Cultural Institutions & We Are Still In

Cultural Institutions & We Are Still In

Cultural Institutions & We Are Still In

By: Emily Johnsen, Stephanie Shapiro, & Sarah Sutton, of AAM’s Environment & Climate Network  


How great is the museum field’s impact on the United States? Greater than you may realize: the American Alliance of Museums (AAM 2017) tells us there are about 35,000 museums and historic sites in the United States, contributing $50 billion in USD to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), including $6 billion USD to trade, transportation, and utilities.


  • If the museum sector were a state, it would rank just behind Albany, the capital of New York State, in economic impact.
  • If the museum sector tracked its environmental footprint, it could no longer ignore the facts of its direct impact on climate change.  
  •  Americans visit those 35,000 museums in person at a rate of 850 million times in a year, and another 524 million times online (more in-person visits than attendance at all major league sports and theme parks combined).
  •  Americans trust those museums more than any media, and more than politicians and academia.

In our economic and carbon footprints, and through that public trust, we find our responsibility and public authority to significantly impact climate change.


The best current research, and much experience, tells us that aligned efforts, consistent support, and cooperative practice is what helps create change on a scale that has substantial and necessary impact. Zoos, gardens, aquariums, museums and historic sites of all sizes have the ability to develop coordinated, collaborative efforts to make environmentally sustainable behaviors and practices a priority in our institutions and in our communities. We have the opportunity now to leverage our capacity to create and scale that change through We Are Still In (WASI).


Cultural institutions are joining WASI to build their skills and knowledge in sustainability and resilience, and to collaborate with each other and across sectors. Cultural institutions are part of solutions to bigger problems in their communities: climate resilience, social equity, just transitions, reduced environmental impacts and more. Through WASI, we find our opportunity to be that change.  


As of April 2018, cultural institutions are a formal sector of the WASI coalition – the world’s largest gathering of “sub-national actors” committed to the goals of the Paris Agreement. We are aligning the significant abilities, resources, and influence of our sector, with the work and resources of other sectors, to address challenges and opportunities associated with environmental sustainability and a changing climate for the benefit of us all.


AAM endorses participation in WASI (Museum, July/August 2018), and the Environment & Climate Network’s WASI team is working hard to encourage wide participation. California institutions, including Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, California Academy of Sciences, and Monterey Bay Aquarium have joined, as have state and regional museum associations.

The focus of our work is much more than reducing carbon; it is how to use education, research, and communications to mobilize collaborative and collective action, from every sector, to pursue an inclusive agenda for significant environmental impact. These impacts are research-based commitments to benefit the planet through the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the Paris Agreement. Institutions choose their own paths, according to their own missions, to tackle important causes in their community and on behalf of the planet’s populations.    


WASI is made up of 23 organizations, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, Ceres, Climate Nexus, Environmental Defense Fund, Rocky Mountain Institute, Second Nature, Sierra Club, Sustainable Museums, The Climate Group, We Mean Business, and World Wildlife Fund. The Secretariat, made up of World Wildlife Fund, Ceres, and Climate Nexus, manages the day-to-day operations. The leadership team, made up of point people from each sector, coordinates the participation of the more than 2,800 signatories from higher education, faith organizations, health care, business and investors, state and tribes, and cities and counties. Sarah Sutton is the Sector Leader for Cultural Institutions. That means we have a knowledge and power pipeline that runs from our sector to six others already doing this work and looking for collaborative partners.


Through WASI, cultural institutions:

  • Raise their profiles locally and nationally,
  •  Access better tools and information for institutional advancement,
  •  Gain peer mentors to advance this work more effectively, and
  •  Demonstrate their awareness of this critical issue and willingness to address it on behalf of their communities.


It is complex work and a heavy lift to develop mitigation and adaptation responses that protect our 35,000+ sites and museums and their resources, and to respond to new regulations. On their own, site staff cannot discover and implement responses to a wide array of new challenges while also fulfilling their day-to-day responsibilities. It is only through cooperative efforts that any sector can adequately deal with these multifaceted challenges.


Other sectors have knowledge and resources that we need. Cultural institutions have subject matter expertise, trust as an information resource, public engagement bandwidth, and communication skills that other sectors need. The cultural institutions sector strengthens WASI by leveraging sites’ resources and participation in community-based and other cooperative initiatives. WASI strengthens the cultural institutions’ sector by highlighting sites’ and museums’ economic value, knowledge resources, and public engagement capacity for environmental and climate response through mission-based activities. WASI also strengthens individual cultural institutions by sharing resources and expertise to advance environmental sustainability and climate responses, and by being the conduit for multi-sector cooperative initiatives. WASI can be a gateway to potential projects ranging from community energy production, to cooperative green infrastructure development and funding, and to joint research projects with schools and universities, or product development in investors and businesses.   

Next month, the world is coming to California for the Global Climate Action Summit, an international gathering of heads of state and their sustainability teams to discuss advancing each nation’s commitments. Sarah Sutton, lead of the WASI Cultural Institutions sector will be there, as will a number of cultural institution signatories. They will share what they learn about the national effort to create collaborative paths to significant environmental impact – and make sure that museums, zoos, gardens, aquariums, and historic sites can benefit from and add value to that important work.

Please consider attending one of our weekly Zoom sessions to introduce you to WASI, explore how to sign up, and hear about the commitments you can choose or set for yourself. You can sign on at any time, and add or change your commitments at any time. What matters is that you see where you can start, and you can begin by attending one of our weekly Zoom sessions, with more to be listed on the AAM website each month.


The California Association of Museums and its members have led in this way before with the Green Museums Initiative and the Ignite conversations. We are grateful that Celeste DeWald (Executive Director, CAM) and Michaeleen Gallagher (CAM Green Museums Initiative Committee Co-Chair; Director of Education and Environmental Programs Annenberg Foundation Trust @ Sunnylands) and are continuing to create space for conversations about new phases of this work. We on the WASI team seek to help the field reach beyond its borders for the greater good, and hope that you will help us keep up that momentum.


The changes that our human world need most are all related to climate change. If humans address the causes and opportunities of that changing climate, we can build a safer and more just, healthy, and eventually, peaceful world. Museums have both a limitless value in building that world, and a shared responsibility to do so.