by • 18 Jul, 2018 • Thoughts about museumsComments (4)12902

Museums and the SDGs: Where to make a difference?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a compelling opportunity for museums and other cultural organizations to take action and show the world that culture deserves to be taken seriously when it comes to sustainable development. With 17 goals and a total of 169 targets, it may be a tough choice where to start, though. Which begs the question, Where can museums make a difference on the SDGs?

In this post I try to summarize where museums can take action on the SDGs, and how they might approach this, either by leading the way, supporting other organizations or making internal changes. Overall, there are more than 50 targets on which museums can make a difference.

This list is not comprehensive. Specific types of museums can take additional action on the topics in which they are experts. Natural history museums and science museums, for instance, have a considerable role to play in SDG 15 (Life on land), while Maritime and Coastal Heritage Museums may want to focus on SDG 14 (Life below water).

Museums and the SDGs

Three targets stand out, to me, as especially relevant to museums, cultural heritage organizations and other cultural actors:

  • 4.7, which contains a call to action to all cultural organizations: Ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.
  • 10.2, which should be a rallying cry for our approach to our audiences: Empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.
  • 16.10, which touches upon some of the core tasks of cultural organizations: Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

What follows is a more or less extensive list of where museums and other cultural organizations can make a difference, and what this difference may look like. Feel free to add to this list by leaving a comment below.

  • Target 1.4 encourages us to ensure equal access to basic services for all, especially the poor and vulnerable. Museums are not always accessible to all, but clearly, they should be (especially to the poor and vulnerable). A relevant new development in this regard, for instance, is the fact that in New York your library card now gives free access to city museums.
  • Target 1.5 aims to build the resilience of all people in times of social and economic shocks and disasters. Museums and other cultural spaces are often regarded as safe spaces where people can gather, reflect, and heal. Examples such as the Stuttgart21 contemporary collecting process, but also museum efforts to support refugees come to mind.
  • More importantly, target 1b: as public places museums play an advocacy role in creating pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies. As highly visible public spaces, museums may show others where to go.
  • Target 2.4 encourages sustainable food production and resilient agricultural practices. Again, museums play an essential advocacy role, but it goes beyond that role. Science Center Nemi in Amsterdam, for instance, produces honey from bees housed on an inaccessible part of the roof. Other museums produce the food for their restaurants on their grounds and more.
  • Target 2.5 aims at maintaining the genetic diversity of seeds, plants, and animals. Of course, this happens in places such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, but also more visible in many Natural History Museum.
  • Target 3.5 focuses on the prevention of substance abuse. I think all museums should be smoke-free (and not just the galleries) and offer a full suite of non-alcoholic alternatives.
  • Equally, target 3.6 which aims to halve the number of traffic and road incidents: Encourage people to take other means of transport to your museum and ensure there is a bike path, proper parking and other amenities so people can safely get to your museum and back.
  • SDG 4 (quality education) is a big one for museums. Especially target 4.4 and 4.7 stand out. Both focus on training and education outside of the classroom; something museums are good at and, in the case of the last clause of 4.7, is typically part of the museum mission: “appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”
  • Target 5.1 call for an end to gender discrimination, which in many cultural institutions should be translated into equal opportunity and equal pay, and – Target 5.5 – equal leadership opportunities. Unfortunately, in museums, theatre, libraries, and elsewhere, gender discrimination is still very much part of the cultural sector.
  • Target 6.1 talks about access to water. This is a huge issue and fixing it requires a massive effort. Museums can start by supplying free, high-quality water to visitors and non-visitors.
  • Equally, when it comes to target 6.3 and 6.4 which are about the reduction of pollution and water efficiency: make sure your museums chooses non-polluting, efficient alternatives when it comes to water use (and the use of other resources).
  • Target 7.2 addresses renewable energy. Museums can opt only to use electricity from renewable sources and lead the way in creating a renewable energy supply. If we do it, others will follow.
  • Target 8.2 addresses diversification of the economy, which should include stimulating the creative industries, something museums have proven to be good at.
  • Similarly, target 8.3 aims to support entrepreneurship, creativity, and innovation. Again, projects such as the Rijksstudio Award, the Jewellery Project at SMK and others have proven that museums can support this functions. Museums should, however, also take their commitment to entrepreneurship and creativity seriously by paying artists and other independent workers a fair wage.
  • Targets 8.5 and 8.6 focus on equal pay and equal opportunity and youth employment. This is something internal, but highly relevant and often debated in museums, especially in networks such as Museum Workers Speak, which provides a resource for museums willing to take action.
  • Target 8.9 could have been included in the top-3. “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products.”
  • Target 9.5 encourages to increase R&D efforts. To some limited extent, museums play a role in R&D activities and can collaborate with others to do research and development. Academic collaborations come to mind, but also – for instance – the collaboration between Shell and the Mauritshuis.
  • One could argue that the cultural sector exists to address target 10.2, which focuses on empowering and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status. Programmes such as the ACM’s Museums for All, the MA’s Museums change lives, the Happy Museum Project and many others propagate inclusive, active and responsible museums.
  • More specifically, target 10.7 asks for the facilitation of orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, something which more and more museums have been active in.
  • Target 11.1 call for adequate, safe and affordable housing for all. Renovation projects in relation to built heritage play a role here, but also new and existing projects such as Jamtli’s New Village, which offers housing opportunities to migrants and other groups that are in need of a home.
  • Target 11.4 explicitly calls for action from the cultural sector, and is the target most of us are aware of: “Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.“
  • Target 11.7 aims to provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces. Museums and others in the cultural sector are among the last genuinely public spaces, a role we may want to emphasize much more.
  • Target 12.3, 12.5 and 12.6 should be internal policies of all cultural organizations: do not waste food, reduce waste and operate sustainably.
  • Museums play an important role in 12.8: ‘By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature’. (Thanks to Henry McGhie)
  • Target 13.1 invites organizations to be climate resilient. The new Whitney Museum is an example, although there is still a lot to be done.
  • SDG 16 (Peace, justice, and strong institutions) should not be overlooked by cultural institutions. Cultural heritage has a role to play in peacebuilding processes, as a recent book highlighted.
  • More specifically, target 16.6 requires the development of effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels. Museums and others should be examples of such organizations.
  • Target 16.7 demands that we ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels. This addresses one of my favorite topics: participatory governance of cultural heritage. There is a lot to say about that, especially within Europe, as was done recently in Brussels. An OMC report on the topic also echoes earlier work I was involved in, which showed cultural heritage is taking steps towards participatory governance, but there is still a long way to go.
  • Target 16.10 demands that we ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms. This includes opening up collections, research, and other assets museums own and encouraging communities to use them.
  • Finally, SDG 17 is about strengthening the means of implementation and revitalizing the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development. Translated to museums, its many targets ask for museums and other cultural organizations to take an active role in sustainable development, partner with others and be conscious about their role in communities and societies.

The list above is not comprehensive. Organisations such as ICOMOS provide resources to take action on these and other targets, and many individual institutions will have opportunities that are unique to their area of expertise, their community or their society.

As always, feel free to leave a comment or reach out in another way to complement the list above with your examples of action.

Header image: The Museum of Tomorrow, by lazyllama /

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