As museum professionals working within the context of cultural exhibitions, a great deal of time and energy is focused on deadlines, budgets and quality. Unfortunately these three things often herald the death knoll to incorporating environmental sustainability into the exhibition framework.
Because we operate within such a unique field – layering a contemporary ‘visual-narrative’ across the precious, the rare, and the authentic – we have mechanisms to deliver this mix that are unique to the cultural industries. Graphic production, specialised cases, e-media, temporary walls, lighting, plinths and the online environment – all these elements, and many more, are absent within the corporate, business and commercial worlds, however serve to support and interpret history, science and humanity to the world.
Unfortunately however, exhibition design has followed a similar trajectory as contemporary product and retail design, misunderstanding, or ignoring, a fragile environment in the quest for easy perfection. Graphics containing PVC and toxic inks are produced and dumped in landfill; cheap visual display units are purchased regardless of their colossal energy needs, less expensive lights and projectors desired even though their globes burn out in a fraction of the time of other brands.
To avoid being trapped by negative rhetoric – ie. trying to be sustainable is too expensive, takes too long and will give us results that are aesthetically terrible, an holistic idea of what environmental sustainability is, and how to address it within the context of exhibitions, demands further exploration. Before embarking on incorporating eco-measures into an exhibition framework, move away from the fall-back position of ‘equalising’ through offsetting your carbon impact with cash. Though there are a host of worthy organisations working to sequester carbon through socially and environmentally valuable projects supported through offsets, offsetting should not be something we constantly resort to (even if we can afford it).
Crucially we must understand that developing an exhibition means we will make an environmental impact. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart stated in their seminal publication ‘Cradle to Cradle’ in 2002, there is no such thing as being ‘less bad’. Trees that inhale CO2 and exhale oxygen may have been planted at our expense on a South Australian farm, but it doesn’t make our beautiful, graphics, printed and then mounted on Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) ‘less bad’. Offsets do not cancel out the carcinogenic effect of the vinyl chloride monomer used to make PVC[i], nor make ‘better’ the toxic dioxin emissions from its incineration, which are known through epidemiologic evidence to increase the risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.[ii] Better to do your best to minimise your impact in the earliest stages of exhibition development.
As mentioned, not everyone can afford to pay carbon offsets, and eliminating the use of toxic, damaging materials and processes has to be the sustainable priority of most museums, galleries, performance halls, festivals and a host of other metropolitan and rural event-based organisations.
Obviously this stance means conflict between role and environment, and the first step is deciding what’s actually realistic and attainable. One of the biggest difficulties museums and galleries, and in fact society faces, indisputably 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. That being said, motherhood statements give a certain amount of authority to request, or even demand, environmentally preferable alternatives, and should not be underestimated for their power in such a context.
Activating and smoothing the difficult process of change in your museum or gallery can be concentrated into to a four step process that – crucially – engages all levels of the organisational hierarchy in different ways.
For management, as William McDonough and Michael Braungart express it, recognise the design faults.[iii] 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 energy is an effective analytic method to prove why the organisation must move forward on the sustainability issue. Where exhibitions are concerned, what goes up eventually comes down. Simple comparisons make sense to even the most impatient of colleagues. Some key things to consider here are:
- Can you go through your galleries now and see any exhibition furniture from ten years ago with a future role? How many temporary walls have you sourced the material for, built, decorated, pulled down and thrown in the skip in those ten years? How much would it weigh? How many hours in labour-time and materials did making and installing them cost?
- Design for future exhibitions. Screw don’t glue, and for exhibition ‘staples’ like walls and plinths, make them modular. Modularity doesn’t kill off creativity and exhibition identity – a wall is merely a wall. Ensure designs are flexible enough to adapt to additions, subtractions, and interchangeable sections that can be stored and retrieved for use at any time.
- Map how many years it will take for you to recoup the time, energy and cost of designing for the future, and the savings post that (remember managers largely speak a language of economics!).
