Sustainability of cultural institutions: an initial analysis

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Do museums, theaters and cultural institutions have a good record in terms of social and environmental sustainability - Researchers at the University of Lausanne have conducted an international survey of over 200 major institutions. The result: there is considerable room for improvement, and the Anglo-Saxons in particular are the most advanced.

Given their influence, the audiences they attract and their ability to convey narratives in a variety of forms to a wide audience, cultural institutions have a major role to play in promoting sustainability issues, and in setting an example with ambitious action plans. Specialists from the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment at the University of Lausanne (UNIL) have launched a wide-ranging international survey to take stock of their progress in the field of social and environmental sustainability.

The survey was conducted in the form of a questionnaire among some 206 leading museums, theaters and opera houses on all continents. Respondents were evaluated according to criteria ranging from inclusiveness and employee well-being (social aspects), to waste management, energy, catering and carbon impact (environment).

The results, published in the scientific journal Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, showed that for 60% of those surveyed, sustainability issues had only been integrated into their strategy in the last five years or less. On average, cultural organizations scored 37 out of a possible 100 in the sustainability score, doing better in social sustainability than in environmental sustainability. Overall, then, the sector is at a relatively early stage in this area. While there are a lot of declarations, implementation is lagging behind", says Martin Müller, the Lausanne University professor who led the research.

Sustainability champions: a global strategy, a dedicated team and a cross-functional approach

The study did, however, identify a number of sustainability champions, 14 in all. There is also a correlation between the ’social’ and ’environmental’ levels. So, if players are good in one area, they will also be good in the other. The top 14 includes several Anglo-Saxon players, such as the National Galleries of Scotland and the Sydney Opera House, as well as Universcience - which includes the Palais de la Découverte and the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie - in Paris. In Switzerland, six institutions were analyzed, all of which were within the average range. The study guaranteed the anonymity of the participating institutions, so only the best performers who gave their explicit consent are mentioned.

The institutions at the top of the ranking stand out in particular for the fact that they have made sustainability issues part of their overall strategy, and hired a dedicated internal group to lobby for and coordinate actions in favor of sustainability. National context and political decisions also seem to play a role. In England, for example, institutions receiving public funding through the Arts Council are required to report on sustainability issues," comments Julie Grieshaber, co-author of the study.

We’re very proud of this result," says Anne Lyden, Managing Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, the most sustainable museum according to the study. We actively support Scotland’s goal of achieving net zero by 2045, and have reduced our carbon footprint by 60% between 2008 and 2022. ’, she adds. ’ We understand that it’s important for us to play a part in making the future more sustainable, not just for Scotland, but for the whole world.’

Louise Herron, CEO of the Sydney Opera House (the first institution in the analysis), adds: ’Sustainability has been part of the Opera House’s DNA from the outset, and in recent years we’ve built it into our organizational strategy, so that it becomes part of everyone’s daily life. These are urgent challenges we face, which can only be met through coordinated action, and as cultural organizations we have a tremendous opportunity to inspire others and bring about change together’.

Establishing a model to follow

In the future, scientists from the University of Lausanne will continue their analysis work. In particular, the idea is to create a global alliance of cultural institutions dedicated to sustainability, and a label to better structure sustainability efforts. To this end, prof. Martin Müller has just secured major funding for a program promoting practical innovation based on scientific research.

Survey methodology

Questionnaires were completed by 206 institutions from all continents. The data was analyzed according to a model comprising three spheres: the governance sphere (commitment, strategy, implementation, transparency); the social sphere (integrity, partnerships, urban integration, community, access, diversity & inclusion, employee well-being, learning and inspiration); and the environmental sphere (climate, biodiversity, water, waste, energy, mobility & transport, food & beverage, supply chain).

The players taking part in the survey were selected according to criteria such as their importance to the sector (based on a body of literature), attractiveness (number of visitors) or the costs invested in their development. The idea was to deliberately select large institutions, i.e. the major players in the field.