Towards The social sustainability of Museums: Application on the Nubian Museum in EGYPT

Prof. Nashwa Fouad Attallah

Tourism Studies Department, Faculty of Tourism and Hotels,

Alexandria University, Egypt



Asmaa Mozammel

Tourism Studies Department, Faculty of Tourism and Hotels,

Alexandria University, Egypt



Many museums search ways to improve their sustainability, yet the methods to proceed towards and measure sustainability are still under discussion. Social sustainability has become a growing priority within sustainable development programs, and is now often described as a fourth pillar, equal to economic, culture, and environmental concerns. Museums play an important part in socio-cultural and natural sustainability. In particular, they stimulate the sense of place, social cooperation, memory, training and environmental awareness. They assist maintain cities as potential socio-cultural centres and are considered “means” for the revitalization of cities. This paper reviews the indicators of social sustainability in museums and applied it on the Nubian Museum in Egypt to investigate its current situation and explore whether it is socially sustainable and contributes to the sustainable development of the Nubian local Community. The results revealed that the Nubian Museum is to some extent socially sustainable. However, there are some defects that should be addressed. As only few studies have been carried out about the topic of this study, its findings will have useful implications for the museum’s management,

Keywords: Sustainable development, Social sustainability, museum, indicators, Nubian Museum, Egypt.



         Sustainability is the aim for many institutions, including museums, but as yet there are no museum-specific methods for measuring sustainability. Museums can be both sustainable businesses and essential components of sustainable communities through the preservation and presentation of their collections of the past for the future (Adams, 2010). Nevertheless, museums often lack the required development to keep on their work and exchange knowledge, history and culture through generations. Several plans of development, which help the sustainable development of museums, were adopted by the museums’ management all over the world. However, the most promising approaches that have resulted in a sustainable development were the ones that were typically, based on changing the focus of the organization from looking inside to looking outwards to visitors and societies (Hooper-Greenhill, 1994). However, many museums seem to be unsustainable. This relates to the manner and rate of obtaining objects, as well as, the poor policy and future vision of museums’ management (Davies, 2008). On the other hand, it is clear that challenges like change in the visitors’ demographic profile, alteration in audience culture and needs, the introduction of knowledge age, adjustments in museums external environment and financial constraints on museums have negatively affected the sustainability of museums. Therefore, development models, as well as, adoption plans should be developed based on the intensity of the different forces, to suit the multiple changes which occurred in the past three decades to enhance their viability (El-Adawy, 2016).

This study presents the four pillars of the sustainability but it focuses on only one facet of it which is social sustainability. This is in order to deepen the understanding and measurement of social sustainability and as a relevant starting point to a more comprehensive approach to exploring the sustainability of museums (Adams, 2010).



2.1 Museums and the Sustainable Development


       Sustainable development is the notion of the relationship between economic growth and the environment. The term was first used in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development. It was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (United Nations, 1987, p.9). That’s why, museum managers have tried to overcome the increasing difficulties that occurred as a result of several changes in visitors’ numbers, demographics, education and the change in the leisure industry (Hooper-Greenhill, 1994; Marstine, 2006; Friedman, 2007; Davies and Wilkinson, 2009; Black, 2012; Falk and Dierking, 2012). In addition, elements of sustainable development were being investigated in museums to come up with practical frameworks that are suitable and applicable in a museum context and which are expected to support its sustainable development (El-Adawy, 2016).

        According to Friedman (2007), to become sustainable, a museum should have a long-term vision about its objectives and what it aims to offer society and to make sure that its objectives meet the wants and needs of it.


2.2 Museums and the Pillars of Sustainability

       Sustainability is often considered to have three components: environmental, social and economic sustainability. These are sometimes referred to as ‘pillars’, and generate the concept of ‘triple-bottom-line” reporting (Hawkes, 2001). Therefore, investigating the triple-bottom line of sustainability was a basic approach to understanding how the concept is organized in museums (Davies and Wilkinson, 2009).

