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Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change

Cultural Institutions in Dane County Examine Energy Use


How can you reduce your carbon emissions if you’re not sure what you’re using right now?

That’s the premise behind Culture Over Carbon, a research study aimed to collect and analyze energy use data from over one hundred museums and cultural institutions across the country - including right here in Dane County.

The project is funded by a National Leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a government organization that supports museums and libraries with grants and research. The grant was awarded to the New England Museum Association (NEMA), which supports museums and museum staff in New England. NEMA is leading the project in partnership with Environment & Culture Partners (ECP), which works to strengthen the cultural sector’s environmental leadership, and the nonprofit energy consultants New Buildings Institute (NBI).

The purpose of the study is to examine how energy is used in museums across the country. Institutions can then use that information to support reductions in energy use to help minimize their contributions to climate change.  

The program started by inviting museums of all sorts (art, history, children’s, etc.), along with aquariums, zoos, botanical gardens, and historical sites, to share a year’s worth of energy data with the researchers. Then NBI analyzes the data to give participants individual energy profiles with potential areas in which they can reduce their energy usage. These energy savings can lead to immediate reductions in operating costs. In addition, understanding current energy use can also be a good starting point for museums that want to make a case for raising money for bigger energy projects, such as solar power, heat pumps, weatherization, or other major expenses. And as more areas across the nation are developing new building codes, requiring increased efficiency or energy disclosures, analyzing energy use now can help museums plan for what they may need to do to meet these regulations, as well as give them time to fundraise for these projects.

Several Dane County organizations are part of this project, including the Madison Children’s Museum and Henry Vilas Zoo.

Brenda Baker, Vice President of Exhibits, Facilities, and Strategic Initiatives at Madison Children’s Museum, is excited to be an advisor on the grant for the children’s museum sector. “The [Madison] Children’s Museum has been a leader in the museum field in sustainable design for more than two-and-a-half decades,” she explains. “This [project] is really groundbreaking work that’s happening. It’s the biggest study of its kind.” 

The Children’s Museum would also like to eventually run on 100% renewable energy. More broadly, Brenda says, they want to create a place that feels joyful and hopeful for the future, modeling to children that adults in their world care about their futures.  

In parallel to this grant, the Children’s Museum is also working on a National Leadership Grant they won to develop a climate and resiliency framework to help museums teach children about climate change in a developmentally appropriate and non-frightening way. “The children we serve, that’s our future,” Brenda says. “We want to do everything we can to protect the environment for them. The Zoo and the Children’s Museum have a real affinity because we both care about living beings. That’s our mission.”

Likewise, Jess Thompson, the Conservation Education Curator at Henry Vilas Zoo, says that the zoo got involved in the project out of an interest in becoming more sustainable. They have been collecting their energy data for the past decade, so this is now an opportunity to see what creative solutions other institutions have found for cutting their carbon footprints. Jess says, “We are excited to have specific information we can use for setting specific energy usage reduction goals in our Sustainable Operations Plan as well as information that will help us prioritize upgrades to some of our systems, controls and infrastructure.”  

Jess adds, the “goal is not only to be carbon neutral, but positively contribute back to the planet and our local ecosystem. We hope to be a place where our visitors can continue to find inspiration and that together we can build a resilient community.”

Zookeeper feeding giraffe

(Photo: Keeper Lauralynn with giraffe Eddie at Henry Vilas Zoo.)

Museums, zoos, and other cultural institutions across the country are determined to do their part to meet our climate challenge. It’s particularly exciting to see the unique ways that local Dane County organizations are partnering to find solutions that will make a positive difference not only to their own bottom line, but also the county and the planet.


Heath Phelps

Heather Phelps


Heather is passionate about protecting our climate and inspiring communities to take action for a sustainable future. As the Climate Action Intern, Heather is focused on outreach for the Climate Champions program and sharing climate action successes through blog posts, the Clean Energy Map, and stories of the county’s new Climate Champions. Heather has a background in education and library work, including teaching English in the Philippines and China, where she’s seen first-hand the challenges of a changing climate. Heather has a Master’s of Library and Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and a Bachelor’s Degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. In her free time, Heather enjoys reading, playing handbells, painting, baking, and playing with her cat.


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