Recycling history | Cars, Cop26 and the Climate Crisis, Dundee Museum of Transport - Museums Association

Recycling history | Cars, Cop26 and the Climate Crisis, Dundee Museum of Transport

Museums could learn a lot from Dundee’s initiative to create an environmentally sustainable exhibition
Neil Johnson-Symington
Family fun on a miniature steam train

All of us should be aware of the “three Rs” – reduce, reuse, recycle. But the mantra seems all-too-easily forgotten in exhibition production, even though it should be essential as a clear demonstration of a museum’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

So, it was welcome news to find that Dundee Museum of Transport has taken the advice on board. Its display at the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow last year as part of the Reimagning Museums for Climate Action exhibition, which featured interactives made from upcycled materials, has been reconfigured and extended at the museum’s Dundee site.

As the Dundee Museum of Transport’s website explains: “It is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to reuse and repurpose exhibition materials, panels, and interactives from other partner museums if your themes are similar.”

Museums, galleries and heritage sites would benefit from an online freecycle-type resource that would prevent such materials getting thrown into skips, so I was eager to see how this ambition turned out in practice.

Despite some brown tourist signs, the museum wasn’t the easiest to find, being slightly hidden away at the back of an industrial estate. The welcome inside, however, was warm, friendly and engaged. Although the museum was quiet, there was much to catch the eye – a smiling Michelin Man statue, a canary-yellow Fiat Coupé Turbo and iridescent VW Beetle. But the call of the Pit Stop Cafe (like an old-fashioned truck stop) was too much to resist after a long bus journey from Glasgow.

A visitor enjoys the chance to get behind the wheel of a Scamp, an electric car designed by Scottish Aviation in the 1960s

Visitors pass through Gallery Two, which includes toy cars, full-size Dundee buses and a thoughtfully installed viewing screen to witness a horse-drawn tram’s restoration, to reach Gallery Three. Here, the Cars, Cop26 and the Climate Crisis exhibition is being held. You are greeted with a bright-red Scamp electric car from 1967 and a stylish grey and green wall graphic entitled “Future City”. The brightly lit space also features an Angus Fire Brigade Commer Karrier engine, Mark Beaumont’s round-the-world bikes, Preston Watson’s Flying Machine, a St John’s Ambulance Ashford Litter stretcher, and other local transport treasures.

A sign of the times

One thing missing is an indication that you are in the Cars, Cop26 and the Climate Crisis exhibition, but museum manager Alexander Goodger (he has since left) told me that having a title would date the exhibition and hinder the seamless flow for visitors. Nonetheless, an obvious graphic device to connect the key exhibits in the space could benefit visitors, particularly because there is an inevitable mismatch in styles of interpretion caused by repurposing materials.

In one graphic panel there are two simple but effective symbols connected on either end of a 2015 to 2045 timeline – a petrol pump nozzle and an electric charging point. I thought these were ideal images for use across the gallery to unify key objects. In Glasgow’s Riverside Museum, where I work, we encountered a similar challenge when planning a response to Cop26, as assembling cars, buses, ship models and locomotives wasn’t logistically possible in one space. The result was Our Climate Stories object labels and a corresponding trail with matching colours and icons for visitors to discover throughout the museum.

Goodger wanted the exhibition at the Dundee Museum of Transport to be as close to net zero as possible. To that end, an earlier display, The Future of Transport, is incorporated, which makes sense as the issues emphasised remain equally relevant. Information about the history of trains, electric cars and e-bikes, although interesting, did highlight some differences in approach with interpretation elsewhere. Some panels are a bit text-heavy while others are far more succinct.

Peppered throughout the interpretive panels are statements that reinforce how timely this exhibition is, such as: “Because of the global climate emergency, the Scottish government plans to ban sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030.”

Before climate anxiety caught hold of me, I had some fun with Power Rangers: How Green is Your Machine?, a freestanding, fully accessible interactive manual. It was a satisfying challenge to line-up each vehicle by colour to compare them against each other for range, cost per mile and emissions. I discovered that while neither electric nor hydrogen fuel-cell cars produce any harmful emissions, the former works out at 2p per mile compared with the latter’s 16p per mile – the same as a diesel car.


