Creating Great Things with the Minimum of Resources

16.03.2022Creating Great Things with the Minimum of Resources

At the beginning of October 2021, the SPK appointed its first two sustainability officers: Nina Schallenberg, curator at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, and Daniel Naumann from the construction planning department at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. In this interview, they explain why sustainable practices are urgently needed and describe the challenges they face in their new position. They also share their perspectives on the new addition to the Nationalgalerie at the Kulturforum.

The interview was conducted by Gesine Bahr.

A woman and a man standing smiling in front of a gray wall
Nina Schallenberg and Daniel Naumann, Sustainability Officers at SPK. Photo: SPK / Dominik Twillemeier

What is sustainability? Why is it so important? And are there any alternatives?

Nina Schallenberg: The definition of sustainability given in the Brundtland Report of 1987 is one that I still find very compelling. Sustainable development, it says there, is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. That is the heart of sustainable development in theory and practice.

Daniel Naumann: The fact is that resources are finite. And we can't use them all up ourselves. To put it slightly differently, society is based on growth; everyone wants a better standard of living, and that's a noble goal. And now what we have to do is decouple this growth from the consumption of resources. Using sustainable practices, we have to work toward consuming fewer resources despite growth. This is a key question for the SPK. The collections get bigger, and that requires more and more space. So how can this development be made sustainable?

Schallenberg: And if we take this intergenerational responsibility seriously, then there is no alternative to sustainable practices.

Sustainability may be about conserving resources, but there is always an association with added costs. Can we afford it?

Naumann: The question is rather: can we afford not to be sustainable? I don't believe we can. Sustainability does not mean that something inevitably gets more expensive. It means, for example, that products are used longer; ultimately, over a certain period of time, that will actually bring costs down. And that is a very broad objective. Sustainability includes not just environmental sustainability, but also socio-cultural sustainability – that is, making sure that working and living conditions are suitable – and it also means economic sustainability.

Schallenberg: Sustainability is closely tied to the question: What do I really even need in the way of content, projects, objects, architecture, et cetera? And how can I carry out my projects using the fewest possible resources? The key concept here is "sufficiency." Once I start to think like this, I find that I can actually do without a lot of things – things that don't need to be done or that don’t need to be used. And by choosing not to do certain things, costs can be saved in the short term and in the long term.

Museum building
The busy outdoor staircase of the James Simon Gallery © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

Doesn't that conflict with the Foundation's goal of attracting as many international visitors as possible to new and groundbreaking exhibitions in museums that are as large as possible? Will the new sustainability agenda turn the cultural sector upside down?

Naumann: It isn't a matter of compromising international status or anything else. What is important is that we concentrate on what can feasibly be achieved. Visitors from the US, for example, come to Berlin for any number of reasons, not just to see a certain museum. So we can draw on that pool of people and offer them an additional option. We should concentrate on things that are within our power to change. For example, the Foundation could see to it that its institutions are easily accessible via public transportation. Or it could ask itself how visitors from further afield within Germany get to our institutions.

Schallenberg: We should remember that one of the SPK’s goals is to preserve our cultural heritage for future generations. And if we’re going to do that, we have to make sure that the world itself remains a viable place in the future. Otherwise, we would be undermining the very purpose of our Foundation. What we have to do is find a balance between the various responsibilities that we have in the Foundation. The goal that we should set – the question we should ask ourselves – is this: how we can manage to create great things using the absolute minimum of resources? This is the sort of thinking that we need to adopt.

Sustainability requires us to think about things differently, and it goes hand in hand with changes that are sometimes uncomfortable. And it can only work when the majority goes along with it. How can that be achieved?

Schallenberg: By showing people that it’s necessary. By communicating transparently and by making clear that there is a great deal to gain from thinking about this in a new way. We should constantly be asking ourselves: what will we lose if we don't do this now? The SPK, for example, would suffer a huge loss of social relevance, because like it or not, sustainable development will be even more crucial in the future than it is now. We have to communicate this necessity and hope that it motivates people to accept unfamiliar and uncomfortable things.

Naumann: We have to get everyone on board within the Foundation, too. That is a very important goal of our work as sustainability officers. We're really just at the beginning. Firstly we have to establish a framework and an agreed basis for working on, and then we have to make people aware of it and offer opportunities for them to play a part.

You have been in office for just under half a year now. What were the first things you did as sustainability officers?

Schallenberg: We're each filling half of a full-time position , which is quite a big challenge considering the size of the Foundation, which has over 2,000 employees and a very large number of buildings and institutions. We can't do this work alone, and that's why one of the first things we’re doing, together with the Sustainability/Green Culture task force and the sustainability working groups, is to create a viable network within the Foundation. If we are going to make sustainability a part of the DNA of the Foundation, we have to work with every institution and with every department to build up the necessary expertise.

People sitting on a square with trees
Performance for the exhibition "Food Revolution 5.0 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum

Naumann: We're in the course of setting up a sustainability team to embed this structure in the Foundation. This team will comprise people from all of the various institutions and initiatives, so we can make progress with sustainability together.

Schallenberg: As you know, the Foundation has decided to introduce the European Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS). This process channels all of our sustainability activities. So it’s an important first step to assemble the sustainability team we want to use to put that into effect.

The SPK has defined a specific goal for itself: it wants to become climate-neutral. How do we get there?

Schallenberg: In addition to adopting EMAS, the SPK also decided that it would try to become climate-neutral before the year 2035. In the meantime, the German government has formulated the goal of climate-neutrality for all federal agencies by 2030. Considering the current situation, it is absolutely vital to set these ambitious goals and focus on managing the steps needed to reach them.

