Is a Museum the Best Place to Talk About Sustainability? The Wright Museum Believes So

As a beacon of education in Detroit, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History approaches sustainability in a participatory, not prescriptive, way. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Leslie Tom, Chief Sustainability Officer, and Edward Foxworth, Director of External Affairs at The Wright, about the path to create a greener museum and educate both visitors and staff on sustainability. 

With a mission to “Open minds and change lives through the exploration and celebration of African American history and culture,” The Wright uses objects and narratives from their collection to engage visitors in a multisensory experience of sustainability. “The history informs the future,” explained Tom, “We are a history museum, but we have to understand how to learn from our history and move to the future.” Through storytelling, The Wright can highlight different elements of our history and how it is going to affect our future in terms of energy, water, and waste. 

The Wright Museum has become a national leader within the museum field. In 2019, The Wright won the Sustainability Excellence Award from the American Alliance of Museums Environment and Climate Network. And, they were the 30th museum to sign on to the “We Are Still In,” a national movement aligning support to the 2015 Paris Agreement to promote a more sustainable world.

Start Small and Change Behaviors

Knowing where to start is often a hurdle. When a member of the museum’s leadership noticed all of the glass bottles at an event were being thrown away, it became clear where the team could start. By implementing a back of house recycling system, The Wright was able to take the first step in developing more sustainable initiatives. 

But sustainability is more than just implementing policies and expecting everyone to follow them. It requires us to change our behaviors. As Foxworth said, it’s about recognizing “very simple things of how long you run your water when you are brushing your teeth; how long do you have the water on at home before you jump in to take a shower; but then, how do you treat paper that you have, are you recycling glass, plastic and those kinds of things?” 

The Wright took the opportunity to pause and test how various changes they wanted to make within the museum would affect both staff and visitors. Speaking about a bigger recycling initiative, Tom noted, “These are complicated systematic changes.” Asking the custodial team to empty a trash bin and a recycling bin at every desk within a big museum is asking them to do twice the amount of work in the same amount of time. Instead, Tom created prototypes with the assistance of other museum departments to find a more efficient solution. “We decided to make everyone’s waste bin at their desks a recycling bin and create waste stations,” said Tom. They decided to cover the waste bins in wrapping paper so that they were now recycling bins and then ran a study to see how people reacted to the change.

In the process, she realized that there hadn’t been much creativity put into the logos and signs to encourage recycling. They used African World Festival and Martin Luther King Day to test a variety of logos to see what imagery helps people recycle. It became clear that images of people’s hands holding recyclable objects or waste objects were the most helpful to promote recycling within the building.

Visitor and Staff Experiences

Looking at the entire experience holistically, The Wright team considers not only visitors, but also a staff experience, volunteer experience, and vendor experience. There is a constant dialogue amongst staff and with visitors of how these system changes are received. Both Tom and Foxworth made it clear, the museum doesn’t want any sort of Public Service Announcements on going green. Instead, they want to create interventions and encourage everyone to stop and think about how their actions right now will impact where we want to be in the future. Creating feedback loops within the museum, The Wright is able to make huge strides in sustainability. 

The gift shop, for example, is another “space to educate visitors of the impact to our environment,” explained Tom, recalling various comments like, “I never knew it took so much water to make this t-shirt.” For some events, the museum has brought in a composting vendor to support a zero-waste event. They have also hired a bike valet for big events like African World Festival. In November, the museum had its first Green Museum Town Hall, where they partnered with the Green Task Force and the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.

Other projects, such as a campus tree project, have been opportunities to pause and think about ways to develop conversations with visitors. After finding a group of dead elm trees on the campus, the museum decided to start conversations with neighboring organizations and create a project to look at these trees differently. Rather than disposing of these trees, The Wright looked to their collection of wood objects and worked with their education department to create new dialogues and future programming for visitors. “We are starting to have a leadership role in the museum space,” said Tom, “Let’s look at all of our city systems and rethink how, from a cultural perspective and an African American history perspective, we can start to touch, smell, taste, feel our climate change.” 

Every year the museum hosts “Camp Africa” for five weeks where 500 children can participate in a free week-long camp. Activities are planned around the topics of culture, entrepreneurship, science, and sustainability. One activity in collaboration with Keep Growing Detroit enables children to create biodegradable pots and plant black-eyed pea seeds after they tour the museum exhibition about George Washington Carver. Then, they would walk outside the museum and tour an urban garden grown by the Detroit Independent Freedom School children. This type of layered experience adds relevance and allows these children to see sustainability in their community.

Green Infrastructure 

The Wright Museum has also invested in several sustainable infrastructure systems. Some of these systems are invisible to visitors and staff, but others are incorporated into the new green initiatives plan of the campus. With funds from The Erb Family Foundation, The Wilson Foundation, and matching funds from the City of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department’s Capital Partnership Program, the museum developed one green system that welcomes visitors to the museum each day. The permeable pavers project at the entry of the museum features a green stormwater drainage system that allows the rainwater to filter through the pavers and into the ground. Among the many benefits, these systems help to reduce flooding and the amount of pollutants that get carried to other areas in the stormwater.

“We also wanted to make sure that it was rooted in community voice, our museum mission, and the African American experience,” explained Tom, “In working with the community over 16 meetings we were able to put in the Sankofa project.” The Sankofa is a West African symbol of a bird that looks back on history and forward to the future. This project was one of the first with art incorporated into it in Detroit.

Future green projects on campus will bring more of the museum narratives outside of the museum. Looking at the landscape as a cultural resource, educators and guides will be able to point to plants that provide materials such as fibers and dyes which are then represented in the objects within the museum. One project also includes a green roof which will one day hold beehives. “Can you imagine sending kids home with more plants and having bees from the museum’s hives go and pollinate these plants that the kids take home?” mentioned Tom. Lastly, campus lights will be laid out to represent the Little Dipper, which will link visitors with the Underground Railroad and the story of how people got to Detroit. 

What’s next? Behaviors are Changing

Green projects can be expensive to implement. However, through strategic partnerships and with support from grants and foundations, The Wright has been able to accomplish so much in just a few short years. “There are a lot more conversations that are happening at a departmental level,” said Tom, “People having ideas on how they want to see things and I think that’s where it gets really exciting. This whole museum culture is starting to think differently. Lots of things are starting to happen organically and that is the behavior change that is starting to occur.”

The Wright is continuing to push the bounds of the museum experience and finding innovative ways to weave sustainability into their educational programming. In December they won an award from the Detroit Future Cities, Land and Water WORKS Coalition for the most impactful project. In collaboration with the Michigan Science Center, Genius Patch, the National Wildlife Foundation, and Michigan State University, The Wright developed a children’s book about water. A group of children at the museum came up with the storyline for the book, which will be released this Spring. “All the beavers in Michigan were being hunted—which is true, they were by the French—so the beavers stopped making dams, which damaged wetlands. The beavers hid out at the museums,” described Tom, “The beavers saw an exhibit at The Wright Museum and Science Center about the beavers’ lives and now that they know their history and science, have decided to come out of the museum and start to teach everyone about green stormwater infrastructure and began making the dams and wetlands again.” This level of engagement is one more example of why a museum is an excellent place to learn about climate change and how we can come up with creative solutions to imagine a greener future.

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