Can we cut it? Manchester Museums Partnership’s Response to the Climate Emergency.
Phillippa Milner, Senior Gallery Registrar, Manchester Art Gallery and Gillian Smithson, Registrar, The Whitworth & Manchester Museum, The University of Manchester
Friday 7thFebruary 2020 National Army Museum

Manchester City Council has committed to reduce the carbon footprint of the city to zero, twelve years ahead of the UK government’s target. In this session, Phillippa Milner and Gillian Smithson explored Manchester Museums Partnership’s initial response to this challenge.

The key is to change the way we think, but is it possible to move away from our current focus on consumption, growth and finance based economy? Can we do this whilst also fulfilling our purpose of sharing collections? Phillippa and Gillian did not pretend to have the answers to these difficult, complex questions, but by sharing examples of the work they have been doing, they were able to offer inspiration and encouragement.

It has been calculated that in Manchester, museums and heritage contribute less than 1% towards the overall carbon footprint of the city, so it could be very easy to think ‘why bother?’. However, there is a strong argument that museums are ideally placed to share knowledge and show that change is possible.

Declaring a climate emergency in 2019 is just one of the steps Manchester Museums Partnerships have taken over the past decade. In 2014, each member of staff received a full day of training on climate change, carbon footprints and how everyone can do their bit. This work with the Carbon Literacy Project contributed to them being the world’s first Carbon Literate Museum. Their public programming reflects this focus on creating a sustainable world with exhibitions such as ‘Climate Control’ and ‘Extinction or Survival’.

They have also started trying to accurately assess the carbon impact of their exhibitions. This involves considering the length of the exhibition, the location of lenders and couriers, as well as more material aspects such as packaging and recycling. As this requires accurate, comprehensive data that has not necessarily been recorded and there is not yet a standardised method for calculating the carbon footprint, this is currently a long process.  

In the meantime, they are moving towards having longer-term exhibitions, fewer overall changes to displays and making more use of their own collection. As part of this, their programming team has been working with local climate-focused groups and organisations. Other initiatives include relaxing environmental conditions for loans out, increasing the use of consolidated transport and significantly reducing the number of couriers by analysing the need to send one, providing better instructions and sharing couriers with other museums. They are now also considering whether the carbon cost of a potential loan should be included in the approval process and whether this would affect their decision.

Whilst acknowledging it is only the start of their carbon-cutting journey and it is a work in progress, through collaboration, research and the sharing of ideas, Gillian and Phillippa are hopeful Manchester Museums Partnership can inspire all registrars to respond to the climate emergency. 

Rebecca Drummond, Assistant Registrar, National Museums Scotland