To get there, we're following a dual-track approach: Firstly, we're taking a "green inventory" of the entire organization – with as much detail as is possible at this early stage, and gradual refinement in the future. And secondly, we're already planning and implementing practical changes.

Naumann: The green inventory and the EMAS process will tie together all the efforts we’re making at the Foundation to promote sustainability. It's a continual process of improvement that includes periodic evaluations to ensure that the measures we’ve adopted have actually been implemented and are having the desired effect.

View of the green colonnaded courtyard of the Museum Island with historic buildings.
World Heritage Museumsinsel Berlin © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / David von Becker

The first step is to reduce the consumption of resources such as energy, and the next is to find some way to compensate for what couldn't be reduced or replaced by renewable energy. As far as construction is concerned, that means we have to look at our buildings, and there are many of them. They include distinguished landmarks and world heritage structures that present major challenges with respect to resource consumption in the context of their needs for indoor climate control and object conservation.


Together with building authorities such as the Federal Office for Building and Regional Planning (BBR), we have to develop solutions that address sustainability just as much as they do curatorial and conservational interests, including the need to preserve historical buildings. This will be a difficult process. There are tough nuts to crack there.

Schallenberg: We're taking a similar approach with the more movable items. A green inventory is being taken here also, and the first specific measures are being developed at the same time. Together with the Workplace Resource Efficiency working group, for example, we're in discussions with experts at the Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library) and the Geheimes Staatsarchiv (Prussian Secret State Archives) concerning paper usage. Specifically, what kinds of paper do we use in the Foundation, and what do we use them for; where could recycled paper be used, and what documents require a more permanent, archival type of paper? This is a relatively minor issue, but paper consumption is very high in the Foundation. Another topic is all the exhibition furniture, especially for the temporary exhibitions. Where does it end up when it’s no longer needed? How can it be kept for re-use in a "closed-loop" economy? How can we coordinate that within the SPK? And if we can't re-use it here, how can we pass it on so that others can use it? We're discussing this with the Recycling and Re-Use working group and with a Berlin-wide association of cultural institutions and material re-use initiatives.

The SPK has been criticized recently for a large construction project – the new addition to the Nationalgalerie for twentieth-century art. Some say the building is not environmentally friendly enough. Both of you are associated with the project in different ways – Nina as a curator, Daniel in your role at the construction planning department. How would you respond to this criticism? Are improvements needed somewhere? If so, where?

Naumann: As I see it, there is always room for improvement. And we're working on it. As it happens, the issue of sustainability played a major role in this building from the very beginning. In the call for proposals in 2016, we pointed out that we expect an energy-efficient building. At the time, the federal assessment system for sustainable building (BNB) was applied. The building was expected to meet the Silver standard defined by its guidelines, which is the second highest rating. That was the plan at the outset. “Silver” means that the building is more sustainable than a building erected according to the legal requirements alone. It was a good approach – but as you can see from the reactions in the press, we can and must do better here. Some key steps are now being taken in this direction. For example, the air-conditioning requirements were re-examined and changed, in consultation with the conservators. The planners also looked at what alternative technical options are available for reaching the indoor climate requirements. And new efforts are being made to include renewable energy. This proposal has so far been rejected due to the additional construction costs involved. Now there are also new measures at the political level, such as the Federal Climate Change Act (Bundes-Klimaschutzgesetz), which encourages greater use of renewable energy in construction projects. As a result of all of these points, we are undergoing a continuous process of improvement to make the building more sustainable. Fundamentally, of course, the question remains: is building a new museum and the limitless expansion of the Foundation’s collections a sustainable affair? That is a question the Foundation has to face.

Schallenberg: And that, in turn, is closely connected to the question of the scope for programming in a building like that. It is one thing to erect a large, beautiful new building that performs a certain function – purely from an architectural point of view. But remember that this building is only justifiable in the first place if it is put to significant use, with meaningful content. In general, the building does incorporate a lot of the characteristic features of a museum in the 21st century: spaces for education within the exhibition rooms and separate to them, for example, as well as fully equipped restoration workshops, some of which are open to view. If this building becomes a venue for programs and research projects dedicated to the art of the 20th century in its many facets, particularly against the backdrop of the history of its location, then the museum could become an important place for reflection upon our present society as well. Then the construction and operation of the building would be justified. This is what occupies my thoughts from a curator's point of view.

As one of her three main action items, the new Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Claudia Roth, has cited the fight against global warming, which naturally involves environmental sustainability. What do you hope to gain from this new focus?

Schallenberg: We hope to gain political support. There is probably very little need for us to do any fundamental persuasion at this level. Above and beyond the discussion of the ideas involved, it remains to be seen to what extent we will request and obtain support for the implementation of our goals. Without additional staff and financial resources, it will be quite difficult to achieve the Foundation’s sustainability goals. On the other hand, instinctively calling for more would perpetuate an idea of growth whose very essence should be called into question. So what I hope for from our new commissioner is that we can have constructive conversations about steps that will bring us closer to our sustainability goals. I also hope that she continues to support and build on nationwide initiatives such as the Sustainability Action Network and those of the German Federal Cultural Foundation.

Naumann: Federal Commissioner for Culture Roth doesn't want to leave climate mitigation entirely to the Federal Ministry of the Environment. I think that's a good approach for tackling the work that has to be done, which is enormous – not least because one can evidently hope for support from this direction as well.

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