       Social sustainability focuses on community development as the major interest of museums. It is an indicator of how positive and sustainable the relationship between museums and their audience is and to what extent society supports the museum’s existence and continuity. Through their own behavior, museums can act as a model for sustainable living. By initiating community activities related to local culture and by being responsible to the same community, museums can strengthen society and further contribute to community sustainability (Adams, 2010). Museums preserve the well-being of a community by providing a place that is socially inclusive and encourages unity, and a place where knowledge can be shared in a specialized environment. In general, museums have a positive effect on society (Museums Association, 2008).  

       Economical sustainability puts stress on sustaining museum by granting funds, good allocation and control of gained funds and other capital resources (El-Adawy, 2016). Economic factors are a perfect example of the mutual nature of the museum community relationship. The society supports the museum with time, money or in non-monetary ways such as volunteering, and directly through donations (Creative City Network of Canada, 2005; Lord, 2009). On the other hand, the museum stimulates the local economy by, for instance, employing people and by purchasing local goods for their daily needs (Creative City Network of Canada, 2005). Moreover, museums can raise revenue for themselves through their gift shop, publications, café and other activities which in turn help them to maintain their services to the community (Scott, 2002).

        Environmental sustainability requires a responsible environmental performance in the extraction of artifacts and their preservation, waste generation (by explaining environmentally sound waste management programs) and water use (through their displays and exhibitions), as well as, energy use (by using energy-efficient tools, by purchasing ‘green’ energy, by installing energy generators such as solar panels and by harvesting rainwater for appropriate re-use) (Adams, 2010).

        Furthermore, museums can encourage environmentally-friendly methods of arriving to a place such as shuttle buses, or give information on public transport, or provide secure bicycle routes. In addition, museums can interpret the natural environment for visitors, and perhaps increase their appreciation of and desire to care for their environs. Besides, museums can interact with current events and news by hosting discussions or exhibitions (Adams, 2010).

         Gaining a general understanding of the triple-bottom line fields of sustainability in a museum context helps museums’ professionals to have a holistic view of their situation which is considered a strong starting point for a promising development strategy (El-Adawy, 2016). However, achieving sustainability does not necessarily mean equally and simultaneously working on the triple-bottom line. According to McKenzie (2004), the approach for sustainable development is to be utilized based on the context in which it is being employed.

         In 2001, Jon Hawkes developed the concept of a ‘fourth pillar’ (cultural sustainability).  He believes that the ‘cultural aspect is as important to a sustainable and healthy society as environmental responsibility, social equity, and economic viability (Museums Association, 2008). The fourth pillar emphasizes the interdependent nature of culture and sustainable development (Hawkes, 2001). Museums play an important role in helping communities protect and create their system of their ‘culture’ or values, and this in turn affects the decision-making process about sustainable development and finally their sustainability (Davies, 2008). By being an access point to cultural heritage, museums encourage people to experience their own and others culture (Crooke, 2007). Cultural heritage is a valuable tool for creating a sense of well-being, and for creating the basis of increased quality of life. Museums also have a good role in promoting a location as a cultural destination, attracting tourists and potential citizen alike (Creative City Network of Canada, 2005). 



      “In terms of measuring sustainability, there are no indicators that have been specifically designed for museums and are widely available. As such there is no general sustainability measurement model for museums. However, there are indicator-based models for measuring performance -both in museums and in other sectors of industry and society - which may be adapted” (Adams, 2010, p.39). According to Mckenzie (2004), most of the effort exerted in the field of social sustainability is still theoretical to a great extent. Nevertheless, “a promising measurement tool for sustainability was developed by Chris Butters. This tool was applied on several projects to measure the level of their sustainability” (El-Adawy, 2016, p.42). The researcher adopted the measurement indicators for social sustainability applied on the Nubian Museum from Butters (2004) and El-Adawy (2016). Table 1.


