Board & Staff: Welcoming the Green Revolution in Your Museum

Board & Staff: Welcoming the Green Revolution in Your Museum

"Our board," says Patrick Kociolek, executive director and curator of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, "has never balked at LEED – or even Platinum-certified." In fact, they have a "huge commitment to green." That commitment, Kociolek notes, came after the academy's board, staff, and stakeholders in the community engaged in a thorough planning process that led to the decision to create an institution for the 21st century.

In this series of articles we've talked about how connecting green strategies to your mission can create funding opportunities, and how museums are implementing and modeling responsible environmental practices in their physical plants and programming. But we have yet to talk about the people who make all this happen: Your board and staff.

Because museum boards are designed to be representative of the communities they serve, the chances of your board being "true-blue green" from the outset are relatively slim. The lawyers, financiers, corporate leaders, accountants, and others who sit on most museum boards don't start out green; they become green. The same holds true for staff.

Other Articles in the Greening Your Museum series:

How do they become green? Julie Silverman, Director of New (that's her title) at ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont, stresses the importance of the individual's "willingness to learn new ways and to change behavior." The board and staff of ECHO saw the need for a new building before they were fully committed to sustainable design; once they made the commitment, however, the rest was easy. In a state like Vermont, one of the "greenest" in the country, selling the benefits of sustainability to boards and staff usually isn't a problem. Acknowledging benefits is not the same as acting on the belief. That requires individuals to "create habits of mind," says Silverman, which is an acquired skill, she adds. It's done by continually asking, "Is there a more sustainable way to do this?" That discipline helps ECHO's staff avoid business-as-usual decisions, consistently working toward ever-greener decisions and behaviors.

At the California Academy of Sciences, the decision to go green was rooted in the convergence of three factors: Serious damage to its Golden Gate Park building caused by the Lomo Prieta earthquake in 1989; Kociolek's appointment as director; and the institution's own soul-searching and community pulse-taking. Staff, board, and stakeholders explored such questions as, What is the function of a natural history museum in the 21st century? What should it look like? What should it do? Together, board and staff explored and chose the intent for the new museum's intellectual approach and organizational programming. They then compared their conclusions to what the existing spaces in the damaged building offered, or might offer. When the existing physical plant did not support the new organizational vision, they found themselves on a new path - creating a building, a sustainable one, from scratch.

Maud Ayson's board at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, came to its green epiphany through an institutional planning process as well. Fruitlands is a museum of the New England landscape that uses the site's woods and wetlands, its collections of art, Native American and Shaker artifacts, and its buildings to tell the story of how human beings have shaped, and been shaped by, the Massachusetts countryside. Appropriately, it began its green efforts by focusing on its landscape and the surrounding environment as it developed a master plan for the rural site. In 2002, the museum conducted a grant-funded public dimension assessment, MAP III, through a program of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. After interviewing staff, neighbors, and other stakeholders, the board realized it wanted the community to be as proud of the museum as it was. It then held a board retreat featuring presentations by staff and an architect from the Doyle Conservation Center, headquarters for the Trustees of Reservations ("The Trustees") in Leominster, Massachusetts, who explained why the center chose to build a LEED Gold-certified building. With the knowledge that the founder of Fruitlands was committed to protecting the local landscape and its history, what they learned that weekend convinced the board that the institution should pursue environmental sustainability.

The decision to go green was "about building community together and doing what's right for the 21st century," says Ayson. "If we're not an advocate" for smart growth, she adds, then "development could happen here." Ayson says Fruitlands staff is firmly committed to the idea that green is right for the mission and the right thing to do, and is learning to appreciate the relevance of a green approach in their daily work and lives. Ayson considers it the museum's job to protect greenspace as the best "frame" for the Native American sites and mid-19th century utopian settlement that share a landscape with the museum. And her board and staff agree: At the moment, they're working with community and preservation leaders to minimize the impact of a pharmaceutical plant scheduled to be built in open space within visual range of the property.

Precisely because many people do not have the green habits of mind that Silverman prizes and institutions do not always have the lofty expectations that each of the museums in this article has developed, it's critical to have someone on staff who can drive a green agenda. The Kresge Foundation, a leading proponent of sustainable design in the not-for-profit sector, requires every organization that applies for green project funding to demonstrate that "a 'green champion' has been designated — a person who has appropriate authority within the nonprofit organization to shepherd the integrated design process from project conception to completion." Moreover, that person's efforts on behalf of the project must be a core component of his or her work — not just an add-on to an already overfull schedule — and he or she must continue in that role after the building is complete. Silverman totally agrees, and adds that someone needs to be a green champion for planning, building, and behaving. At ECHO that person is Silverman, who calls herself the "recycle police." But with ECHO up and running, she notes that each staff member has taken on the role of champion for his or her portion of its operations and programming.

The boards and staff at these three institutions discovered the importance of sustainability early in a bricks-and-mortar planning process and only later recognized its natural alignment with responsible museum practices, which in turn caused them to change their habits. Green is all about changing behavior, says Silverman says, and that isn't always easy. "If it were," she notes, "people would have changed their habits years ago." Whether it's buying recycled products, using local vendors, or researching your options for sustainable sources, being green requires mindful choices. Fortunately, as Silverman points out, with technological innovation driving green building techniques forward at an accelerating rate, it has become much easier to make the right choices.

Being green for a museum is not just about smart buildings, sustainable product choices, or environmentally aware practices. It's about commitment to the future at the board and staff level. It's about communicating that commitment to external as well as internal audiences. And, for each and every one of us, it's about how we choose to live our lives.

If you know of other demonstrations site or have additional thoughts or comments about the role museums can play in promoting environmental sustainability, please let me know. I can be reached at sarah@bmuse.net. And please visit my Green Museums site when you have a moment. Although new, I hope to turn it into a clearinghouse for green-museum information. So if your museum has a green story to tell, let me know and I'll do what I can to help spread the word.