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Science Museum Group

Last week, the Science Museum Group announced its reopening plans, following months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. Dr Julia Knights, Chair of the Group’s Sustainability Advisory Board and Deputy Director of the Science Museum, outlines the steps the Group is taking to put sustainability at the heart of re-opening its five museums to the public.

The Science Museum Group started 2020 with a major focus on sustainability and climate change, hosting Prime Minister Boris Johnson for the launch of the UK’s Presidency of COP26 – the 26th United Nations Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow and UK Year of Climate Action.

The Prime Minister announces the UK Year of Climate Action at the Science Museum
The Prime Minister announces the UK Year of Climate Action at the Science Museum © Science Museum Group

We also launched our own Year of Climate Action with Sir David Attenborough, planting native trees at the Science Museum with local school children in collaboration with the Woodland Trust.

Sir David Attenborough, Sir Ian Blatchford, chief Exec of the Science Museum Group and Darren Moorcroft, CEO of the Woodland Trust, plant trees with pupils from Barnes Primary School and John Betts Primary School at the Science Museum
Sir David Attenborough, Sir Ian Blatchford, chief Exec of the Science Museum Group and Darren Moorcroft, CEO of the Woodland Trust, plant trees with pupils from Barnes Primary School and John Betts Primary School at the Science Museum © Science Museum Group

With COVID-19 and the closure of our museums since March, the time has given us the opportunity to embed building back sustainably ahead of re-opening our five museums to the public and our sites where we house the majority of our collections.

Our public programme on climate and sustainability has now moved to 2021 to align strategically with COP26 in Glasgow 1-12 November 2021.

This includes the Manchester Science Festival, led by our Science and Industry Museum, which will now launch in February 2021, engaging visitors with their role in shaping a sustainable future.

The Science Museum’s carbon capture exhibition will follow, opening on 31 March 2021. This will be the UK’s first significant exhibition exploring taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere on a global scale – a necessity if we are to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, as set out by the 1.5°C special report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

According to this report, limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities. And global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ”net zero” around 2050.

This means that the remaining emissions would have to be balanced by removing carbon dioxide from the air.

And that is exactly what this exhibition will explore – including technologies not yet deployed at scale such as direct air capture and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, as well as techniques to encourage carbon sequestration in soils via the wetting up of peat bogs and and in plants via tree planting.

Graphite in large soft aggregated flakes, from a furnace at Arnaville, Val d'Aosta from the SMG collection
Graphite in large soft aggregated flakes, from a furnace at Arnaville, Val d’Aosta from the SMG collection © Science Museum Group 

Our carbon capture exhibition will also tour internationally as a sustainable blueprint exhibition. This involves us providing global partner venues with digital files to create the exhibition, enabling the building of it to be executed locally and ensuring the carbon footprint for each is kept to a minimum.

The Science Museum’s curators are also starting work on revising the content of our Atmosphere gallery, which has, in the decade since it opened, been visited by more than five million people.

Our new content will take into account the 2015 Paris Agreement and the latest international climate science consensus including key reports of the UN’s IPCC including their recent reports on land and another report on oceans and the cryosphere in a changing climate as well as the 1.5 special report.

The Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum
The Atmosphere gallery at the Science Museum © Science Museum Group

Sustainability is also a core principle of our new Exhibitions strategy. Under the mantra ‘refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle’, we aim to improve our ways of working and publish our carbon footprint for each exhibition.

We also aim to reduce plastics across our museum group – especially vital given a new study published this week in the journal Science, which revealed that without global action, 1.3 billion tonnes of plastic is destined to end up on land and in our oceans by 2040.

Visitors should also notice a difference in our cafés when we re-open.

From September, we will remove plastic water bottles from sale and replace these with glass bottles or cans of water that have higher recycling rates. We are also working to phase out plastic water bottles from our shops and cinema experiences as soon as possible.

Visitors can now book a meal alongside their ticket ahead of re-opening. Our hope is that this will drastically reduce food waste from un-sold meals.

