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Touring exhibitions and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Through the lens of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development


from Liverpool, United Kingdom

reading time 8 minutes

Henry McGhie outlines how exhibition-making and touring relate to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals set by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Sustainable development, to use the oft-quoted definition from the Brundtland Report (Our Common Future, 1987), is “development (activity) that meets the needs of the present without preventing future generations from meeting their own needs”. Over time this has come to mean focussed action that helps achieve a better balance of considerations of people, planet and prosperity. That makes sustainability the happy future we are aiming for, where people, planet and prosperity are in harmony, and sustainable development as focussed action to get to that destination. Concentrating on the contribution that touring exhibitions make to sustainable development helps have a more focussed approach than asking if or how sustainable touring exhibitions are, which can often lead nowhere.

We can consider how exhibition-making and touring are part of a tourer’s contribution to sustainable development (and unsustainable development), both in terms of the positive benefits of touring, and the negative impacts, and look at how those can be managed. Sustainable development involves more than ‘do no harm’: it includes both enhancing positive contributions and reducing negative impacts. The extent to which both are done is the measure of successful sustainable development. Sustainable development is an ongoing process.

Agenda 2030 was adopted by the world’s governments in 2015 as the blueprint for sustainable development to run until 2030. The Agenda has the following overarching principles:

  1. Universality, it applies to all countries;
  2. Leave no-one behind, meaning that activity has to prioritise those who are most disadvantaged;
  3. Interconnectedness and indivisibility: the goals form an integrated set rather than a picklist or menu;
  4. Inclusiveness, so that every member of society can play a part, and be provided with opportunities to do so, as is their right;
  5. Multistakeholder partnerships as a basis for activity.

Touring exhibitions contribute, or can contribute, both positively and negatively to all five dimensions of sustainable development.

The Agenda has five overarching aims, called the ‘5 Ps’:

People: to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.

Planet: to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations.

Prosperity: to ensure that all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social, and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.

Peace: to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence. There can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development.

Partnership: to mobilise the means required to implement the 2030 Agenda through a revitalised Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, based on a spirit of strengthened global solidarity, focused in particular on the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable and with the participation of all countries, all stakeholders and all people.

Touring exhibitions contribute, or can contribute, both positively and negatively to all five dimensions. Sustainable development activity aims to increase positive benefits, and remove negative impacts.

Potential benefits and impacts of touring exhibitions from a sustainable development perspective
Potential positive benefits Potential negative impacts

People (social dimension)

Experiencing different cultures, heritage, rest and leisure.
Gentrification, over-crowding, overwhelming local services, excluding people based on their income and other status.


Providing economic resources for conservation, supporting public mandate for conservation.
Greenhouse gas emissions from travel, high waste production by touring exhibitions, waste generated by tourists and visitors.


Bringing income from visitors to exhibitions and local services.
Commodification of culture and heritage, out-pricing people from accessing their own and others’ heritage.


Developing people’s understanding of other places, cultures, ways of being.
Tension between local communities and visitor attractions behaving in unsustainable ways.


Building relations between institutions, and other partners, committed to sustainable development.
Favouring partnerships that support a neoliberal growth mindset prioritising economics, inappropriate sponsorship.

As museums and heritage sites are [...] visitor attractions for tourists, they have to take a share of those emissions, and the responsibility to reduce them.

The problem we have at present is that economic costs and income are easily understood and apparent, from economic accounts. The social and environmental costs and benefits need more careful attention as they are often unaccounted for, or are ignored. All three should be considered, using the old ‘triple bottom line’ approach, and the further two dimensions, peace and partnership, considered.

The unsustainable production and consumption of exhibitions – and museums

In the wealthy countries of the Global North, key sustainability challenges typically include the failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are largely responsible for climate change, and unsustainable consumption and production. This means that mountains of waste are generated that pollute the natural environment, energy is wasted in inefficient and unnecessary production of goods and services, and too much of that energy comes from non-renewable sources.

Greenhouse gas emissions are measured in three ‘Scopes’: Scope 1 involves direct, on-site combustion of fossil fuels – typically in energy production, for example in oil or gas-fuelled boilers. Scope 2 involves greenhouse gas emissions for energy off-site, mostly from electricity generation. Scope 3 is the most complicated, and includes 15 categories of sources of emissions that are from the whole value chain. Scope 3 are the most difficult to control and to measure, but they are often 70% or more of an organisation’s emissions. There are plenty of calculators to measure the carbon footprint of an organisation or a project (called a greenhouse gas emissions inventory). The most important thing to do is to make it as complete as possible, and to report it openly and transparently.

