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The Eco Museum: Reimagining Exhibition Production

Carole Hammond hopes that in time the term ‘eco-exhibition’ will hopefully become redundant as cultural organisations and their networks transform ‘environmentally sustainable’ practice into ‘common’ practice.

Most of a museum exhibition professional’s work-time is spent developing and delivering exhibitions with a distinct focus on deadlines, budgets and quality. It is such a unique field – layering a contemporary ‘visual-narrative’ across the precious, the rare, and the authentic – that mechanisms to deliver this mix have emerged that are completely unique to the cultural industries. Graphic production, specialised cases, temporary walls, lighting, plinths and the online environment – all these elements, and many more, play a role in transporting and explaining the world in all its complexity, to ourselves.

In the same way as contemporary product and retail design has evolved, exhibition design has also flouted a growing understanding of a fragile environment in its quest for easy perfection. Graphics containing PVC and toxic inks are dumped in landfill; cheap visual display units are purchased regardless of their colossal energy ingestion, less expensive lights and projectors purchased even though their globes burn out quickly.

Many of us vaguely imagine environmental sustainability as something like object cases and temporary walls manufactured from a raw, hairy cardboard substance. Naturally the immediate questions that arise focus on the protection of objects and the nature of exhibition aesthetics. We all agree that it is impossible to protect our heritage in an ugly papier-mâché box, and to do so is to entertain no hope of executing the organisational visions that demand we capture the imagination of an eager audience.

Contrary to this inconvenient vision of how environmental sustainability fails the cultural sector, an holistic idea of what environmental sustainability actually is, and how to address it within the context of exhibitions, demands further exploration. The first way to do this is to recognise that the concept of an exhibition being ‘carbon neutral’ is somewhat unrealistic.

The moment we develop something we make an environmental impact. Whilst it feels great to talk to the carbon neutral status of our exhibition after dutifully paying out our carbon credits, can we actually forget that the richly coloured, mounted graphics, for instance, are printed and then mounted on Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)? Can we truly wash our hands of the fact that the vinyl chloride monomer used to make PVC is a human carcinogen (1), while its incineration results in toxic dioxin emissions, which are known through epidemiologic evidence to increase the risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma? (2) Museums, galleries, performance halls, and festivals are but a few of those worldwide contributing to PVC in landfill and its incineration into the atmosphere. And this is just one fraction of one category of our impact.

However, though we may experience conflict between role and environment, the solution lies in first deciding what’s actually realistic and attainable. One of the biggest difficulties museums and galleries (and wider society) face lies within the human psyche. Motherhood statements like ‘minimise your resource consumption’ epitomise the meaning of the word ‘frustration’ to exhibition staff and contractors. Unless they can clearly see why and how it should happen, then the eco museum will just be a dream, for it cannot possibly be achieved through the efforts of only a few. Activating and smoothing the difficult process of change in your museum can be concentrated into to a four step process that – crucially – engages all levels of the organisational hierarchy in different ways.

For management, recognise where your weaknesses lie, or as William McDonough and Michael Braungart stated in their seminal publication Cradle to Cradle in 2002: recognise the design faults. (3) In an exhibition context, there is one standout thing to look for – waste. Waste is not just bits of wood that go into the skip. Recognising where you waste money, effort, time, and power is an effective methodology to use in order for the organisation to move forward on the sustainability issue. Where exhibitions are concerned, what goes up eventually comes down. If you choose to have your builders build fresh temporary walls with their nail guns and glues every time a new exhibition rolls into the gallery, you are wasting the museum’s investment. Choose carefully what goes up, and in what manner it could be disassembled for reconfiguration elsewhere. Can you go through your galleries now and see any exhibition furniture from ten years ago still with a role? If not, your organisation has ultimately wasted money and effort, and that money and effort is probably leeching into the earth amongst a pile of toxic landfill, or been burned and living out a significantly extended life in our atmosphere.

Also falling under management’s umbrella, the second step is to design a strategy of change. This strategy will take into account the organisational mandate to be free of known eco-villains, like toxic paints, adhesives and particleboards. It will also include a commitment to reduce, reuse and recycle, with designs enabling easy disassembly and reassembly, along with the all-important evaluation of the ‘life-cost’ of exhibition elements such as e-product, graphics and built structures. Eco targets and benchmarks should become part and parcel of the everyday evaluations of project success, playing companion to budgets, schedules, publicity and stakeholder engagement. Critically, a strategy will include information and targets that illuminate the significant positive effects of ‘reduction and reuse’ upon budgets, schedules and human effort – if not initially, certainly in many years post-implementation.

