Design Museum and Urge Collective publish sustainable exhibition design white paper 

Urge Collective was commissioned by the museum to research minimising the carbon impact of temporary and touring exhibitions.

A new report by Urge Collective and the Design Museum has been released looking at minimising the carbon impact of the design and build of temporary and touring museum exhibitions.

The report was commissioned, funded and coordinated by Future Observatory at the Design Museum, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

It comes within a first wave of cultural policy fellowships commissioned by Future Observatory, investigating how the UK cultural sector can meet national net zero commitments. Published simultaneously is a report by DSDHA Architects encouraging  cultural institutions to consider retrofitting existing buildings rather than investing in new builds. Another report by collective initiative South Ken ZEN+ is looking at developing a sustainability reporting framework for co-located cross-sector organisations located on London’s Exhibition Road.

Following a research period from January to June of this year, further reports from these cultural policy fellowships are to come.

A pilot complemented by stakeholder feedback

The report draws from an initial pilot project dating to 2021, where Urge was invited to make an environmental audit of the museum’s Waste Age exhibition using Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology.

During the pilot, Urge advised Design Museum teams and the exhibition’s 2D and 3D designers on how the carbon impact might be reduced through material and production choices. Data from the audit was also used to build an Impact Model carbon calculator, providing a calculation of its carbon footprint while offering insight and benchmarking data for future exhibitions.

Building on this work in 2022, the Design Museum commissioned Urge to develop a guide to reduce the environmental impact of exhibitions and a Beta version of the impact model. Both were shared with the wider sector for feedback in 2022, with a further workshop in March 2023 inviting feedback and comment from the sector and its stakeholders.

Two further steps that have fed into the new report: a series of interviews and an online survey with key stakeholders to identify significant barriers to the sector reducing its carbon impact, and comparative analysis by Urge of the different carbon calculator tools in use by the sector at present.

The report’s findings have relevance both for exhibition designers as well as cultural institutions.

Embedding environmental goals at all levels

The report states that the first steps for institutions are “public acknowledgement of the Climate Crisis and the subsequent setting policies and targets by the institution”.  

Further workshop feedback highlighted a need “for environmental goals to be understood and embedded across the organisation, with senior leadership commitment” – making a comparison to how D&I (diversity and inclusion) training has also been integrated into museum practice and noting that it be factored into job descriptions and KPIs.

The research and interviews revealed a lack of appetite and incentivisation for improving sustainability at different levels and “very varied” commitment across the sector at present.

It highlights that cost considerations continue to weigh highly in organisational decision making, which can prevent the adoption of sustainable practices. According to the report, the issue could be tackled by “setting a carbon budget to run concurrently with the financial budget” for an institution.

While “touring is usually seen as a profit centre at museums”, the report notes that running fewer exhibitions for longer periods can reduce impact and facilitate material re-use.

Standards and guidance within the procurement process

Where there is motivation to improve sustainability, there are still a number of barriers to translating goals into tangible action, according to the report.

One recommendation is to ensure environmental impact criteria is included in tendering documents for both designers and contractors. The new guide provides detailed advice but the report notes that  “further development is needed” in this regard.

The authors suggest that a standardised tendering document for use across the museum sector can ensure best practice, as well as development of the Design Museum Environmental Impact Toolkit, as part of a wider “suite of standardised documents and checklists”.

There is also an issue of current contract agreements not incentivising contractors to work to minimise waste, including “leave no trace” terms that force contractors to remove all materials at the end of the exhibition, rather than them being retained for re-use by the institution.

It adds that “fire regulations, health and safety and liability issues all mitigate against the re-use of materials, whether in a subsequent exhibition or by a third party”.

Understanding and using tools

The research also suggests the use of a standard carbon calculator across the sector. From the analysis of different tools currently in use, the authors note that while there are useful tools developed by organisations such as Julie’s Bicycle and the Gallery Climate Coalition, these are focused on areas such as energy use and transportation, whereas Urge is suggesting the use of a tool which more comprehensively considers material use in exhibition design.

Targeted specifically at decision making for exhibition, curatorial and project management teams, the report says it key distinction is its proposed use for planning and decision-making, rather than post-exhibition assessment.

There is currently an Excel-based tool in beta, but to “maximise adoption across the sector” the report advises that funding “is sought for the development of a standardised tool”, which would ideally be designed to “integrate with both 2D and 3D design software e.g. Adobe Creative Cloud or 3D vector programmes to empower decision-making and embed its use in the design process”.

It highlights that a standardised tool can also help support adoption by “resource-poor museums”, and to reassure those fearing that the tool will not be in use long-term.

The research provides a standardised industry-wide calculator with Albert, an organisation whose carbon calculator for the global film and tv industry is mandatory for anyone producing content for major channels such as BBC, ITV, Channel 4, UKTV, Sky, TG4 or Netflix in the UK.

Other tools include resource-sharing initiatives, such as BARDER, which currently operates in North America but “has expressed an interest in piloting a version of its platform in the UK”.

The full report can be downloaded via the Future Observatory website, where linked resources including case study interviews and key insights from the workshops are provided.  

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