- Gauge the human savings the organisation will enjoy using a modular exhibition shell and furniture. OH&S, time, and workplace satisfaction all factor in this calculation.
- Consider if there is a viable opportunity to build a network of cultural organisations who can loan and offer alternative exhibition staples.
Also falling under management’s umbrella, the second step is to design a strategy of change. For instance such a strategy will take into account a number of organisational mandates;
- to create a healthy workplace and be free of known eco-villains, like toxic paints, adhesives, and particleboards with high VOC emissions;
- to commit to reduce, reuse and recycle, through clever product and materials choices, and new designs enabling easy disassembly and reassembly as stated above;
- positioning and regular evaluation of exhibition eco targets and benchmarks from which to base evaluation upon;
- to evaluate the ‘life-cost’ of exhibition elements, such as e-product, graphics and built structures;
- to incorporate information and training into the organisation that gives staff the latest information and evidence that environmental sustainability has been incorporated into the organisational schema.
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, take advantage of design magazines, trade shows, funding opportunities and conferences. A snapshot of 2010 examples include;
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. Known as ‘capacity’ 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. Importantly your peeps can implement, innovate and inspire independently! 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 this. 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 observe these endorsements and be bold 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. For example, you wouldn’t contaminate your precious emission zero MDF with toxic adhesives, and then attack it with a nail gun, would you?
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 vinyl lettering (as it cannot be recycled but plays a huge role in contemporary exhibition graphic design), 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 – from caffeine to phosphorus.
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 conceive new products yourself, and there are many opportunities to partner with designers, manufacturers, and other producers to create what you require. The review process of the ‘lists’ is something that would ideally occur on a national level, and then be disseminated to peer organisations. This is one way cultural organisations can have an enormous impact on the elimination of eco-villains and the further research into eco-products and materials.
Whilst organisations will acknowledge that their mainstay is collecting, research, education 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. The advantages of doing so will be far more than a mere feeling of moral righteousness.
Four guidelines doesn’t seem a lot considering the enormity of the changes facing cultural organisations that adopt an environmentally sustainable philosophy. In essence these guidelines are designed to begin a self-perpetuating process of individual and organisational interest in financial, environmental and social health.
An exhibition where these interests are in process is at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum where a permanent gallery, Identity: Yours Mine Ours is readying to launch 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.[iv]
This of course poses the question of where the energy comes from. Is it dirty coal power or sourced from renewable energy, like hydroelectricity? 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, including fly ash, bottom ash, flue gas and desulfurization sludge, which contain mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic, and other heavy metals. Identity: Yours Mine Ours will largely utilise the museum’s own network, but link into networks such as Facebook and Twitter to complete it’s communication aims. Although there is little it can do to force international networks to base their data centres in locations that offer renewable energy, the museum can elect to increase its investment in renewable energy 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 than the alternative. Not only that, the impact of e-waste is also reduced through using a more streamlined e-product, and the initial and on-going costs to the museum in terms of power consumption significantly reduced. Similar comparisons will inform the choices of projectors and lighting.
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 even recycled. PVC is a key component of many graphic treatments in museums and galleries. In addition, the delicate nature of expensive printers leaves little room for eco-paper and ink substitutes.
The Identity exhibition will require 70m2of its surfaces to be treated graphically. A further 150 m2 of text panels and labels will also be required. The project team, after acknowledging that this would eventually equate to some 1½ tonnes of toxic landfill or incinerated airborne particulates, has decided to look into the past to gain insights to an eco-graphic future. At least half of the graphics will be output with the help of professional sign-writers, who utilise a range of contemporary tools in order to gain the fresh, polished finish that the project team is loath to give up. Projectors and stencils will play a role in this, and of course no-VOC paint is a feature. 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 6m2panel that might have a miserable two-centimetre scratch. Care will be taken to retain the paint specifications across the 10-year life of Identity. 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 generally 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.
[i] 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
[ii] 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.
[iii] Braungart M., McDonough W., Cradle to Cradle, Re-making the way we make things, London, 2008.