Windmills in a field during sunset.

By Sarah W. Sutton, Task Force Co-chair

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a history professional. I am frequently overwhelmed yet thrilled by the amount of good work on environment and climate issues in our sector. Coastal sites are developing thoughtful responses to sea level rise and its impacts, and conservators are developing resources for assessing environmental impacts of materials and practices. Yet the work is not yet widespread. John Dichtl, AASLH’s President and CEO, wrote recently in his column for History News that “Promoting relevance and sustainability are strategic imperatives for AASLH… Let’s be sure that history organizations are at the table when conversations about climate take place. What are we waiting for?” (Read the column here.)

As he explained, AASLH is working to advance the field by signing on to We Are Still In, incorporating environment and climate in StEPs, and through the Environmental Sustainability and Climate Task Force. Those exciting opportunities, and the volume and variety of so many intersections between our field and these issues, make the work of AASLH’s Task Force surprisingly difficult.

On behalf of the field, we are looking for thoughtful paths within and through this intricate topic. As we’ve tried to define the concept, identify the challenges and opportunities, and then prescribe approaches to support field-wide learning, we have struggled to develop a clear and simple plan. Why is this so challenging? Because of the nature of the topic and the field. Environment and climate are both systems-based concepts. Influencing one part of one system will affect many if not all of the other parts. Foreseeing that is impossible, yet attempting to is critical. And our institutions have such differing levels of interest and engagement, understanding and agency, let alone resources to incorporate this into their work, that we are constantly driven back to the conundrum “it depends.”

Keeping History Above Water conference, November 2017, in Annapolis, Maryland. Rising tides forced seawater up through the community’s storm drains, threatening historic area structures and economics.

What each professional in the sector can and will do in response to environmental and climate threats and opportunities depends significantly upon institutional and personal circumstances and motivation. It depends even more on our commitment and vision. I and the co-members of the Task Force believe not only that all cultural heritage institutions can do this work, but also that they must – at whatever escalating level they can reach. We also know that each must begin this work exactly where they are right now – with the knowledge they do or do not have, and the barriers and opportunities in front of them. So, the Task Force is developing a road map to a road map (yes, that is exactly what I mean). Each of the Task Force’s members has a specific perspective important to illustrating our road map (and will write about that in future posts). Rather than look for consensus, we’ve sought understanding and then integration of these perspectives. Consensus would suggest a single solution, but as the solution is always “it depends” when working within a system, what we must create is a highly flexible approach. It must include:

  • providing messaging for the field and the public about why this is important and relevant to our missions;
  • identifying best practices and encouraging them;
  • sharing (and building) a variety of tools to assess, guide, and support learning and practice
  • creating educational pathways for all levels of interest and ability

Our goal is to create a road map where each of us can find our own You Are Here mark on the map, and the paths to our next stop, whether it’s to begin buying environmentally-friendly office products or to develop a climate action plan. The final version of the road map should have resources that act as on-ramps so you can start anywhere that makes sense for your journey. Along the route you should find directions to new destinations, pit-stops for training and support, and billboards highlighting successes.

Man carrying bike helmet walks across parking lot.

A cyclist heads into an event at American Swedish Institute in 2016. By showing his helmet he gets $2 off the ticket price. Cycling eases parking challenges and reduces carbon emissions.

But we have to get the plan finalized and the route mapped and populated, so our first recommendation to the AASLH Council is to work with the Task Force to find funding to dedicate staff time to prioritize the completion of this plan and to develop its components. We recognize how difficult that recommendation appears, but it is the only way we can address a significant problem in a commensurate fashion. We have specific recommendations on content and format of course, but this this is the overarching need. The Task Force’s willing struggles over two years have proven that it is not feasible for a volunteer group, no matter how committed, to effectively and efficiently develop an actionable response to such a highly complex issue.

Changing a sector so that it can thoughtfully respond to environmental and climate threats to everything and every place that we protect and care for is a response and responsibility that requires full-on engagement by every one of us and our organizations.

Sarah W. Sutton is principal of Sustainable Museums. She works globally to support the staff and leadership of cultural organizations as they create a more sustainable future for us all. As a member of the Executive Committee for We Are Still In, and as its Cultural Institutions Sector Lead, she strengthens the U.S. sector’s response to the Paris Agreement. Sarah is also co-chair of the AASLH Task Force on Environmental Sustainability and Climate, and a board member of AAM’s Environment and Climate Network. She is the co-author of The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Sustainability, and author of Environmental Sustainability at Historic Sites and Museums and Is Your Museum Grant-Ready? Sarah is a 2019 Salzburg Global Fellow.