                     Table 1 Indicators of social sustainability




Participation, connection, shared responsibility


Inclusivity for all groups, accessibility to persons with disabilities and the elderly

Community support

Willingness to help and participation , provide a support


Sense of place, belonging, history and culture


Ability to ensure reliable, proper service

                     Source: Butters (2004); El-Adawy (2016)


2.4   The Nubian Museum (The study area)

The Nubian Museum illustrates the culture and civilization of the Nubian region of Egypt from prehistoric times to the present. It is located in the city of Aswan, on the eastern bank of the Nile, 899 kilometres south of Cairo. The museum is a three-storey building with an outdoor exhibition area (picture 1). It contains not only three thousand objects found in the UNESCO expeditions, representing the history of the area from the prehistoric, Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic ages, but also a diorama of the daily life of the Nubian people, who sacrificed their homes for the continued progress of the Egyptian nation. It houses the main finds of the UNESCO salvage campaign carried out at the time of the High Dam building, which eventually flooded that whole region. Another major exhibit is a diorama which shows the daily life of Nubian villagers (UNESCO, 1997).

The Nubian Museum is part of a wider policy of the Supreme Council of Antiquities to display Egypt’s many civilizations over the centuries. It aims to play the role of ‘community museum’ through its education section, which organizes school trips around the museum itself  (picture 2) and also to neighbouring temples, and hosts cultural events by Nubian artists in the outdoor amphitheatre (organized by the Ministry of Culture and recently brought under the management of the Egyptian Opera House). In April 2000, the museum was approved by UNESCO as a centre for the preservation of archaeological remains for Africa and the Middle East (UNESCO, 1995).


Picture 1 Entrance of the Nubian Museum

Source: UNESCO (1997)


Picture 2 School children learn about Nubian culture in a classroom located in the south side of the museum

Source: UNESCO (1997)



·      This research is descriptive analytical. “The descriptive analytical method is used to obtain information concerning the current status of the phenomena and to describe "what exists" with respect to variables or conditions in a situation” (Jackson, 2009, p. 89). The theoretical part focuses on highlighting the sustainability concept, its pillars with regard to museums, as well as, the indicators of social sustainability. Furthermore, it describes the Nubian museum which represents the study area.

·      The practical part used the questionnaire as a survey method to collect data about the Nubian museum’s visitors and its current status as regard its social sustainability based on the indicators discussed in the previous section.

·      The questionnaire was put on an online web site targeting a purposive sample of the Nubian community. It is divided into six parts. The first part concerns the demographic profile of the respondents and each of the five other parts represent a component of the social sustainability construct. Figure 1.



                Figure 1 The Construct of Social Sustainability.

                Source: authors



After two months, the researcher obtained 175 completed and valid questionnaires for analysis.


4.1   Respondents’ demographic profile

·      The results revealed that 53% of the respondents were male and 47% were females. As for their age, 53.6 % of them aged between 24-36 years, 41.7% between 12-24 years, 2.5% between 36 to 50 years and only 2.4% were above 50 years.

·      The respondents showed a high educational level as approximately two-thirds of them (87.3%) have completed their university degree, while those who received high school education represent 12.7%. Besides, the results showed that over half of the respondents (74.1 %) are single, while about (25.9%) of them are married.

·      In addition, (49.4%) of the respondents are employees, while 33.7% are students and only 16.9% are not employed yet.



4.2   Social Sustainability indicators


4.2.1   Accessibility

·      First, participants were asked about their knowledge of the Nubian museum. The results indicated that around 44.8% of respondents claimed that they have had an average knowledge about the Nubian museum via family and friends, whereas around 20% stated that they have known about the museum through their school or university. In addition, only 8.6% of the respondents have recognized the museum through the social media (Internet).

·      As regards their previous experience of visiting the museum, the results demonstrated that about (54.8%) had previous experience of visiting the museum ranging from one visit to more than three visits, while the remainder (33.9%) of the respondents visited it for the first time, and only 11.3 % have not visited the museum yet.

·      Concerning the preferred method for the respondents to reach the museum, (62.8%) of them accessed it by car, followed by (20.2%) of them reached it by school or university bus and only (17%) used other means of transportation to access it.

·      92.3%, of the respondents clarified that the access of the Nubian museum was very easy while only 7.7% of them adopted the opposite point of view.

·      Furthermore, respondents were asked whether there are enough guiding signs to the museum. Around 67.7% of them pointed out that there are clear guiding signs, while only 32.3% of the respondents disagreed with that. 


4.2.2 Credibility

·      Concerning credibility, the results revealed that 66% of the respondents agreed that the museum has a role in serving the community, whereas, 34% of them disagreed with that.


