Museums are the invaluable cultural institutions that serve a crucial purpose in our ever-expanding modern world. By their very definition, they’re conservationists, saving artifacts, objects, and knowledge for the future in responsible and ethical ways. And now is the time for the museum of the future, in which the buildings housing these amazing exhibits are as environmentally friendly as their conservation practices. The movement to encourage all museums around the world to pursue green innovations has gained incredible traction in the last several years, and it’s become vitally important that any new construction embody the best in green design principles.
Of course, being green in a museum means more than just eco-friendly construction materials. It has to do with how the space is used, how things like heating and cooling are achieved, how much waste they produce, and how energy efficient the building is. It’s also necessary for the space to serve multiple functions, fulfilling the diverse needs of the community. Certain groups (like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) also have environmental requirements for accreditation. Finally, a central tenet of being a green museum means having a focus on educating the community about an environmental concern.
Here’s a list of the best sustainable museums around the world, including new museums and those that have undergone renovation. With a diversity of subject matter, these museums appeal to the full range of human imagination as they fulfill the promise of sustainable design.
California Academy of Sciences (United States)
This landmark scientific institution combines education, outreach, and research in innovative ways that appeal to visitors from around the globe. Their signature green roof provides energy, controls waste water, and serves as a place to nourish various plant specimens. The green roof also reduces their energy requirements by keeping the building cooler. Inside, you’ll find a focus that’s as green as their roof. The indoor rainforest, aquarium, and natural history museum combined offer practically countless exhibits on the natural world, conservation, sustainability, and environmental stewardship. Their service to the public is also a vital one, and they’ve been educating visitors and conducting invaluable research since they opened.
Natural History Museum of Utah (United States)
With a particular emphasis on the natural history of Utah and the surrounding regions, the NHMU is dedicated to preserving artifacts and educating visitors about the relationship between humans and the natural world. Renovated in 2011 to meet new green building standards, this popular regional museum works to minimize their environmental impact while maximizing the cultural impact they can make on their visitors. Their green roof and extensive solar array work to manage water waste and take advantage of the sun to heat and cool the building. Many of their building materials are locally sourced, too!
Jeongok Prehistory Museum (South Korea)
Built on a site of archeological significance in South Korea, the Jeongok Prehistory Museum is dedicated to creating a space that brings the prehistoric past alive for visitors. The structure is built between two elevated points, making it fit seamlessly with the natural environment in striking ways. The soft edges and curvy structure evoke natural flowing water, which, combined with their prehistoric garden, makes the outside just as attractive as the inside. The construction of the exterior is not only beautiful, but it also regulates internal temperature to minimize energy waste.
Salvador Dalí Museum (United States)
Home the most extensive collection of Salvador Dali’s work outside of Europe, this museum is already renowned for its cultural offerings. Designed to evoke the same sense of languid movement and surrealism as the paintings it houses, this museum minimizes energy use and reduces any negative impact on the delicate Florida ecosystem. It even has important environmental features that are unique to its geographic area – it’s built to be hurricane-resistant.
Exploratorium (United States)
This bayside museum in San Francisco is another exemplar of sustainable design. With cooling and heating provided by recycled bay water, they reduce the amount of energy needed to manage building temperatures. They also take advantage of solar panels on the roof to provide energy for the building, so they avoid carbon emissions. As a museum their mission is to instill wonder and curiosity in their visitors, and their exhibits certainly have a focus on the environment and human interaction.
Ningbo History Museum (China)
This stunning, unique museum was built from the ultimate in recycled materials – local used tiles and bamboo cased in cement. Imagined to represent the intersection of mountains and oceans that have influenced this region of China, the Ningbo is both visually evocative and environmentally friendly. The recycled materials not only reduce construction waste, they also represent important facets of local culture as they replicate traditional building materials from generations prior. The artifacts and objects within continue the story of Ningbo, with a variety of exhibits about local culture, history, and heritage.
Grand Rapids Art Museum (United States)
This extensive museum features a well-curated collection of art and artifacts that range from the Renaissance to Modern Art, all in an eco-friendly building. When it was built it won the honor of the world’s first LEED-certified art museum, with green features like water recycling facilities, CO2 reduction technologies, and heat minimizing systems. The museum’s striking visuals also makes it an attractively green building, offering distinctive angles and thoughtful interior design. Their mission to bring together creative spaces for the community also evokes the human side of green initiatives.
Cité de l’Océan et du Surf (France)
With a location on the Basque coast of France, you know this building is bound to be inspiring. Charged with a specific ecological focus, the Cité de l’Océan et du Surf (as its name indicates) features exhibits that explore the important intersections between the built environment and the ocean. Like many of the other museums on this list, this building was designed to evoke its subject mater, with flowing, graceful curves, bright, airy windows, and wide open spaces that call to mind the beautiful wilderness of the ocean. It’s a multi-award-winning building for its innovative and sustainable design, too.
Children’s Discovery Museum (United States)
This Illinois museum was the first LEED-certified children’s museum in the entire country, and was an early pioneer in advancing sustainable design. This modest but engrossing educational museum was built to emphasize the use of recycled materials, green power, and environmentally friendly items like paint and adhesives. Because it’s part of the expansion of a new and updated town center, its leadership in green building has set an important example for the community and for children’s museums across the country.
Museum of Liverpool (United Kingdom)
Another striking design, the Museum of Liverpool is a curated history of the industrial development of this British port and the significant role it has played and continues to play in global development. With such a lofty goal, it’s no wonder that the building itself stretches to new heights in green design. Energy efficiency and the reduction of carbon emissions was the primary concern of the designers, and their CHP system is among the best at generating both electricity and building heat through the same mechanisms.