At the Science Museum, sustainability is at the heart of our IMAX refurbishment. Ahead of re-opening our IMAX in December, all 440 of our old cinema seats were given free of charge to Showroom Workstation Sheffield – an independent cinema and community cultural hub and Leigh Film Society – a not-for-profit organisation delivering community cinema experiences in Leigh and Wigan.

We are installing a new laser system which will decrease the amount of projection bulbs we use.  We also sent back the older Xenon projector lamps to their manufacturer once they reached end of life for recycling.

Our old digital projector was donated to an independent cinema and we are moving to more sustainable 3D glassware material that will allow us to wash the glasses 150-200 times compared to the single use glasses that we could wash only 25 times. The lights in the theatre will all be changed to LED lights whilst our new carpets will be made from recycled products.

Outside our museums, we are also looking to further “green” our spaces to provide foraging for insects and bees and a place for our visitors to enjoy the biodiversity and fresh air.

Our Vision 2025 plans for the National Railway Museum in York and Locomotion in Shildon for example include the creation of a large area of parkland surrounding the museum in York, which will include widespread wildlife-friendly planting.

Our new Wildflower meadow outside Locomotion in Shildon, Co. Durham
Our new Wildflower meadow outside Locomotion in Shildon, Co. Durham

This period of museum closure has also enabled us to understand more about our energy usage and systems, such as heating and air handling.

Many of these systems were shut down during the pandemic, resulting in reduced carbon emissions and bills over the past three months. This has also led us to question how we can drastically reduce our consumption and how we can replace our gas boilers with renewable energy systems in the long term.

Embracing digital technologies, including online meetings, during the pandemic has also drastically reduced our carbon emissions from colleague travel.

As an organisation we are committed to an ongoing reduction of our carbon footprint across our five museums and collection sites, through use of video-conferencing and a more flexible approach to home-working.

During this period of closure, we have been training our colleagues in Carbon Literacy, to ensure sustainable working practices are embedded throughout the organisation. And as I write, we are also soon to launch a cycle to work scheme and improve our cycling facilities for colleagues.

Sustainability continues to be a key priority for our National Collections Centre (NCC) in Wiltshire too, home to 35,000 objects in our collection, the Science Museum Library and Archive and to one of the UK’s largest solar farms.

Aerial view of the solar farm at the National Collections Centre in Wiltshire.

Water for our offices at the NCC is solar-heated. Hydrogen cars are used to navigate the 545-acre site, whilst our collection boasts several hybrid, electric and hydrogen cars too here.

One of our Science Museum Group hydrogen powered cars at the NCC in Wiltshire
One of our Science Museum Group hydrogen powered cars at the NCC in Wiltshire

Our new collection management facility, which will soon house 300,000 objects at the NCC, has also been designed sustainably. The roof is fitted with 1MW of solar photovoltaic panels to provide part of the electricity needs. A biomass boiler will also provide heat for managing humidity in the collection’s spaces.

The building will also have dedicated electric car charging and will use recycled plastic for the construction of its access roads. Rainwater will be captured to create a large pond encircled by Clouts Wood, a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Meanwhile, the surrounding habitats are being enhanced with the inclusion of bird and bat boxes, hibernacula and native wildflower grassland seeding.

1 MW of solar panels on our new building soon to house 300,000 objects at the NCC
1 MW of solar panels on our new building soon to house 300,000 objects at the NCC

Earlier this year we committed to planting a thousand native, locally-sourced trees each year for the next decade, as part of our pledge to greenhouse gas removals and increasing the biodiversity of our site.

This year’s planting will take place during National Tree Week in November in partnership with the Woodland Trust and will add to the 43,000 native trees we have already planted at the NCC.

Finally, at the end of this year, we will announce our sustainability strategy, policy and set out our long term vision and commitment for doing more towards tackling global climate change both through dialogue with our visitors and digital audiences and through how we run our museums and sites.