but would museum visitors be satisfied with mere projections of world-famous paintings? It might be worth a try. If that sounds too far-fetched, shipping works of art overseas via ships and using electric vehicles overland rather than airplanes might be an alternative.