While climate action – and inaction – is often thought of at country level, sectors also have different contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Tourism has a shockingly large carbon footprint, as it typically involves lots of air travel. As museums and heritage sites are a key reason why people choose to go to particular places, and they are visitor attractions for tourists, they have to take a share of those emissions, and the responsibility to reduce them. Tourism is currently responsible for 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Tourism will need to decarbonise (genuinely, not just with offsetting) rapidly – by whatever means – to contribute to climate action, and not be a growing part of a growing problem.

To tour or not to tour

The last hundred years have brought humanity close to a point of no return, where every additional tonne of CO2 matters. Reducing the impact we have on the planet is absolutely critical for the wellbeing of people – not only future generations, but this one. So, the first question has to be why your organisation wants to tour in the first place? If it is to generate income, alternative activities that do not cost the planet in the process would be far preferable. Museums often prioritise a growth mindset – bigger buildings, bigger exhibitions, bigger touring exhibitions. So how much is enough? How big does your organisation want to get – and how big does it need to get?

In a world where climate change and mass tourism are growing pressures, and of diminishing natural resources, ensuring that touring exhibitions are working to achieve a better balance of considerations of people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership will become ever more important.

Managing the impact of touring exhibitions

The waste hierarchy can be used as a simple model for tourers to reduce the impact of touring exhibitions.

Prevent: does the world really need the exhibition, or does your organisation need it? Are the environmental impacts – notably the greenhouse gas emissions and waste produced – genuinely worth it, in the context of climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity?

Minimise: if the organisation is going to tour exhibitions, how many and how much should be toured to minimise the impact, both in terms of the number of exhibitions, number of venues, and resources used in creating the exhibition?

Reuse: what can be used that already exists, to save using more resources and to be more efficient?

Recycle: how can what is no longer needed be directed towards producing alternative goods and services?

Recovery: how can any wastes produced be redirected into the circular economy?

Disposal: how can any wastes finally disposed of be done in ways that minimize harm to the environment?

The waste hierarchy starts at the beginning and works its way down.

A word on Net Zero

Net Zero is widely discussed as a strategy for managing greenhouse gas emissions, but it is a term that has a precise and specific meaning. Net Zero does not mean that you increase your emissions and then offset them afterwards: Net Zero is not zero, the emissions are still in the atmosphere. Net Zero is intended to be used only when the organisation has taken all possible measures to reduce your emissions, and offsets those that it cannot yet reduce. Net Zero is not a ‘get out of jail free card’: anyone increasing their emissions (before offsetting), is heading in the wrong direction, Net Zero or not.

The UN High Level Champions and Oxford Net Zero have developed a toolkit to help ensure that Net Zero claims are credible, and to make appropriate Net Zero plans. This includes a set of ‘guard rails’ of Net Zero. The toolkit is framed around six questions:

  1. Is it about now? There should be a focus on action right now, to a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030.
  2. Is there a plan? There should be a plan of immediate actions and in the next five years.
  3. Is it fast enough? Plans should help get to net zero emissions before 2050, and as fast as possible.
  4. Can you see progress? Progress should be reported publicly, at least annually, and for all of Scopes 1-3 emissions.
  5. What does it cover? The commitment to Net Zero should cover all three Scopes of emissions.
  6. Is it just offsetting? Reduction of emissions should be the priority, and offsetting does not substitute or delay decarbonisation.

Get Net Zero right: a how-to guide

The UN High Level Champions have designed a toolkit to help us all understand what a credible net zero commitment looks like, and which commitments lack the substance needed to deliver a zero carbon world in time.

In conclusion

Touring exhibitions contain a balance of both positive benefits and negative impacts. The measure of sustainable development is how the positives are maximised, and the negatives reduced and eliminated, and those planning touring exhibitions should understand and be in a position to justify their assessments of these benefits and impacts. In a world where climate change and mass tourism are growing pressures, and of diminishing natural resources, ensuring that touring exhibitions are working to achieve a better balance of considerations of people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership will become ever more important. There is no silver bullet and there are no easy answers, but it is pretty easy to spot what activities are heading in the wrong direction. Applying sustainable development approaches helps us to view activities ‘in the round’, and make concrete plans to do more good, while doing less harm.

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