In an age of worsening fires and floods, museums are reinventing themselves — and their mechanical rooms

The Museo de Arte de Ponce, the oldest museum in Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria in 2017. (Museo de Arte de Ponce)


For two days in 2017, Nicole Lim, director of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa, didn’t know whether she had a museum to direct anymore. The Tubbs Fire was spreading across Sonoma County, barreling forward with 60-mph winds. The museum stood directly in its path. Lim spent the days wrestling with questions both pragmatic — whether she’d evacuate from her home — and profound — what is a museum without a building?

After the fire was finally contained, Lim headed to the museum to try to retrieve items from the museum’s evacuation checklist: language tapes recorded by elders, a clamshell necklace that was the Pomo people’s first form of money — and her son’s baby basket, which Lim, a Pomo and Miwok native, had contributed to an exhibit.

When she arrived about 2 p.m., the sky was dark, the sun blotted out by smoke. The museum was still standing, and outside, carloads of families filled the parking lot. The Tubbs Fire had destroyed 4,651 homes, and they were waiting to see whether theirs were among them.

“I wasn’t really expecting people to be there,” Lim recalls. “It made me realize how close the fire actually was to see that people had basically taken refuge in our parking lot. It just felt like our community was ground zero.”

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The California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa became a place of refuge during the 2017 Tubbs Fire. (California Indian Museum and Cultural Center)

During the height of the fire, Lim says, she realized the museum was “about people, not objects. We have to focus on people.” That afternoon in the parking lot, she got to work: First, she gave out water bottles she had on hand, and then she gathered toiletry kits and grocery cards to distribute.

According to a 2019 study in the scientific journal Earth’s Future, since the 1970s, the land burned per year in California has quintupled — an increase scientists connect to human-caused climate change. As temperatures rise and land dries out, fires are expected to worsen. After the Tubbs Fire, Lim decided to outfit the museum so it could function as a haven during natural disasters.

Now she has a powerful partner. The California Indian Museum is one of 79 institutions across the country that have received grants from the new Frankenthaler Climate Initiative — named for the abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler and created by her foundation this year. Lim will use the $100,000 grant, awarded in July, to install a backup generator, a solar rooftop and air filtration systems, and to build a kitchen for Indigenous cooking and food storage.

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When you think of a museum’s role in climate change, you probably imagine themed exhibits, but the Frankenthaler grants focus primarily on museum infrastructure and internal systems. The Frankenthaler Foundation seems to recognize that to be authoritative voices on climate, museums also must build trust by dealing with their own impact. That trust begins with the little things — eco-friendly light fixtures, sustainable waste management — and builds when museums show they will be there when natural disasters strike.

“We have an opportunity to help the public process what is happening, and not just from a knowledge point of view but from an emotional and psychological point of view,” says Sarah Sutton, chief executive at Environment & Culture Partners, a nonprofit organization (formerly known as Sustainable Museums) that worked with the Frankenthaler Foundation to develop the climate initiative. “It’s overwhelming to recover from a disaster, and it’s overwhelming to anticipate the disasters that are coming.”

“Cool Summer” (1962) by Helen Frankenthaler. (Rob McKeever/Gagosian/© 2021 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation/Artists Rights Society)


The grants, which total $5.1 million, are one of the first major philanthropic efforts targeting museums dealing with climate change. That might not seem so surprising. After all, museums aren’t much more than glammed-up, oversized attics, right? How high could their carbon footprint really be?

Turns out, quite high. Take the chill you feel when you enter a museum. For decades, museums have kept their interiors at 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity — even as new research suggests such stringent measures aren’t always necessary to preserve the art. As the days get hotter and the weather becomes more volatile, more energy is required to keep these metrics in the narrow, permitted window.

Consider exhibition objects that are lent from faraway museums. Many arrive with couriers — museum employees who take fossil-fueled planes and cars to transport them. Even display materials — cases, panels and pedestals that typically go unnoticed — are custom-crafted for temporary use and can generate enormous amounts of waste. Anchorage Museum Director Julie Decker likens it to museums building new houses on a regular basis — and then tearing them down.

