How to write a sustainability plan for a museum

September 9, 2021

With huge excitement, the V&A has just publicised its Sustainability Plan. Arranged under the three headings of Place, People and Programme, it identifies key issues and actions we will prioritise over the next three years in the context of a long-term net zero carbon target. Many actions are on a pathway – firstly data needs to be collected or guidelines in a particular area produced, and then changes can be made and embedded. The process of creating the plan itself was fascinating and in the spirit of sharing experiences, here are my tips for writing a museum sustainability plan.

Health = Environment. Environment = Health, poster by Jim Cave, 1981. Museum no. E.43-1981 © Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tie sustainability to the mission of your museum

Go back to the beginning and think about why sustainability is important to your particular museum. How is it connected to your organisation’s mission and what do you want to achieve? Laying this foundation will help you produce a meaningful plan that resonates with your staff, partners and audiences.

Take a systems approach

There’s no time for fiddling round the edges. We all need to take a holistic, systems thinking approach to sustainability, shifting focus from individual parts to understanding influences within the whole organisation and beyond. Think deeply about your museum’s activities and how you deliver them, be bold and challenging. Donella Meadows work on systems thinking is a great source of practical inspiration. Also think about taking a regenerative approach rather than one of just doing less harm, where can you have a net positive impact?

Consult widely

I started with research of previous sustainability-related activity at the V&A, progress already made, what hasn’t worked, and any audits and reports I could lay my hands on. I looked externally at examples of sustainability action within the sector (for example Natural History Museum, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, The Australian Museum) and outside the sector, from property companies to universities, all of it helped to shape our thinking. And most importantly, I spoke to my colleagues. Museums contain an amazing collection of professions; the breadth and depth of expertise is mind-blowing. From the curators who helped me to articulate the vision, to colleagues in Finance and HR who assisted with really honing particular actions, the generosity of time and enthusiasm from all departments has helped to produce a solid plan.

Set your boundaries

I mean this in a few ways, first of all, what sites are you going to cover? As a multi-site organisation, the V&A has a number of museums which are directly operated and then a number of partnerships where we have influence but not direct control, for example V&A Dundee and the V&A Wedgwood Collection in Staffordshire. Secondly, work out what your plan covers. For us, action on climate change and setting a net zero target was important but this was in the context of a more holistic sustainability plan. And thirdly, the possibilities are vast, focus on where you can have the most influence and impact when agreeing which actions to take. Be realistic – there’s no point in creating a long list that will never be implemented, resourced or that overwhelms people.

Set targets

It’s obvious but start by finding out where you are and then work out where you want to be. Our net zero target is underpinned by some external consultancy work which calculated a detailed carbon footprint covering Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions and then mapped out possible decarbonisation pathways. This helped us to articulate more immediate actions in the context of a long-term science based target. It is also important to spend some time on definitions, make sure you understand the difference between carbon neutral and net zero, for example. Our plan contains a mix of qualitative and quantitative targets, again, engaging with colleagues in different departments really helped to tie these down, from instances of learning engagement to engagement with suppliers. 

Be intersectional

Museums are great at telling stories, how can we use our position and collections to engage audiences in meaningful conversations around sustainability? How do we explore and respond to their concerns and aspirations? Taking an intersectional approach understands the unique ways that oppression and discrimination manifest due to different part of one’s social identity. For example, simultaneous calls to decolonise and decarbonise speak to a growing demand for lasting systemic change to address the root causes of the climate crisis and realise climate justice.

Keep it concise

Structure your plan clearly and keep actions concise and easy to understand. We decided to focus on what we’re going to do in the plan itself and have used our website to talk about what we’ve already done and our blog to update on current progress. Also make sure to assign responsibilities, our internal approval was based on directors taking responsibility for the different actions.

Be patient

It takes time to formulate the principles, agree actions, engage with staff and obtain sign off from directors and trustees. But it is worth it produce something robust! The plan will never be perfect (don’t spend forever trying to make it so) but you do need to have something which is well-researched with a solid foundation.

Tell people

Get your plan out into the world, share it with everyone! This is a collaborative rather than competitive effort, your work will also inspire and motivate others. It’s important to be transparent, publicly accountable and honest. Implementing our plan is going to be hard, but we’re not going to shy away from the complexity. 

Make it stick

This is tough, how do you make a document come to life and actually implement the words written in it? The engagement that took place to produce the plan will help and then you just need to keep going. We have built in regular senior review, a strategic Sustainability Steering Group keep tabs on progress and a grassroots network of Staff Sustainability Coordinators are working on actions in their departments. We have moved on from the times when sustainability was an add-on, now it must be embedded in all decision-making. 

I’ll finish with a quote by Nicole Heller from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History which I feel sums things up nicely:

Addressing climate change is not about putting on one great show. It’s about a systematic assessment of the entire institution from its material relations to its knowledge production practices, from its object interpretation to its display aesthetics, and from its visitors’ engagements to its community relations… with deep systems-thinking and a willingness to be transparent, vulnerable and courageous, museums can become vital institutions for cultivating imaginations, sensibilities and action for sustainability and justice in the 21st century.

Nicole Heller, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

About the author

September 9, 2021

I work across the organisation to embed sustainability expertise and catalyse systemic change in operations and behaviours.

More from Sara Kassam
0 comments so far, view or add yours

Add a comment

Please read our privacy policy to understand what we do with your data.


Join today and enjoy unlimited free entry to all V&A exhibitions, Members-only previews and more

Find out more


Find inspiration in our incredible range of exclusive gifts, jewellery, books, fashion, prints & posters and much more...

Find out more