Environmental sustainability of museums: how to reduce impact in historic buildings

Environmental sustainability in the museum sector: how to reduce the impact of museums in historic buildings. Biomuseology and measurement of environmental impact on the territory.

The Rome Declaration, with its 32 points summarizing the position of the G20 Culture, devotes much attention to environmental sustainability by recognizing the important role of culture in combating climate change. Awareness is taken that the environment can affect people’s quality of life, which is why its protection must involve all structures that coagulate people within society. In summary, the paper suggests not only improving the impact of facilities that produce culture, but also promoting events related to environmental awareness and ecological consciousness1. “Most museums in Italy are located in historic buildings, often subject to protection restrictions and originally conceived and constituted for other functions. [...] For this type of museums and the stated commitment to environmental sustainability, it is appropriate to provide for an improvement in line with the guidelines on less environmental impact while respecting the norms related to their protection. ”2

Regarding the standards to be taken into account to decrease the environmental impact of a museum facility, there are the “Guidelines for Improving Energy Efficiency in Cultural Heritage. Architecture, Historic and Urban Centers and Cores” of the MIBACT3. Aspects that relate more to Bioarchitecture and Biomuseography than to Biomuseology4, but they are fundamental in outlining the parameters within which to move to achieve the goals without violating the standards imposed by our Ministry of Culture and our Superintendencies. In fact, the guidelines provide guidance for evaluating and improving the energy performance of protected cultural heritage. The document is not presented as a kind of tight “instructions for use,” but suggests an approach linked to common sense and the sensitivity of designers and specialists in the field for maintaining the protection and preservation of cultural heritage while optimizing, where possible, its energy performance. The Guidelines, an indispensable tool especially in the cases of museums structured inside historic buildings, are intended as a tool for comparison between the different professionals who interact in the energy upgrading process: the designer (bioarchitect or biomuseographer), who manages the process by identifying among the different possibilities for improvement the one he considers most appropriate to the individual situation, and the Superintendence technicians, who must verify compliance with the constraints that exist on the building. Energy efficiency is considered an aspect of preservation that is consistent with the need to preserve and pass on to the future historic assets in the best possible condition. In addition to these indispensable professional figures, the figure of the Biomuseologist joins, especially to evaluate the interior of the structure, the fittings, the raw materials used, the lighting systems according to the exhibition proposals, the merchandising, the concepts of the spaces dedicated to services.

Biomuseology concerns all those aspects that, in fact, do not have a direct relationship with the museum structure (understood as a building), except marginally. The only exception, at the level of plant engineering, are issues related to air conditioning (thermal system) and lighting (lighting system) since they also have an immediate impact on the “safety” of the exhibits. The museum environment requires special attention in order to ensure correct temperature and humidity levels, especially in exhibition spaces where particularly “delicate” works of art are placed. It is necessary, therefore, that the air conditioning system and that connected to the lights are able to meet adequate technical-performance requirements, such as control and monitoring systems, in real time, of all parameters. Museums are, among buildings that produce culture, those that have the greatest environmental impact; in fact, they remain in operation H24. Almost all recently built museum facilities have, since their genesis, indulged in green practices that have made them environmentally friendly with zero (or nearly zero) impact. The real challenge, however, is to consistently reduce the impact of existing museums-a mission that is far from simple, but not impossible, in a country like Italy that holds most museum facilities within buildings of historical significance. Biomuseology, in addition to flanking Biomuseography in designing museum structures from scratch, has precisely this priority: being able to drastically decrease the environmental impact of already existing structures without failing to meet the parameters suggested by the Ministry of Culture with the “Guidelines for Improving Energy Efficiency.” There are five main areas of focus:

  • Energy conservation and efficiency: energy and lighting efficiency, and use of renewable sources;

  • Use of heat-insulating and heat-reflecting nanotechnology paints;

  • Use of environmentally friendly materials: natural materials (primarily wood), FSC (International Certification for Forestry) or PEFC (Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes) certified raw materials;

  • Use of circular economy: minimizing waste by extending the life of products by recycling materials (fittings, packaging, etc.);

  • Ecologicalcompetence and environmental awareness: projects, workshops, and conferences.

