Although exhibitions can be time consuming and costly, museums are trying to make them more environmentally sustainable. Here are some considerations when creating a sustainable exhibition.
Define your terminology
By defining key terms, it is easier to communicate what exactly you want to achieve to wider audiences, as well as the scope of what is feasible. For example, carbon neutral and carbon offset are not interchangeable. The former sustainability lead at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), Sara Kassam, says the glossary in Kew Botanical Gardens’ Climate Positive Report is a good place to start.
Defined goals yield results. Groups such as Culture Declares Emergency and Climate Museum UK have sprung up to help institutions declare their commitment to the climate crisis – and set out targets of how they will do so.
“Rather than scrambling to get materials reused and donated after an exhibition, the whole cycle should be considered from the start,” says Kassam.
Julie’s Bicycle and Gallery Climate Coalition offer free “carbon calculators” to estimate or retroactively assess carbon emissions, taking into account everything from shipping to printing costs. Julie’s Bicycle also offers museums full-scale environmental reports and audits, highlighting ways in which they can improve.
Talk to stakeholders
Graciela Melitsko Thornton, the creative green programme lead at Julie’s Bicycle, says it is important to engage as many stakeholders as possible.
“It is vital to communicate your sustainability requirements to everyone involved, because if you speak to a curator, a designer and a builder, their priorities will be very different,” she says.
Many contractors will have environmental data readily available. “They are excited to share it and find new ways to innovate, whether it is shipping or exhibition design,” says Kassam.
Building sustainability into budgets from the outset ensures that it is not treated as an afterthought. Exhibition designer Margaret Middleton says: “At smaller museums, decisions are often driven by budget. Sometimes this results in more environmentally friendly choices – opting for glass over acrylic and reusing electronics and casework from previous exhibitions – but other times less so, like using vinyl graphic panels and cheap off-the-shelf items ordered from overseas.”
Key commitments mean cost-cutting measures with a negative impact on the environment can be avoided.
“The biggest thing museums could do to improve their sustainable practice is to stop taking money from big oil [companies],” says Middleton. It is a sentiment echoed by Culture Declares, which offers guidance on how museums can divest from fossil fuels and support for staff keen to raise questions within their organisations on how funding might be more sustainably acquired.
Sustainable materials take many forms. Are they recyclable, reusable or biodegradable? Locally sourced or carbon offset? When working with designers and architects, being clear about sustainable concerns can present fruitful and innovative solutions.
For example, the Design Museum’s Waste Age: What Can Design Do? exhibition (October 2021-February 2022) featured a host of organic and biodegradable materials, thanks to the work of designers Material Cultures.
The museum’s chief curator, Justin McGuirk, says this included using MDF and Perspex in favour of timber, and wood wool for wall, as well as adobe bricks, which are not fired. The show also utilised modular plinths designed for the museum’s previous exhibition.
Duncan Dornan, the head of Glasgow Life Museums, recommends using materials that have long lifespans. The recently reopened Burrell Collection, with exhibition design by Event, put sustainability at the core of its redevelopment, with more space featuring flexible display cases that can be rehung easily.
“Instead of going for untested new technologies we went for durable materials with a shelf life of ten to 20 years, such as limestone bases and good quality joinery,” Dornan says.
Study supply chains
Opting for freight as opposed to air transport, and electric rather than petrol vehicles, is a clear win for reducing your carbon footprint. Asking questions about exactly how and where materials have been sourced is crucial to reducing wastage and being environmentally responsible. Also, building long-ranging relationships with suppliers will encourage innovation. “Contractors can invest in better processes if they are guaranteed work on three exhibitions,” says Kassam.
Harness digital’s power
Digital meetings, databases and virtual collaboration can cut the carbon emissions associated with travel, but digital interpretation can also be a powerful tool when reducing museum wastage.
Dornan says a centralised system at the Riverside Museum (also designed by Event), allows curatorial staff to update digital displays and object information themselves. This cuts down on material waste and saves money, as specialists are not required to change a gallery.
“I’d love museums to share resources and work together to reduce waste,” says Middleton. “Let’s make a database for all our cases, plinths, furniture, reader rails and electronics, and share them with one another.”
McGuirk agrees: “We need to establish a way to share all of these materials, especially for smaller institutions that could benefit from avoiding the expenditure.”
Demonstrate and engage
Displays about sustainability will naturally engage audiences with the topic, but utilising more eco-friendly practices across the board raises awareness. Melitsko Thornton says: “The next step is to embed environmental justice across the main programme.” If a museum is using biodegradable or locally sourced materials, telling audiences about it, and why it is being done, will boost appreciation of the issue.
Bringing sustainability to the forefront of curatorial practices can also lead to new ways of engaging audiences. For example, the V&A’s show Cars: Accelerating the Modern World (November 2019-April 2020) , which was designed by architecture firm Ommx, questioned the use of fossil fuels. “Not everyone will come to a show about climate or waste, but bringing this into [a show about classic cars] introduced people to these ideas in more subtle ways,” says Kassam.
Think beyond the gallery
Encompassing all elements of the museum when considering environmental impact is a key to effecting change. For example, Tate worked closely with artist duo Cooking Sections to remove farmed salmon from its eateries, in line with the organisation’s work on its environmental impact.
London’s Horniman Museum has reduced single-use plastics and added water stations to its cafe. While Manchester Jewish Museum offers a vegetarian menu, and the People’s History Museum’s caterer, Open Kitchen, uses food that would otherwise go to waste.
Holly Black is a freelance writer