Like all change, eco-change must be carefully and incrementally managed when designing a strategy. Colleagues will need to be inducted into the strategy and targets, and given clear insights into the impact of the organisation’s activities. Motherhood statements belong elsewhere in this process. The induction process must adopt a somewhat technical and scientific approach into health effects, the impacts of waste, and the complex process of making resources into products the museum commonly uses. Such an induction not only offers opportunities to understand why a strategy is required and what the advantages will be, but activates the investigational human element that an organisation undergoing innovative change so desperately requires.

The strategy of sustainable change is a major organisational activity. It involves reimagining every single thing we do, and has the potential to be an extraordinarily exhilarating and transformative process for everyone involved. If conducted sensitively using trustworthy data, individuals will find themselves affected on a personal level, unable to ignore information that informs how they live – not just decisions made in work-time.

The next step, which will in effect make or break the ability to accomplish your environmental strategies, is to locate the tools of the trade. There is a plethora of tools for product designers, architects and so on, which can be interpreted to your cultural needs. They range from polished online measurement tools, to simple checklists. There are online product databases, numerous wiki’s and blogs, and a wealth of information fed through local, state, county, federal and international government websites and committees. In addition, since green is the new black, take advantage of design magazines, trade shows, funding opportunities and conferences.

Soak up the information and encourage innovation within the organisation. Programming wizards will surprise you with their insights into the development of tools that measure the good, the bad, and the ugly. Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia has done just this, developing an easy to use tool that calculates the three crucial elements of ‘initial’, ‘eco’, and ‘ongoing’ costs of museum electrical products used in each exhibition development. Lighting, projectors and visual display units all feature heavily. Information is gathered from the manufacturer’s data sheets, Victoria’s various electricity tariffs, as well as the product and consumables’ lifespan – knowledge that is gathered through the museum’s experience. This is then output graphically as tonnage of greenhouse gas emissions, kilograms of e-waste, dollars per m2 of operating costs, and the daily power consumption – with kilowatts separated into lighting and multimedia usage. The result is an easy to use and insightful tool that compares products against one another allowing the project team and venue to weigh up those costs, and so make their final, informed choice.

One of the most important tools an organisation can create and participate in is the development of tools that disseminate knowledge, research, and activities to internal, local, national, and international colleagues. This ensures that cultural organisations no matter their size or annual budget will benefit, and creates an ever-evolving network of specific and collective benchmarks. Without benchmarks and measurement practices, the organisation’s strategies, checklists and guidelines will begin and end as conjecture, and ultimately find no purchase internally. Without in-house collaboration, cultural establishments will be doomed to flounder as they strive to meet organisational and political key eco targets. The way ahead is to communicate – internally and externally – an easy feat in the age of global communications.

The last guide is to create and activate the green, grey and black list. The green list contains products and materials that are known as positive for the environment, and importantly work well in the context of your organisation’s cultural activities. The easiest way to discover environmental credentials is to look for certification and endorsement by professional eco organisations. Their role is to stay abreast of changing industry standards, upstream and downstream implications, and of course sourcing and testing eco products. Our job is to notice these endorsements and be brave enough to trial them. Bringing the individual pieces together using techniques that will not destroy or nullify their positive effects is the real challenge in terms of environmental success.

The grey list contains, as McDonough and Braungart affirm, problematic substances – those materials and products that cannot be subjected to a phase-out yet. They may have nominal toxicity and waste issues, or no alternatives have yet been created to replace them. In an exhibition context this list might include ‘grey’ materials such as toughened glass (as it cannot be recycled but is irreplaceable in an exhibition), or products like lights that exhaust a higher rate of globes than other brands, but no other brand can currently produce the exact colour temperature you require. If you have to use items from the grey list, at least the exhibition team will be aware of its ambiguous eco-status, and understand that their agreement to use them may mean an exhibition outcome below the desired eco-benchmark. Importantly, the grey list should be reviewed regularly and cross-matched to the green-list when comparable product and material alternatives appear on the market and are found to perform well.

The black list is more straightforward than the grey and pinpoints substances that are known or highly suspected to be harmful to human and ecological health. The World Health Organisation offers current information on substances that are teratogenic, mutagenic, carcinogenic and so on, and includes basic analytical toxicology for hundreds of substances.
Though the green, grey and black lists may assist in streamlining and offering a quick-reference to those on the ground working on exhibition developments, there is no downhill ride without an uphill climb. There must be a commitment to a constant search for alternatives to items on the grey list, and this commitment means more than waiting around for manufacturers to invent something. There are opportunities to partner with designers, manufacturers, and other producers to create what you require. Whilst the organisation will acknowledge that its mainstay is collecting, research and display and not the invention of eco-product, as a consumer its support of the eco-efforts of its suppliers through ideas, advice, testing and so on, is crucial.

