As part of its Cultural Recovery Funding, GEM asked me to develop two workshops to help GEM members make use of sustainable development approaches. This blog post follows on from the second workshop, held on 14 July.

The first workshop focused on the overall principles and concept of sustainable development, as focused action that helps achieve a better balance of considerations of people, planet and prosperity (equating to the older concept of sustainability consisting of social, environmental and economic dimensions). The second workshop focused on how we can put these ideas to work in museums and other educational settings. It is really important that museum workers understand how they can support others to understand and take part in sustainable development, as that can provide a good basis for effective, transparent and transformative public service.

Museums can use sustainable development approaches for many reasons. Sustainable development is about rights, justice, fairness, protecting the environment, and ensuring people can lead rich, fulfilling lives. The Sustainable Development Goals are the main international framework to help achieve these aims, covering the period 2015-30. It is important to understand the goals in context: they aim to address the world’s social, economic and environmental challenges, as set out in Agenda 2030. The goals were developed by a massive consultation exercise so, although countries have to report their progress, the goals are not a top-down framework, but a really incredible innovation that is based on a goal-based approach, to promote collaboration and partnership and so ‘break the silos’ between institutions, sectors and departments. All sectors – including museums and other cultural insitutions – are invited to support and help achieve them. It is also worth noting that everyone has rights regarding sustainable development: to participate in the development of activities that will affect them, and on the basis of ‘active, free and meaningful participation’. As set out in the first webinar and blogpost, Education for Sustainable Development is a particular pedagogy that is specifically included in the SDGs (as target 4.7). Every single museum and museum worker can support the SDGs through their work, and really the question is not ‘if’ they affect them, but ‘how’, and how they can improve the difference they are making, by accentuating the positive aspects, and eliminating negative impacts, considering all three of people, planet and prosperity.

The Sustainable Developmet Goals are intended to be used in practical ways, but the overall goals themselves are very expansive and people often find them rather abstract. That is not necessarily always a bad thing, as abstract concepts can help unlock and stimulate creative responses. Each of the seventeen goals has a number of sub-goals, called targets, that are much more focussed, and are easier to use in practical terms. We can use the goals themselves to understand which broad areas we are talking about in relation to particular activities (which goals those activities affect), and use the targets within those goals to plan activity. However activity is developed, it should, of course, contribute to the overall agenda, seeking to build a better fairer world, and supporting people’s rights.

Three targets in particular relate to education. Target 4.7 ‘Education for sustainable development and global citizenship’, has the full title “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.” This description is an excellent outline for the content of educational activities. The second target (12.8) that specifically addresses education is in goal 12 on Sustainable Production and Consumption, with the full title “By 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature”, and overlaps a lot with SDG 4.7. Finally, SDG 13.3 has the short title ‘Build knowledge and capacity to meet climate change’ and the full description “Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning”. Even across these three targets we can see an expansive range of topics, and the practical outcomes that they aim to achieve. It is also worth saying that while these three targets are specifically related to education, education is cross-cutting, and is important to addressing all 17 goals. We can think of these three targets as entry points into the overall 17 goals, and that is how the goals are intended to be thought of: as an interconnected and interdependent set that we address as a whole, to ensure that we are creating new problems while we address others.

Education for Sustainable Development has its own well-developed framework, and, again, it is important to consider the overarching competencies that it seeks to develop:

  1. Systems thinking competency: seeing the connections
  2. Anticipatory competency: to imagine the future, & impacts of present choices
  3. Normative competency: our values and assumptions
  4. Strategic competency: making choices for positive outcomes
  5. Collaborating effectively
  6. Critical thinking
  7. Self awareness
  8. Bringing it all together

Let’s take an example, to help understand how we can apply the SDGs and their targets to museum work. Imagine you are working on an educational programme. You can ask what the current social, environmental and economic benefits of the programme are, and to whom. You can also ask what the current social, environmental and economic impacts of the programme are. That gives you a set of six values or figures. You can then consider how to maximise the positive benefits, and reducing or removing the negative impacts. For example, you might have an excellent educational programme, but it is currently only available at a particular time of day which means that a particular sector of society is unable to take part: in other words, you are excluding them. You can use the goals and targets to identify the most relevant positive and negative benefits and impacts, and focus your efforts on better addressing those targets. You might use the goals and targets to consider how you can create additional, or better/more worthwhile benefits. Remember, a key part of Agenda 2030 is ensuring ‘no-one is left behind’, meaning that you have to address the needs of those who are currently most excluded as a result of your current practices.

You can consider programme development using the SDGs and targets as a cycle, with the stages 1. Identifying the issue/topic/situation/need, 2. Defining success and the pathway to success, 3. Developing a programme to address the situation, 4. Further developing and refining the programme to create additional benefits and remove negative impacts, 5. Delivering the programme and gathering evidence/evaluation, 6. Evaluating the programme 7. Communicating the outcomes of the evaluation.

All seven stages can make use of the SDGs and targets to help you focus on making a difference worth making. There is certainly plenty of work to do: in the UK, only one of the 17 goals is currently on track to be met, and there are major challenges to addressing five of the goals.

The difficult challenges are the ones that we need to work on, and that are most worth working on. Challenges should address the needs of those currently most under-served. Challenges should make use of your resources – collections, exhibitions, topics, etc. – but these can be made use of in a broad sense rather than a narrow, institutionally focussed sense.

Within goal 4 (Quality lifelong education) there are ten targets, that give a great breadth of scope for museum educators to reflect on, make use of, plan, deliver, evaluate and communicate activity. Among these are targets relating to the content of learning, addressing the needs of minorities, and creating effective learning environments.

Whatever your work involves, in whatever kind of museum, you really can benefit from using the goals and targets. They are supported by excellent resources, and the more people develop their own skills in using the goals and targets, the better able we will be to achieve the vision, of a world at peace and where people and nature flourish in harmony.

Further information and links to resources

McGhie, HA (2019). Museums and the Sustainable Development Goals. Curating Tomorrow,

McGhie, HA (2020). Museums and Disaster Risk Reduction: building resilience in museums, society and nature. Curating Tomorrow,

UNESCO (2017). Education for Sustainable Development: learning objectives. UNESCO,

UNESCO, Education for Sustainable Development, ESD 2030 Toolbox

UNESCO, Sustainable Development Goals, Resources for Educators,

ICCROM, Our Collections Matter Toolkit Our Collections Matter Toolkit,

UNESCO (2021), Berlin Declaration on Education for Sustainable Development,