Why National Lottery Heritage Fund is continuing to champion sustainability at the Museums + Heritage Awards

Article: David Styles | Image: Natural History Museum's Ornithological building at Tring © Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Following a successful first run of the Sustainable Project of the Year prize in 2020, National Lottery Heritage Fund is continuing its partnership with the Museums + Heritage Awards to showcase best practice across the sector.

The carbon footprint of September’s Museums + Heritage Awards was by far the smallest in the event’s history. It seemed highly appropriate then, in the year when a virtual ceremony had to replace the customary black-tie reception in London, that celebrating sustainability was high on the agenda.

It was the Museum of Oxford that stole the show, with its ‘Queering Spires: a history of LGBTIQA+ spaces in Oxford’ scooping the inaugural Sustainable Project of the Year gong.

The exhibition’s use of ethically-sourced, borrowed and second-hand materials that could subsequently be repurposed or recycled captured the judges’ imaginations of how the sector’s future could look.

The Natural History Museum was also highly commended by the judges for its self-sustaining building project at the Ornithological building at Tring.

Recognition was not confined to these two organisations, however. All six shortlisted projects were given prominence – befitting the mission of National Lottery Heritage Fund to shine a light on all examples of environmental best practice.

“Showcasing all those who apply for the award is an essential part of what we’re trying to achieve. While it’s lovely to be the winner, the priority is surfacing good practice that we can share more widely,” explains Drew Bennellick, head of land and nature policy at Heritage Fund.

The 2020 shortlist

The projects shortlisted for the 2020 prize were:

  • The National Trust – Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant climate adaptation/mitigation project
  • Imperial War Museums – sustainable storage building
  • Museum of Oxford – temporary exhibition Queering Spires: A History of LGBTIQA+ Spaces in Oxford
  • The British Museum/Free Practise Ltd – Disposable? Rubbish and Us exhibition
  • Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales – exhibition Dinosaurs and Activism? Yes Please
  • Natural History Museum Tring – self-sustaining building

A year of change

2020 posed so many fundamental challenges for museums and heritage organisations. The exponential rise of digital has even raised questions over the need for physical exhibitions in some cases, with the associated travel, single use materials and energy usage contributing substantially to a venue’s environmental impact.

The sector’s creative, rapid responses to pandemic pitfalls have left Fiona Talbott, National Lottery Heritage Fund’s head of museums, libraries and archives, in no doubt that making environmentally motivated changes can be implemented swiftly in the coming months and years.

“The ability to quickly pivot during the pandemic has proven just how capable the sector is of responding to external circumstances and making change almost immediately,” she asserts.

Heritage Fund has increasingly attached environmental requirements to its funding criteria in recent years – a trend that will only accelerate in future. Making the case for a long-term view is key to the organisation’s enthusiasm for championing sustainability leaders at the Museums + Heritage Awards.

“A lot of the things organisations do to make themselves more sustainable will ultimately make them more financially resilient in the future,” states Bennellick, dispelling the fear that environmental initiatives are too costly.

“Green ideas are often the first to be trimmed from projects if cuts need to be made, but this Award is an opportunity for us to say we are really serious about this. We want all the projects we fund to be serious about it too.”


Fiona Talbott adds that an organisation’s size is irrelevant; it’s the ambition of the idea that counts. “The award is about giving people permission to appreciate the work they’ve done, regardless of scale. If a smaller museum has implemented something that has intrinsically changed the way it operates, that’s just as significant as a vast project at a national institution.”

What are the judges looking for?

Applications for the 2021 Awards are being encouraged from organisations that have been working in areas such as improving energy efficiency, recycling and reuse, sustainable procurement, or incentivising green visitor travel.

“The fundamental point anyone applying needs to address is how their actions have helped the organisation think differently as a whole,” Bennellick notes, emphasising the importance of a holistic approach to sustainability.

“It’s all well and good making a project more sustainable but it’s about the wider organisation as well. Last year’s winner was an excellent example of this; proposing something new and offering the sector a view of best practice. We want to hear from projects that will inspire others to follow their lead.”

How to apply

The Sustainable Project of the Year is one of several categories selected for exemption from fees this year as organisers aim to remove barriers to entry. A brand-new online application portal has also been launched to help reduce the time needed to complete the process.

“I am really delighted to introduce a range of free-to-enter categories and to reduce the fees for others,” says Anna Preedy, director of the Museums + Heritage Awards. “This, together with moving the entire entry process online will, I hope, make our Awards the most accessible they have ever been.”

Application criteria

The Sustainable Project of the Year award will be given to an outstanding environmentally sustainable project or exhibition which can demonstrate best practice in approaches to managing environmental impacts – for example: energy efficiency measures, recycling and reuse, sustainable procurement and green visitor travel planning and encouragement.

Entries should also identify any wider economic, social or environmental benefits to the organisation or community which have arisen from ‘thinking sustainably’ in the current difficult times.

Project eligibility dates: 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2020

Entry: FREE

Applications for the 2021 Awards will opened on 1st February and close on the 31st March, with the ceremony scheduled to take place on 1st July.

To submit an application, click here.