Historic buildings are structures that require special care to ensure the maximum and harmonious integration of facilities while fully respecting the historical-artistic-architectural context. Giving precise instructions for use or easily scalable solutions for the energy upgrading of museums located in historic buildings is by no means conceivable, but there can be points of orientation to help professionals in their choices. The parameters for maintaining optimal conditions for exhibits, which differ depending on the material and historical period of the cultural asset, often contrast with the comfort conditions required by visitors for museum spaces dedicated to relaxation or services. For this reason, it is useful to distinguish the various sections of the facility. Especially for exhibition spaces, for obvious reasons, minimal architectural and visual cluttering of visible plant components would be required.

The Luigi Rovati Foundation in Milan, an example of a historic building restored with a project aimed at sustainability. Photo: Giovanni De Sandre
The Luigi Rovati Foundation in Milan, an example of a historic building restored with a design aimed at sustainability. Photo: Giovanni De Sandre

Light in a museum must respond, first of all, to two main needs related to the ideal conditions for the perception of artworks5: the perfect usability of the exhibits and their preservation. We should not forget, however, that the lighting direction also follows curatorial directions contributing, through the skills of a lighting designer, to define the visit as a strongly emotional experience. Today, lighting in museums is almost totally entrusted to LED technology, which is particularly suitable because of its ductility and adaptability, but also because of the need for conservation of works of art. LEDs, in fact, do not emit either ultraviolet or infrared radiation, the main culprits of deterioration, and guarantee, also thanks to the use of digital technologies, great energy savings. This results in dynamic, hyperfunctional and “intelligent” lighting designs that are much more advantageous than traditional luminaires.

Energy resource digitization systems and new technologies allow us to produce energy from a great many natural elements found on our planet: the sun, wind, water, sea, geological activity, etc. From each of these factors we can create “phenomena” from which to obtain energy, whether in the form of electricity, motion or heat. The most familiar technology is certainly solar technology, with panels that have been appearing on the roofs of houses all over Italy for years: one exposes a photovoltaic panel to sunlight and, through the use of an inverter, transforms the light into electricity to be fed into the grid. Currently, the solution most easily adopted by museums is photovoltaic panels and, in particular, transparent photovoltaic panels6 which represent the new frontier of renewable energy production. This is a high-performance, non-invasive product with great stylistic merit that can be used wherever there is good solar exposure and large transparent walls. This system, in addition to producing electricity, lets the sun’s rays pass through it as if it were normal glass, allowing sunlight to enter the building’s interior. Underlying the operation of a transparent photovoltaic panel is its ability to absorb solar energy and convert it into electricity, turning photons into electrons.

Environmental sustainability for museums does not only correspond to an ethical and responsible choice, it does not only take the form of the quest to minimize impact, but there is something that may be even more important: that of sharing with staff, external collaborators and, above all, with visitors ecological consciousness and participating environmental awareness. To speak of ecological consciousness is to acknowledge that the individual has no right to abuse nature. It is incumbent upon humankind to understand the concept of anthropentropy-a magnitude that measures naturalistic degradation caused by humans-so that it can be drastically scaled down and a proper balance with our planet can be regained. It could be the educational offerings that empower the museum to play an important role in imparting the skills needed to understand environmental issues. All segments of the public, especially students of the younger generation-all levels of education, from kindergarten to secondary school-are engaging through “environmental education” workshops with a hands-on, concrete, challenging and interdisciplinary approach. Educating as many people as possible means activating virtuous and viral processes related to existential (lifestyle), sociocultural and civic change: the result is a responsible, practical, fun approach to education with socializing purposes, based on both cognitive and emotional involvement.


1 P. Malavasi, The enterprise of sustainability. Tra pedagogia dell’ambiente e responsabilità sociale, Milan, V&P, 2007.

2 M. Rota, Museums for integrated sustainability, Milan, Editrice Bibliografica, 2019, pp. 202-203.

3 https://www.beniculturali.it/comunicato/linee-di-indirizzo-per-il-miglioramento-dell-efficienza-energetica-nel-patrimonio-culturale-architettura-centri-e-nuclei-storici-ed-urbani

4 M. Vanni, Biomuseology. The museum and the culture of sustainability, Turin, Celid, 2022.

5 https://elettricomagazine.it/attualita-news/luce-nei-musei-efficienza-energetica-smart-light/

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