Carlisle resident leads the greening of museums

by Helen Lyons


Sarah Sutton. (Courtesy photo)

Five years ago the Detroit Zoo discontinued selling water in single serving plastic bottles and installed water refilling stations for visitors and staff. In one year the zoo saved 47,000 plastic bottles from entering the landfill. The Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) has reduced energy use in its largest historic site, the Minnesota History Center, by 50% and energy, water and waste reductions have saved the institution $1.8 million between 2010 and 2015.

These institutions, like many other non-profits, are focused on their missions rather than environmental sustainability. With no experts on hand, how do they make sustainability decisions and plans? Enter Sarah Sutton, known by many in Carlisle as Sarah Brophy. 

When Sutton earned her Master’s Degree in museum administration she hoped one day to become director of a history museum. Little did she know her interests and skills would combine to fill a need felt by many museums and non-profits—developing and implementing environmental sustainability plans for institutions that are frequently cash-strapped and often do not have personnel trained in sustainability.

Four books and many presentations later, she has become a national leader in this newly emerging field, encouraging museums and other non-profits to review the environmental impact of their institutions and to develop and implement environmental sustainability plans. “It’s not what I ever imagined,” Sutton said during a recent interview, “It’s not my personality type. I am a moderator, not a leader. But it’s what happened.” 

Environmental Sustainability

Sutton believes that environmental sustainability, the use of practices that rely on renewable or reusable materials and processes that are “green,” or environmentally benign, is a responsibility of every institution. She has found that non-profits don’t always recognize the value of going green, but that it can help the organization save money, and it is of interest to funders. Because it is a relatively new field, Sutton is one of a few museum professionals in the United States who can help clients develop and fund environmentally sustainable projects.

Filling a need in an evolving field

Four of Sutton’s books. Her fifth, The Green Nonprofit: The First 52 Weeks of Your Green Journey
, was recently published. Sarah Sutton has emerged as a leader in this specialized field.
(Photo by Helen Lyons)

Sutton said that her involvement began with her experience as a grant writer. About eight years ago Elizabeth Wylie, a colleague, was working for a Boston architectural firm. Administrators at a local university hired the firm to write a grant proposal for campus planning with a sustainability approach. “Elizabeth did not have time to write the grant so she hired me purely because I was a grant writer... not because I knew anything about the sustainability field.”

Sutton got to work doing the research needed to write the proposal. “As I learned everything I could about sustainability planning, alternative energy, local materials, I realized two things: that it made perfect sense . . .  and that it was perfect for the museum world—nonprofits with few resources that have to make the most out of every activity. Green does that.”

Spreading the word to museums

Sutton and Wylie began encouraging museums to look at sustainability. They pitched a story to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) for its national magazine. Although AAM was not yet ready to address sustainability, six months later it called on Sutton and Wylie to submit an article. When “It’s Easy Being Green” was published, it became the focus of the first national discussion on environmental sustainability for the museum field.

The national discussion continued as the mid-Atlantic Association of Museums (MAAM) invited Sutton to speak at its national conference on building museums. During the reception a publisher encouraged her to write a book about the field.  Sutton and Wylie’s first edition of The Green Museum, a Primer on Environmental Practice was published in 2008 and the second edition was released in 2013.

Generating professional interest

The article and book had stirred interest among AAM museum professionals. “When this book came out, a museum consultant and a museum director passed around a petition to see if we could create a new Professional Interest Committee (PIC) on environmental sustainability.” PIC Green became official and Sutton and Wylie became charter members.

Sutton acknowledged that she has been at the leading edge of this field. “I just knew that this would make a huge difference for museums. It fits their mission; it fits their charitable purpose to not have a negative impact on their community, on their environment, to make the best use of their funds.... Money has to do more than one thing in a non-profit and that is what green does for them.” 

Cautious adoption

Sutton admits that not every museum and historical site recognizes the value of sustainability. In the beginning people see sustainability as too overwhelming and not in their purview but change is slowly coming. “You set an example – somebody notices, somebody watches – you contribute to moving the market just that little bit by buying that green product, by driving the green car. You model practice, you encourage the market.” 

Dunbarton House

Dunbarton House, the first historical site to receive the green business award from the mayor of Washington, D. C. (Courtesy photo)

As a consultant, Sutton advises on strategic planning, project design and implementation, staff development, and public education with museums, historic sites, zoos and parks. She had been writing grant proposals for Dunbarton House in Washington D.C. for a few years and encouraging them to think about sustainability when the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) announced a new program: Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections. This grant program acknowledged that many museums were not storing their collections in the recommended conditions (temperature and humidity) and that the financial burden of enforcing that requirement could force some museums to close. The NEH encouraged museums to find more efficient ways to care for collections. Sutton says the program was initially focused on affordability, not environmental sustainability. While preparing the proposal, however, Sutton spoke to the NEH program officer and it became evident that the proposal would be stronger if environmental sustainability were part of its focus.  NEH awarded the grant and Sutton took on the role of convener in the integrated design approach making sure that environmental sustainability was given equal consideration when decisions were made. 

As a result of the NEH grant, Dunbarton House designed a low-impact energy system, but had not yet implemented it. Sutton recalled the unexpected good fortune of having the plan ready, “While preparing a second grant proposal to support implementation, a major portion of the HVAC system failed—in DC in the summer time. They have to do something as a stop gap. They already have their plan and they know what they want to do.” Dunbarton House quickly implemented the portion of the plan related to the failed HVAC. “The collection is fine and they’ve made the best choice possible... Then they apply to NEH which funded the matching grant to implement the balance of the plan. What is even better—this is headquarters for the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America—40+ sites around the country. They are doing this as an example for other sites around the country.”

Last year Dunbarton House became the first historical site to receive the green business award from the mayor of Washington D.C. 

Minnesota Historical Society green tours

Sutton believes education is an important component of environmental sustainability planning. At her suggestion, MHS began providing “green” tours of one of its historic sites, the James J. Hill House. “The theme of the green tour is ‘Choices...’ How did people operate without air conditioning?... James Hill built railroads and opened up sections of the country to agriculture, consuming and shipping vast quantities of lumber. In some cases he was an environmental nightmare. That’s an equally valid discussion. What choices were available to you at the time? What influences your choices?” 

The “green” tours will be tested at two other sites including a historic fort which has temperature records dating to 1850. “Winters were much colder and we can document that. They were heating with wood. As the soldiers cut firewood, the distance between the fort and the wood supply grew to the point where the soldiers spent so much time collecting fuel to stay warm that they didn’t have time to do their military drills. It’s a marvelous story of resource depletion.”   

Detroit Zoo

Sutton has worked with other types of non-profits including the Detroit Zoo.  For the past six years she has been working with the zoo as it has completed an energy efficiency retrofit, begun a zero waste campaign and phased out bottled-water sales. Its most recent project will be installation of a biodigester. This system will convert animal waste into compost and create energy in the process. Methane gas captured during the process will be used to heat a nearby building. As an educational component of this sustainability work, the zoo staff now shares its accomplishments with the public during an annual “Greenfest” celebration.

Hopes for future of the field

Sutton’s says her hope is that “I work myself out of a job with my clients because it gets to a point where environmental sustainability is part of the culture of their institutions. But for the whole field, I hope we establish the expectations, the tools, and the culture before regulations impose it in a way that’s much harder for them to fulfill.  The regulations are coming; might as well get ready so you can adapt on your own terms.”    ∆