March 17, 2022 / News & Blog

For Our Children, the Planet, and Our Budgets: Museums Learn to Manage Energy

This article is part of the “Children’s Museums and Climate Change” issue of Hand to Hand.
Click here to read other articles in the issue.

By Stephanie Shapiro and Sarah Sutton, Environment & Culture Partners

Culture Over Carbon is a research project designed to improve the museum field’s understanding of energy use by examining data from five types of museums (art, science, children’s, history, and natural history), plus zoos and aquariums, gardens, and historic sites. The two-year research period, which began in September 2021, will cover at least 150 institutions in all geographic regions of the United States, spanning varying sizes and types of buildings (e.g., office vs. collection storage). The project will collect enough information to establish an energy carbon footprint estimate for the museum sector, while creating individual “roadmaps” to help participating institutions understand and use energy more efficiently. Resulting aggregate data will boost the cultural sector’s broad understanding of its current energy practices and help to plan for future expected changes in energy availability, policies, and regulations.

Culture Over Carbon is funded by a National Leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to the New England Museum Association, which leads the project in partnership with Environment & Culture Partners and the nonprofit energy consultants New Buildings Institute (NBI).

Why this Project?

Very few museums have the ability or resources to monitor and assess their own energy use, especially during this prolonged period of economic stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet without this data they are unable to make strategic energy management decisions to save money or reduce the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that worsen the climate crisis.

Museum staff interested in benchmarking their energy use and comparing use reductions struggle with the lack of comparisons. While the Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building certification program and the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar program provide energy performance ratings for buildings, there is no comparison framework/Energy Star score specifically for museums. (There are too few museum-user entries to create appropriate comparisons from a broad base of information.) Museums can join the International Association of Museum Facilities Administrators, which provides access to comparative data from about 200 institutions, but at a cost. Even with this information, staff and leadership often still struggle with how to make good energy use choices and how to pay for them, especially when they may require sometimes costly changes to existing operations.

Nearly every other major US sector understands that its energy use impacts the climate in some ways and has paths to strategically reduce their emissions. Without this context or guides to implementation, it is difficult for museums to find the means to make these shifts. As codes and regulations change—and budgets get tighter—museums need a strong case for competing for public and private funding for compliance.

The Culture Over Carbon project seeks to build a research foundation by focusing on the following questions:

  • • What are key aspects of the current state of energy consumption and management in the US museum field?
  • • What is the best available estimate of the field’s current energy use?
  • • Can the information derived from energy meter data in samplings of similar institutions or spaces (animal and plant life support, material collections care, education spaces, exhibit galleries, and office spaces) reveal areas where most museums of that type are likely to expend the most energy?
  • • Can these use profiles support individual institutions as they prioritize modifications to operations, buildings, or mechanical systems for energy savings that reduce cost and GHG emissions?

The climate challenge is so significant that all who can possibly participate in creating solutions must do what they can. Until now, the museum sector has done little research on its own energy use, spent little time looking ahead to predict changes, and has expended minimal effort into articulating the need for investment in our energy systems to make better decisions. As nonprofit institutions, many museums recognize that they have a mission-driven responsibility to limit negative impacts of their work while modeling thoughtful, responsible behavior. Recognizing our fiduciary responsibility, this project tackles both the global and institutional issues that are so important to our futures.

How it Works

Participating museums provide general building information describing their building design and construction, and how it is used. Based on their submission of twelve months of past energy use data, they will receive a profile of their site which prioritizes areas of concern and provides a roadmap of next steps, including working with an energy technician or engineer to achieve results. Many are eligible to receive a stipend for sharing their data.

Using all the data collected during the project, NBI will create a free report that identifies the variety and extent of energy formats and uses in the museum sector, comments on the most common areas for improvement, and offers recommendations for how the field can collectively reduce energy use that contributes to global warming.

Culture over Carbon participants share their energy use data through Energy Star Portfolio Manager (ESPM), a free online software program provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Anyone running a home or a building can use ESPM to understand how much energy is used on a monthly and yearly basis, and what the GHG emissions are. Many museums of all types or sizes already use ESPM for budgeting and managing energy consumption. However, the Carbon Over Culture project will move beyond this basic level by processing the data through First View, a software program developed by NBI with EPA funding to explore the research questions stated earlier.

If you are interested in learning more, please contact Sarah Sutton ( or Brenda Baker (, children’s museum sector organizer and project advisor.

Stephanie Shapiro and Sarah Sutton co-founded the nonprofit organization Environment & Culture Partners (previously Sustainable Museums) in 2021 to strengthen and broaden the environmental leadership of the cultural sector. Sutton, CEO, now lives in Tacoma, Washington; Shapiro, managing director, lives in Washington, DC.