New Book Features Minnesota Historical Society’s Sustainability Program

This spring (2015), the MNHS Sustainability program was featured in Environmental Sustainability at Historic Sites and Museums by Sarah Sutton.  Shengyin Xu and Matt Hill contributed to the mini-case study titled “Minnesota Historical Society, Dynamic Data and Real-Time Sustainability.”  The piece describes the Society’s use of data and metrics for both decision-making and communication and highlights the importance of sustainability for history organizations.  

Some excerpts from the book:

The Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), with its mission of “Using the power of history to transform lives”, is committed to institution-wide sustainability for its 26 historic sites supporting over 700 staff, 24,000 members, and 700,000 annual visitors.[i]   Since 2005, it has proudly reduced energy in its largest museum building, the Minnesota History Center, by 50%.  In addition, energy, waste, and water reductions since 2010 will save the institution $1.8 million in overall utility costs by 2015, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15%.  These outcomes are due to the dynamic integration of data to guide program strategy and tactics.  Utilizing energy, waste, and water consumption tracking, as well as other resources measures, this sustainability approach balances costs, environmental impacts, institutional mission, and serves as a model for historic sites, museums, and other cultural organizations.


In 2006, a group of concerned and interested staff from various sites and departments across the institution gathered around a desire to address sustainability in their work areas.  This informal ‘Green Team’ group had many early initiatives including composting and managing paper resources, but quickly recognized the need to shift towards institution-wide change.  When a funding opportunity arose in 2008, the group was able to leverage a grant of $125,000  to create a formal institutional sustainability program.  With resources and institutional approval to proceed, the Green Team looked to address “the institutional use of energy” but also saw it as the opportunity to “strengthen the financial bottom line of budgets in the current economic times […] and provide […] lasting benefits.”[i]  


One of the primary first steps for any history and cultural organization interested in sustainability is to bring a consistent, organization-wide approach to their range of programs, facilities, and collections.  Consistency allows for data to be analyzed and benchmarked across diverse activities, spaces, and objects.  As many sustainability professionals and academics note, “meaning emerges through analysis.  The utility of data for conveying information to different stakeholders broadens and becomes more powerful as data are condensed.”[i]  As an organization, MNHS agreed to move forward with greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), measured in kg of carbon dioxide equivalent, as the primary metric to track and communicate institutional progress towards sustainability goals. The metric was selected for its wide adoption by cities and large scale organizations.  Its popularity is underscored by the presence of literature and protocols for calculations, including the publications and resources by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), calculators and tools by the World Resources Institute (WRI), and data and resources from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


While data is central to the Minnesota Historical Society’s sustainability program, another common thread through the program is the importance of collaborative processes. Inherently, sustainability reflects on the need to not only replace equipment or upgrade buildings, but also approach institutional projects holistically. As Achim Steiner, leader of the United Nations Environment Program, said, “What we need is a new ethic in which every person changes lifestyle, attitude and behavior.”[i]  The National Endowment for the Humanities also recognizes the importance of deploying a broad set of skills and knowledge bases to these sustainability and preservation challenges.  Their Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections Grants note that “only interdisciplinary teams can solve…complex preservation challenges,” [ii] such as the ones they support with their grant program.

The book, Environmental Sustainability at Historic Sites and Museums, is available now - preview it in Shengyin’s office or get your own copy!  

This book is the third publication that features the MNHS sustainability case study.  The others include Rachel Madan’s Sustainable Museums: Strategies for the 21st Century (2011), Sarah Brophy's and Elizabeth Wylie’s The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice (2013), and the conference paper from the Heritage 2012 - Heritage and Sustainable Development conference.