Stemming the Tide – An International Gathering in Washington D.C.


Contributed by Joyce S. Lee, FAIA, LEED Fellow

“Stemming the Tide” is visually engaging as a museum conference topic. It is both literal and metaphoric while conveying the sense of urgency. “Water is coming” has always been an existential threat to communities and culture. Since last fall, we also heard that “Fire is burning”. The fact that museum professionals are gathering to address potential loss of cultural identity is indeed a milestone. Thank you to the Smithsonian for organizing this spring symposium.

In the opening session, Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Collections Program and the International Council on Monuments and Sites, introduced the design of the conference with six framework areas, namely archaeological sites, built heritage, intangible cultural heritage, cultural landscapes & historic urban landscapes, museums & collections, and cultural communities.

The first remarks given by the President of the Union of Concerned Scientists highlighted the current climate scenario of cultural institutions, large and small, at risk. A solution is the analogy of building a bridge to overcome our gaps: Energy efficiency; decarbonizing electricity; electrifying vehicles, buildings, industries; carbon removal and emissions reduction. Bridging to the other side needs commitment and perseverance.

The next talk dealt with the current conversation of species extinction, while more focus could be channeled to shifts in ecological patterns. The implications to plant, animal and human communities could be greater, more drastic and intricate than extinction.

As culture is a common thread throughout, world heritage loss in a changing climate can be an emotional response that drives change in the museum industry. Far away from the disappearing pacific islands, places like Arles, France, or Hoi An, Vietnam, are witnessing sea level rise. The loss of place identity is both a global and local disruption. If unabated, climate refugees can become sources of geopolitical conflict.

In the US, there are the mountains of buildings (in cities) and carpet of buildings (in less densely populated areas) where the stocks are a sizable carbon problem. The operation of long-standing museum buildings presents a continuous emission stream. Some leading communities around the country have also been tackling “80 by 50” – 80% energy or carbon reduction by 2050. The good news from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is their Committee on the Environment’s principles will be embedded in AIA design awards going forward to foster and mainstream sustainability as integral to design excellence.

(Figure 1 – Source AIA Committee on the Environment)

Ecologist Nicole Heller PhD, who is the Curator of anthropocene studies, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, spoke about climate change as both a social and cultural challenge, which can be anxiety provoking. “All institutions, all people, have a stake in climate change. Museums have great power to provide safe spaces for people to talk and gain knowledge and inspiration for action. I am proud to do this work at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh,” said Dr Heller after the conference. “At the Stemming the Tide conference, I was inspired by the bold, transformative ideas being shared by other museum professionals to address climate change. It felt like an all hands-on-deck moment, which is exactly what we need to succeed.”

The discussions within the framework areas are rich and diverse. Museums’ contribution is to find authentic and relevant ways to engage their audience to both mitigate emissions and execute sustainability, an act that institutions in Pennsylvania could lead by example. Museums are also uniquely positioned to make these actions visible: Talking the Talk while Walking the Walk.


(Figure 2- visitors leaving notes in the room)

Photo Caption: “In this exhibit, visitors were invited to write a response on a Post-it note and place it in one of nine emotional categories, loosely based on stages of grief. These categories were Empowered, Motivated, Curious, Depressed, Angry, Guilty, Denial, Disbelief, or Not Concerned.” Source: Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH)

(Figure 3 – LEED plaque of CMNH)

Another example is at the Phipps Conservatory in which pioneering green practices took place. This TEDx talk tells a compelling story. Not only has Pittsburgh been shaping leadership in the state, the Eastern State Penitentiary, a history museum in the heart of Philadelphia, is shifting focus to start a green committee with management’s support. It will jump start staff efforts and leverage aspirations.

There is an abundance of best practices in this field. As many museums already have an “Accessibility” webpage, it is time to add a “Sustainability” webpage to take stock of strategies undertaken or to be implemented. Each museum is unique; one can start with building tune-up, relaxing set-points, measuring recycling, planting trees, changing modes of transportation, procuring renewable energy, developing resilient resources, benchmarking carbon and reducing waste.

The Smithsonian will be releasing the entire proceeding through online recordings of the webcast, as well as through an open access publication to be released by the end of the year.  Please check back for more information after next month.

Joyce Lee, FAIA, LEED Fellow, is President of IndigoJLD providing green health, planning benchmarking design services. Joyce served under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg as Chief Architect at the New York City OMB. Her work has received numerous awards. She is on adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. Her practice continues to assist cities to strengthen sustainability districts, and help companies reach sustainability and wellness goals. Contact:

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