Sustainable Museums!

Caitlin Southwick - Sustainability is the future - Culture is the key.

An interview by Diana Fehr / May 26th, 2021

Caitlin Southwick is the Founder and Executive Director of Ki Culture. She holds a Professional Doctorate in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage from the University of Amsterdam. Caitlin has worked in the conservation field for eight years in museums and sites around the world, including the Vatican Museums, The Getty Conservation Institute, The Uffizi Gallery and the Easter Island. She is the Secretary of the Working Group on Sustainability for the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and a former Professional Member of the American Institute of Conservation (AIC) Sustainability Committee.


Museo: Why do you think that culture and especially museums can help in the fight against climate change?


Caitlin: When it comes to sustainability, one of the biggest barriers we have seen is the way it has been communicated. However, culture has a unique opportunity to engage the public with sustainability, evoking emotion and transferring information in a way that is empathetic and meaningful. Art can make the message personal and create that ownership and empathy that we need, and this is why it can become a hugely successful communicator for sustainability.

If we can use culture to connect people with issues of sustainability, we have the potential to have a much larger impact than what climate science alone has achieved by now. We will have a real fighting chance of succeeding and getting people to understand why this topic is so important. And because museums and cultural institutions are trusted sources of knowledge and learning, one of the last establishments with that inherent trust, they can become important messengers in this field.


Museo: How would you describe your role in that and what makes Ki Culture unique?


Caitlin: What makes us different is our unified approach towards sustainability – both in terms of the interconnectivity of the issues and our work toward partnerships, co-creation, collaboration and collective solutions. Climate change, an integral aspect of sustainability, is a global problem which needs a global solution, and we see the opportunity that culture can become a part of this solution. However, before cultural institutions can be effective advocates for sustainability, they first need to practice what they preach. In other words, the sector has to become sustainable itself.


At Ki Culture, we want to support cultural institutions and professionals in showing them how they can find that agency to be change-makers. We want to empower people to take action within their institutions, to show them where they can find their individual responsibility and motivation and to support creating cultures of sustainability where everyone is involved. We want to educate every single person within the organization about what sustainability means and what they can do about it, so that they can start to make change themselves. Our programs and resources can be used by everyone everywhere – top down and bottom up, as we believe this dual approach is the way to achieve change within the sector.

Museo: Who would you say are the biggest drivers for this topic? The institutions or the people within the organizations?


Caitlin: From what I have observed, I would say it comes more from the people within the organizations. But, it depends also on where you are in the world. Sometimes the practitioners want to do it, and sometimes the board is pushing for being sustainable, and sometimes the director is all about sustainability. Nevertheless, the museum sector is pretty far behind compared to some other sectors as they tend to move a bit slower, based on their traditional structures. But I think that trend is becoming dated as institutions feel a moral obligation to be more sustainable, and this is why we believe in them.

Museo: Is it easier for smaller museums to achieve the necessary changes, or do the bigger ones have an advantage in driving change?


Caitlin: It depends! Bigger museums have more resources, as they have the opportunity to hire more full-time staff, as well as consultants. Of course, it is also hard for them to achieve change, because of their complex structure and it is also not always easy to get everyone on board. On the other hand, smaller museums may lack manpower, time and knowledge. But they are nimbler and have more capacity to make change at a quicker pace, even if the leadership is not on board. So, it depends on the size of the institution, but it also depends very much on the leadership and their willingness to achieve change and to become more sustainable.


Museo: We know that 95% of all museums are small sized institutions. Is it more likely to achieve a bigger impact within and through them?


Caitlin: Sustainability is about being accessible to everybody. But of course, in terms of impact, the larger institutions have a lot of influence on the sector. They can position themselves as role models and they are able to step up and raise awareness for these topics and share their knowledge with other institutions. They are also able to reach out to a broader audience and might therefore have a bigger impact externally. On the other side, since smaller institutions are more flexible, and usually more focused on their local communities, they have more opportunities to connect closer with their audience and are therefore able to achieve a more profound impact. So, I do not think that in the end size is the only factor.

Museo: What do you think will be the museum’s future role?


Caitlin: It is such an interesting time right now, because museums are redefining themselves. ICOM‘s definition of museums is still under debate and as Secretary of the Working Group on Sustainability I am incredibly interested in this process. Not only is the literal definition of the museum being changed, but also their own sense of self has changed with COVID. Museums are being forced to engage more with their local communities rather than focusing on tourists, and now topics of deaccessioning, decolonization and repatriation are front and center.

The role of museums is changing – museums are no longer a place of one-way conversation. The communication has to become a dialogue – between museums and their audiences, in terms of listening to the needs of their communities and responding to those needs while providing a safe place for openness and conversation. Museums should be a place where people can come together from different backgrounds to talk about and explore the challenges they face as individuals and we face as a society. I think that this is the future of museums.


Museo: What role does digitalization play here?


Caitlin: Digitization is a really interesting topic, because it has pros and cons. But, at the moment, we don’t know what that weight is. The pros are that digitization, done correctly, can make things more accessible for everyone. We know that many museums over the course of the past year have done phenomenal things, like virtual exhibitions and virtual tours, which are not just about putting pictures of their collections online. But we still don‘t know if people around the world feel more engaged, if they feel that collections are now more accessible or if they feel more connected through these new possibilities.


On the other hand, the downside of digitizing is that it has a huge carbon footprint. If every museum in the world would make their collections available online, the carbon footprint would be astronomical. So, we actually have to think very strategically about why and what we are digitizing and what impact we would like to achieve in both social and environmental aspects.

Museo: How has your recent work and the results you gained from it affected the way you will proceed with your program in the near future?


Caitlin: We just released our Ki Books which we are really excited about and have had really enthusiastic feedback on. They guide you step-by-step on how you can become sustainable in the cultural environment and I must say that they reflect exactly what I wanted to have when I was practicing conservator myself.


Now we are creating the next series, which will be released every three months starting January 2022. Upcoming themes include: Education and Outreach, Water, Indigenous Relations & Traditional Knowledge, as well as Storage and Digitization. And because we want to be able to keep them up to date and more interactive, we are turning these books into a website. This will give us the possibility to continuously update our content, add contributions and more directly address the needs of our communities and the sector. We are also translating them into different languages in order to make them as accessible to as many people as possible around the world.

Museo: This sounds like a lot of work.


Caitlin: Yes it is, but our team is growing exponentially. The Ki team is absolutely phenomenal and incredibly dedicated. And we have been overwhelmed by the support we have received from partners around the world. We continue working hard to create practical programming and more effective communication for the sector. We want to help institutions and their staff by providing resources, tools and solutions so that together we can achieve real change.


Thank you for this interview and for sharing your thoughts with me.

Images: Caitlin Southwick, Ki Culture