4.2.3 Identity

·      As regards the identity, 88.7% of the respondents agreed that the museum holds a unique identity in culture and history, while only 11.3% were against this argument.

4.2.4   Community support


·      Regarding the community support, the results indicated that only 13.7% have participated in the Nubian museum activities or have attended the workshops conducted in the museum which is considered as a low indicator. Additionally, respondents were asked about the means through which they would like to support the museum. Almost 85.4 % of the respondents stated that they would give recommendations to others to visit the museum. Another 12.7% of the respondents said that they wanted to participate as volunteers in the museum activities, while 1.3% claimed that they would like to support the museum only financially.


4.2.5   Community involvement


·      With regard to community involvement, 93.6 % did not give any suggestions or complaints to the museum managers, whereas only 6.4% gave suggestions and complaints either through the direct contact with the Nubian museum managers, the Nubian museum staff or through the museum suggestions’ box. However, some of them expressed that the managers of the Nubian museum like many museum managers do not like to accept that they have any defects.






This paper aimed at highlighting the indicators of social sustainability in museums and applying them on the Nubian Museum to explore whether it is socially sustainable.

The findings revealed that more than half of the respondents had previous knowledge of the Nubian museum either form family members or friends or from school and university which indicates that the word of mouth is very important factor in Aswan and encourages more efforts to be done as regards the promotion of the museum and its activities.

Furthermore, the majority of the Nubian Museum visitors confirmed that the arrival to the Nubian museum was very easy and they are to great extent satisfied with the guiding signs to the Nubian Museum which is a good indicator.

The results also revealed that the respondents believe that the museum is doing its role towards the community and the theoretical part testifies that the Nubian Museum offers various activities, such as lectures and workshops. However the museum is expected to increase its offered activities to better serve the community.

          In addition, the visitors found that the Nubian museum hold unique objects and this contributes positively to the identity of place both culturally and historically. These results are in line to a great extent with the study of El-Adawy (2016).

On the other hand, the results indicated that the majority of Nubian Museum visitors did not participate significantly in the museum workshops and activities, although the museum has continuously announced its workshops via the social media channels. Yet the museum still could work hard to strengthen such perception. Additionally, most visitors have the desire to support the museum by encouraging others to visit it. Other visitors said that they would like to participate in volunteer activities, while a less percentage of visitors claimed that they like to support the museum only financially

The findings also showed that the majority of the visitors didn’t give any recommendations or suggestions to the management and staff of the Nubian museum and when they talked to the management of the Nubian museum they were unsatisfied because the management as a many museum administration does not like to accept its defects.

         These results indicate that the Nubian museum is to a great extent socially sustainable; however it needs to exert some efforts to overcome some weak points. Therefore, the study findings will help managers to develop a new perspective on how to conduct a development approach that increase the level of social sustainability of the museum and provide better services that meets the visitors’ needs.




·      The Nubian museum management is advised to have various activities outside the museum premises and to create interactive activities that combine educational with leisure activities to better contribute to community development.

·       Managers should create different methods and ways to disseminate knowledge about the museum to different groups and not to focus on specific groups as a way to raise visitors’ awareness.

·       Managers are advised to facilitate community involvement in the museum through volunteering or involvement in the decision-making process which would help its development with fewer burdens on the government in terms of resources.

·       Visitors should be invited to attend discussions tackling future developments, and experience that their views and opinions are taken into consideration by museums’ professionals.

·      It is recommended to add a marketing unit within the Nubian Museum that conducts periodical research on visitors to discover their needs, desires and problems.

·      Managers should accept that they have some weak points and should react to the visitors’ complaints in order to overcome their problems and to achieve the practical community involvement.

·      Furthermore, programs for various groups should be developed and work on the publicity of the museum should be conducted which is an important step towards the social sustainability of museums.



      Future research could deal with the other two major factors of sustainability including environmental and economic sustainability. The financial constraints are a big problem facing the governmental museums in Egypt. That’s why research that contributes to their economic sustainability through volunteer activities and donors is an extremely important facet to be studied.

      Moreover, it is recommended to develop specific more detailed indicators for the sustainability of museums.



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