“I think we have to just be honest and say out loud that museum practices need to be re-examined,” Decker says. At her museum, which also received a grant, that means reassessing both how they build temporary exhibitions and how they maintain their permanent collections. “There may be things we don’t choose to bring into the collection or commit to saving into perpetuity because it’s not good for the planet,” she says.


Justin Brice Guariglia’s “Baked Alaska: A Community Response” on the lawn of the Anchorage Museum. (Anchorage Museum)


These sustainability issues stretch across the museum world. The diversity of the museums receiving Frankenthaler grants — from the encyclopedic National Gallery of Art in Washington to small college museums in New England — is a testament to the need.

It has been neglected, in part, because this is not glamorous stuff.

“Let’s say you’re a donor and you care about a legacy,” says Clifford Ross, chairman of the Frankenthaler board. “I could imagine that you would rather have your name on a beautiful brand-new gallery than in the mechanical room in the basement.”

[Helen Frankenthaler came from wealth and privilege. Her art transcends that.]

But the Frankenthaler Foundation is stamping its name all over boiler rooms, thermostats and ventilation systems.

With its grant, New Mexico’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum will add solar panels, so that the same bright sky that inspired the modern abstractionist can power her museum. The Bennington Museum in Vermont will get new light fixtures. The National Gallery will examine its waste management. D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, which just closed for a two-year renovation, will install new chillers for air conditioning and heat recovery.

“You can’t get more technical and specific than that,” Elizabeth Smith, Frankenthaler’s executive director, says of NMWA’s project.

The Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami will take on a similar project to beat the ever-intensifying heat in the coastal city. Alex Gartenfeld, the museum’s artistic director, says he admires the narrow focus of the grants.

His museum’s temperature-maintenance goal, for example, is not the sort of thing you’d hype to high-profile funders. “Some of the things that are involved in this grant are the unsexy parts of climate change and carbon reduction,” Gartenfeld says. “It’s about practical application, and I think that’s incredibly important.”

It’s the practical things that matter during a disaster. After Hurricane Maria, Alejandra Peña-Gutiérrez, director of the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, was determined to reopen the undamaged museum as soon as possible. But doing so meant overcoming logistical hurdles. They had to get diesel amid an islandwide shortage and spread the word, without access to the Internet, that they were open. (Peña-Gutiérrez biked to the local radio station to announce it on air.)


Alejandra Peña-Gutiérrez, director of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, works to clean up the museum grounds after Hurricane Maria in 2017. (Museo de Arte de Ponce)


When people came to the museum in those days, they came to use the restroom, to charge their phones, to be around others. They came because there was nowhere else to go, lingering in the gardens, pausing beside paintings and entertaining their children in the hallways.

They didn’t necessarily come for the art, but that didn’t stop them from being affected by it.

“People have this need to express what they went through after something like this. Sometimes people are locked within themselves,” Peña-Gutiérrez says. “I think it is always helpful for people to come close to art, and somehow it helps them speak about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about.”

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When another crisis arrived two years later, the museum wasn’t so lucky. An earthquake in January 2020 caused significant structural damage to the front of the main building, and the museum has been closed since. With the Frankenthaler grant, the museum will work toward making the building earthquake-proof with a seismic retrofitting and increase efficiency with wall insulation.

For museums that are able to keep their doors open during a crisis, the Ponce Museum’s 2017 response can serve as an example.

“Museums need to be convening spaces, spaces to build relationships and talk about the future,” says Decker of the Anchorage Museum. “I think museums have traditionally been about what we’re preserving. If we are just keepers, is that really of great value to the people around us today?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story described Sarah Sutton as a principal at the nonprofit group Sustainable Museums. According to Sutton, Sustainable Museums did not become a nonprofit group until this June, when it changed its name to Environmental & Culture Partners and her title became chief executive. This article has been corrected.

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