An exhibition where these interests are in process is at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum where a permanent exhibition, Identity: yours mine ours launched in 2011. Although it encompasses a mere 250m2, as a graphically and technically rich display, it has the potential to utilise vast energy and material resources initially, and across its ten-year life.
Communication and interactivity are key features of the exhibition and the online environment figures prominently, with visitors offered the ability to use personal devices at home or in the museum to communicate their experiences, and to gain deeper insights into the exhibition’s stories. Making use of a virtual environment may seem to offer a solution to the exhibition’s material and energy usage, however the museum is painfully aware of the growing research surrounding virtualisation and cloud computing, the term for services that store online information such as images, emails, music, movies and so on. With cloud computing now more common major companies who host online services – like Google, Apple and Yahoo, are using more and more energy for their data centers. According to Greenpeace, at current growth rates data centers and telecommunication networks will consume about 1,963 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in 2020 – more than triple their current consumption and more than the electricity consumption of France, Germany, Canada and Brazil combined.(4)

This of course poses the question of where the energy comes from. Is it dirty coal or sourced from renewable energy? Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air and generates hundreds of millions of tonnes of waste products. Identity: yours mine ours will largely utilise the museum’s own network, but link into networks such as Facebook and Twitter to complete its communication aims. Although there is little it can do to force social networks to base their data centres in locations that offer renewable energy, the museum can increase its investment in renewable through the state of Victoria’s GreenPower initiative.

Continuing with the thematic of e-media, the Identity exhibition also features a 6-metre touch table, and a large number of interactive touch screens. With not a lot of alternatives in the e-media market when it comes to eco-touch screens, the Identity project team focused on the cost of life issues of a range of product they considered best suited for their purpose. Using the Museum Victoria Cost of Life tool (MVCOL) the team input statistics collated from product data sheets, power usage, and the expected product and consumable lifespan. They compared all-in-one touch screens to the alternative screen-to-computer model, and found that overall, the all-in-one model would utilise far less energy. Not only that, the impact of e-waste is also reduced through using a more streamlined e-product. Similar comparisons have informed the choice of projectors and lights.

The exploration of identity in Australia primarily through ethnicity, spirituality, language, citizenship and ancestry in a 250m2 space demands a dynamic visual approach and a bold graphic design. Modern museums and galleries utilise a range of graphic outputs to create the slick, crisp finish they desire. In recent years industrial sized printers have been relied upon to do this, but the inks, paper, substrates and laminates utilised are highly toxic to the environment, and cannot be reused or recycled. PVC is a key component of many graphic treatments in museums and galleries.

The Identity exhibition required 70m2 of its surfaces to be treated graphically. A further 150 m2 of text panels and labels was also required. The project team, after acknowledging that this would eventually equate to some 1½ tonnes of toxic landfill or incinerated airborne particulates, decided to look into the past to gain insights to an eco-graphic future. At least half of the graphics were produced with the help of professional sign-writers, who utilised a range of contemporary tools in order to gain the fresh, polished finish that the project team was loath to give up. Overhead projectors and stencils played a role, and of course no-VOC paint is a must. The finished results can not be discerned from the mechanical alternative. As with the e-media, the ongoing savings of sign-writing far outweigh the alternative, with repairs requiring a quick lick of paint as opposed to a time-consuming and expensive reprint of a 6m2 panel that might have a miserable two-centimetre scratch. Maybe artists and their brushes will have a place in the museum workshops of the future.

To reduce the unnecessary layering of the laminate-on-print-on-substrate-on-wall-scenario, the museum is also trialing the less expensive alternative of direct printing onto emission zero mdf. Once the inks have cured they are extremely hardwearing. Recent display trials by the Immigration Museum found colours and texture highly comparable, and marks are easily removed with the help of a common eraser.

From these examples it is evident that the contemporary reality of ‘green’ exhibitions consists of far more than wooden structures, papier-mâché and hairy cardboard. The explosion of these misunderstandings and the antiquated, negative rhetoric around change, cost, time and energy, gives project teams the freedom and support to achieve meaningful sustainable goals. In time, the term ‘eco-exhibition’ will hopefully become redundant as cultural organisations and their networks transform ‘environmentally sustainable’ practice into ‘common’ practice.

Carole Hammond – Exhibition Manager, Immigration Museum, Australia

Notes | References | Bibliography

1. McDonough, W., & Braungart, M., Anastas, P., Zimmerman, J., Applying the Principles of Green Engineering to Cradle to Cradle Design, Environmental Science and Technology, 2003, Vol. 37, issue 23, pp 434A–441A

2. Viel, J., et al, Risk for non Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the vicinity of French municipal solid waste incinerators, Environmental Health, Vol. 7, Issue 51, October 2008.

3. Braungart M., McDonough W., Cradle to Cradle, Re-making the way we make things, London, 2008.

4., sourced 18th September 2010.

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