Australia’s big museums and art galleries each use as much energy as a small country town. How long can we afford, let alone justify that?

Most large Australian museums incur energy costs of between one and one and a half million dollars a year. Climate control systems (air-conditioning) represents about 60% of those costs. Energy consumption is so high because of the perceived need to maintain very stable humidity and temperature conditions in collection stores.

In line with the internationally accepted “industry standards”, most museums and galleries try to maintain temperature and humidity within narrow bands (20°C±1°C and 55%RH (relative humidity) ±5%). The problem is that in order to remove humidity from the air circulating through museum stores, the air must be cooled to very low temperatures.

The air is then reheated (using more energy) to bring it back to the target temperature standard. To maintain the target standards the air treatment plants work much harder (and use more energy) than standard air-conditioning systems.

With an energy bill exceeding $900,000 a year, the Australian Museum has been exploring a number of initiatives to make its climate control systems more energy efficient. These have included periodic overnight shutdowns of the air handling plants servicing collection stores (which had previously operated 24 hours a day) as well as the installation of more energy-efficient equipment.

While this work is yet to be completed, as of mid 2013 we had reduced electricity consumption by approximately 18%, equivalent to the annual power consumption of nearly 80 average Sydney houses.

For me the Museum sector’s energy consumption poses a real ethical dilemma. On the one hand, we have an obligation to preserve the priceless cultural and biological heritage in our collections for future generations. Stable climate control in collection stores is one of the risk management tools we can employ to achieve this.

On the other hand, our high energy consumption is contributing to Australia’s unenviable position of being the highest per-capita carbon emitters in the world. I hate to think we are contributing to processes that are putting humanity’s cultural and biological heritage at risk.

In my view the Australian Museum, as well as the whole museum sector, needs to think hard about reducing energy consumption. We need to look to industry best practice in low energy storage in Scandinavia, the UK and the United States, and the new technologies potentially on offer. We need to question (as heretical as it might seem) the international climate standards and the “one sized fits all” risk management approach that has been accepted since the early 1970s.

And finally we need to think about the ways we utilise and behave in collection stores: are we willing to tolerate personal discomfort (working in hotter or colder stores than is currently the case) to achieve energy efficiencies?

This blog is based on a recent article by Scott Mitchell, Colin Macgregor and Glenn Hodges:

Outside the comfort zone: Energy consumption in the museums sector. Museums Australia Magazine Volume 22(2):30-33.