I was pleased to hear that the museum had repurposed this interactive from the British Motor Museum in Warwickshire. It has been upcycled for this exhibition just by changing the graphics. What an inspiring example of giving new life to an otherwise redundant interactive.

Voting interactives were obtained from the same museum, another feature of the exhibition I enjoyed. It is a simple approach: visitors pick up a green token and answer the question, “How do you usually travel?”, by dropping it into the coin slot above six different tubes marked for petrol vehicle, bus, train, walk, cycle, electric vehicles. The see-through tubes show that petrol vehicles are the most used and electric vehicles are the least. Though not a scientific poll, it does involve visitors in this vital subject while providing a snapshot of attitudes to travel in the face of climate crisis.

In the Future of Transport section there is a chance to travel back in time by choosing a type of public transport seating – a hard wooden Montrose station bench or a recliner coach seat – to enjoy a highly entertaining audiovisual presentation of visions of future transport from 100 years ago to the latest plans from the German automotive company Mercedes-Benz.

Take a seat for a presentation on the Future of Transport

There was also an opportunity to climb in and out of the futuristic-looking Renault Twizy electric microcar from 2015, with its open gullwing door.

While it’s always a treat to get behind the wheel of any historic vehicle in a museum, it’s good practice to provide a compensatory experience for visitors physically unable to gain access – perhaps via a collection of interior images. Access around the Scamp car is also problematic for wheelchair-users.

A helpful character

Speaking of the Scamp, Dundee Museum of Transport has maximised its wee electric car by creating a charming cartoon character out of it. This family-friendly mascot appears on A3-printed “Scamp’s Facts” dotted throughout the museum, with QR codes linking to YouTube videos. This seems a practical way to show another Scamp car, or relevant vehicle, in action without hefty costs. Graphic panels are generally presented at accessible levels and there is a good balance between text reflecting idealistic concepts and present-day realities. One panel suggests “using pods to navigate to the city centre will require less road space,” and that “Tarmac will become green space, replaced by parks, even city farms”.

These futuristic ideas are counterbalanced with expressions of what’s happening locally and regionally, including bus company Stagecoach’s plans for autonomous buses travelling to and from Fife, and Dundee City Council’s £4m investment in electric vehicle charging ports.

I was amazed that most taxis I saw in town were 100% electric Nissan Leafs. More evidence of local experiences such as this would add greatly to the display. It’s a pleasure to see icons such as the 2001 Honda Insight hybrid in the exhibition, but discovering electric cars with local significance brought the exhibition to life for me.

A Jaguar electric car

Representing local people’s views on the climate crisis and their concerns about the switch from fossil fuel to electric is important for an exhibition such as this. One section, Myth-Busting, attempted to provide assurances, but is finite instead of being a springboard for discussion.

For a museum that doesn’t receive regular funding from the city council or Scottish government, Dundee Museum of Transport must be congratulated on assembling some real gems to illustrate the development of electric vehicle technology. I did wonder if the exhibition would benefit from a case of smaller objects as a contrast to these. In Going Green, a Riverside Museum display from 2019, we tried to provide context and ignite visitors’ imaginations by contrasting a lump of coal, some crude oil, a 210-million-year-old fossil, and fuel ration vouchers with a Tesla electric car, a Solex moped, and a Honda hybrid.

Overall, the museum has made a valiant effort and shown what can be achieved with an ethos of sustainability on a shoestring budget. An acknowledgement panel states the exhibition was made “using recycled materials, upcycled interactives, solvent-free ink, 100% recyclable Polyline Foam, and Honeycore recyclable panels”. I would have liked to know how close to net zero the museum got.

Dundee Museum of Transport has set a precedent that should inspire us all to have environmental sustainability as a foundation for our work and to seize opportunities to help each other out.

Project data
Main funders
Arts and Humanities Research Council; Alec Dickson Trust; Museums Galleries Scotland
Exhibition design and materials
The Malting House
Electric car interactive
Recycled panels and interactives
British Motor Museum
Exhibition ends
MA Members concessionary rate of £6.50

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