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Who Turned the Lights Out? Powering Museums

Motto Energy is eternal delight (William Blake)

This is one section of a report from the Center for the Future of Museums. See Museums and Society 2019 for the executive summary and links to the other sections.

The Challenge:Edit

Rolling blackouts and brownouts, both scheduled and accidental, threaten museum’s traditional power supply. Government energy policy mandates that a portion any energy generated by museums (through solar panels, wind turbines, etc.) be fed back into the grid to support essential services like hospitals and emergency response. Many museums are open to the public only on restricted or irregular schedules. They also face challenges in providing stable climate control for exhibits, storage spaces and reliable electronic security.

Help us face this challenge! Add your solutions to the following questions, and pose new questions.

How can museums reduce their demand for energy or find new sources?Edit

In about 2010 the coastal area of Louisiana reached what many call a price parody for electricity--that means that the price of solar powered electricity for us was about the same as the price of coal powered electricity. We unfortunately didn't invest in the solar panels until they were quite expensive and rolling blackouts were common. I wish we had paid more attention to these things when they were happening. It would have been great to be on the cutting edge of solar powered museums rather than trying to play catch up...and now just trying to stay open until we have to leave.

In a world where energy is in short supply for vital basic services, what are the ethical issues related to the energy demands of museum-quality climate control?Edit

It's truly an ethics nightmare. I have always thought that the collection was of the utmost importance, and that everything had to be done with what was best for the collection in mind. But now that the maintaining the temperature and the RH in our collections storage and our exhibitions areas are such a drain on valuable resources I have begun to wonder if we are placing these objects not only over our lives, but over the lives of everyone. Until we can become completely green I think that we have to let something give. Maybe that is higher humidity and more diligence looking for corrosion and mold, maybe it is less artifacts, or maybe its time to let some things go altogether, but we have to consider what's more valuable in the long run, life or stuff.

How can museums maintain their services to the public in the face of an undependable power supply?Edit

It was time to get creative with lighting when rolling blackouts began to last longer and longer. Initially our museum was built to minimize the affects of UV rays on objects, so very little natural light reached the 2nd and 3rd floor galleries. At first we had battery back up lights that would allow visitors to get back to the main area of the museum where plenty of natural light was available. But once blackouts started lasting days at a time these became ineffective. After several incidences of visitors getting lost or bumping into things when the battery lights no longer worked we started to develop a plan to not rely on electricity for light. We installed solar panels that were a dedicated source for exhibit area lights. We also equipped every third visitor with a flashlight. It seemed a little archaic to us as well, but it was a comfort to the visitor for them to feel like they had some control over the darkness when lights would fail. We also set up a velvet rope system. Also very low tech. We basically ran a velvet rope along the perimeter of a gallery. The galleries are sort semi-circular to both ends lead back to the main area. If a visitor felt as though they needed some guidance getting back to the main area all they had to do was put a hand on the rope and follow it until the end.

This is what worked for us. It may not work for everyone, however I think its important to being to think more like a visitor. We have found that they are very understanding about the blackouts (they live with them at home and work just like us). What is really key is to keep them informed about what to do when the lights fail, and let them know all the systems available to help them.

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