How to Build Sustainability into Museum Digital Projects

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

May 15, 2019

Sustainability is a word we often use when discussing the future of the museum. It’s a principle we know has value and that it’s something to strive for. Yet, when it comes to purposefully implementing sustainable practices, it can be hard to create specific ways to be sustainable. This post will review what sustainability in a museum can look like and how to build sustainability into museum digital projects.

What Does Museum Sustainability Mean?

To say something is sustainable means that we are able to maintain the same level of effort or action for a long period of time, and perhaps, indefinitely. Typically, when we claim that a museum activity is sustainable it means that the activity can continue indefinitely without much additional thought or resources. In many cases for museums, it can be difficult to build-in authentically sustainable practices because museum resources are tight. It’s a commitment to say we will always be able to dedicate energy and resources to a specific project.

Sustainability Done Wrong

I often see sustainability thrown in when it comes to projects. I find that many museum professionals claim that “this project is sustainable” when what they really mean is “this project is doable for now”. I also see sustainability incorrectly used in grant applications when museums claim the grant project is sustainable but don’t outline how they actually intend to make it sustainable after the grant-funded period is over.

Sustainability Done Right

It’s hard to do sustainability right. Part of the issue is that we can’t see the future, the other is that sustainability is hard to plan. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. Being sustainable is about being smart. We need to know what our resources are now—and have an idea of what they will be in the future. We need to root the project or activity firmly in how the museum conducts business and that it fits into the museum’s strategic plan. Not every project will be sustainable, and if it’s a short-term project? That’s fine. But, if it’s a long-term project, measures should be taken to plan support as best as possible for the foreseeable future.

How to Build Sustainability in Effectively

  1. For each new project or activity, review it against the museum’s mission and strategic plan. If it doesn’t fit then it needs to go, or be acknowledged as a short-term item.
  2. Identify the tangible and intangible costs.
  3. Ensure there are resources in place to successfully manage the project.
  4. For resources that are temporarily given from an external party (such as a grant), guarantee the museum will have the reserves necessary to assume ongoing costs.
  5. Periodically review the real-time costs and adjust as necessary. Surprises are harder to deal with, so staying on top of unforeseen issues will help keep costs low.

What Sustainable Museum Digital Projects Can Look Like

Digital projects should always be thought of with sustainability in mind. This is for two reasons: 1. Digital projects are usually long-term; and 2. Digital projects are expensive due to staff and changing equipment costs. Because of this, I advocate museum staff work through the following prompts:

  1. What quantity of digital output (digitized items and associated catalog records) is anticipated on an annual basis?
  2. What are the staff costs associated with that output?
  3. At what rate should the museums anticipate upgrades or changes to the digitization equipment and collections management system?
  4. Can the museum’s operation budget accommodate the short-term and long-term costs?
  5. If the museum’s operation budget cannot accommodate the current digital project scope, what alterations can be made to scale the project to a more sustainable size?

Despite its desirability, sustainability can be difficult to achieve. However, if we approach museum programs and projects with questions that test sustainability, we’re one step closer to making it a reality.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

As a consultant, Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum grant writing strategies and collections management for a wide variety of clients. Read more of Rachael’s posts on museum strategies for success. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and digitization.

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