The artefacts of climate change: What does global warming mean for museums?

We’re facing one of the greatest global challenges in recent times: the increasing effects of climate change. What does this mean for the future of preserving the past?

Museums hold a special role in our society, centred around preserving the past and present history for it to be seen and understood by future generations. But with the climate disaster ramping up, some are questioning the role of museums and galleries in such uncertain times.

How do cultural institutions fit into a world facing imminent irreversible damage? It’s certainly an interesting and layered question, and the answer is twofold.

What’s the point?

It’s worth considering what the point is of investing in and preserving historical collections if it comes at the cost of the planet.

Museums are responsible for an enormous ecological footprint, a result of their very nature. After all, they’re huge buildings, brimming with artifacts that must be maintained at specific temperatures.

This calls for round-the-clock air conditioning – not to mention lights on all day long for visitors and large quantities of packing materials required for effective transport and storage.

This is all part and parcel of the role of the ‘caretakers’ of history. But how do we balance the cost of the future with the conservation of the past? It’s becoming an increasingly troubling task.

Museums have a responsibility to combat their sustainability issues. This is necessary to respect and uphold their business aims and inherent links to the community. As such, it should be a top priority for every museum to address how they can help to reduce their energy consumption and carbon emissions.

This is not only for the sake of the planet but also for the very collections they serve to house and protect. After all, there’s no point meticulously caring for a collection if no one will be around to see it.

The Threat of Climate Change

Historical collections are threatened by climate change and must be protected from the effects of a changing climate to protect the stories of the past.

2019 alone saw the destruction and loss of several museums and their collections. Treasures of ancient cultures and hallmarks of art have been damaged and destroyed, perishing for generations to come.

Last year saw rising water destroy cultural heritage in Venice, Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum burned down, and the California wildfires incinerated art galleries.

But it’s not only these large natural disasters compromising the future of the past. On a smaller scale, increasing air pollutants and changes in pest migration can cause upheaval to the preservation of artifacts.

An increasingly important aspect of museum management is disaster control and prevention – ordinarily encompassing floods, fire, and theft. It’s high time to consider global warming in this disaster prevention, particularly if we are set to only experience more and more environmental changes on a large and impactful scale.

Museums must adapt from the bottom up to become more flexible and resilient in the face of change climate. They must be willing and ready to transform as a whole to do their bit to ensure the future generations are able to visit them at all.

Lucy is a Museums, Conservation and Heritage graduate from the University of Canberra and works as an Objects Conservator at the Australian War Memorial. All views expressed are her own.

Image by Emily Savage