Design, Climate Action: regenerative exhibition design

How exhibition designers, institutions and specialist industry bodies can work together to embrace regenerative principles in the gallery and museum sector.

The UK’s first sector-by-sector report by sustainability focused non-profit Julie’s Bicycle and BOP consulting, commissioned by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, highlights the fact that unlike many creative sub-sectors, UK galleries no longer have a dedicated industry body to “develop programmes to educate its members and encourage change”.

Yet with the relatively short life-span and frequent turnover of exhibitions, there are significant opportunities to use design to lessen the environmental impact of the sector.

“How do you do sustainable exhibitions in the first place?”

Andrew Lock, associate director of museum and exhibition design studio Event Communications, explains that “there’s an awful lot of thinking that’s already been done about embodied carbon and in-use carbon” coming from the architectural industry.

He describes it as a “trodden path” but adds “how often that happens in exhibitions? […] that needs to trickle down further, in my opinion”.

He highlights the importance of repurposing and retaining materials: “We’re talking about auditing what [a museum or gallery] has there”, while for new materials, he says, “how can you design for it to be recycled in the first place? You know, don’t use glue, don’t use laminate, use stuff where the materials can be split back out to the component parts.”

Event’s modular displays for the Burrell Collection, Glasgow allow for flexibility and reconfiguration. Image: Glasgow Life

However, Lock suggests that the circular mindset should extend beyond the exhibition materials themselves.

“You can lease light, you can lease lifts, you can lease escalators, you can lease AV equipment, you can lease a whole load of things that you didn’t traditionally used to be able to. You can take out a contract with Phillips, for example, to provide a certain lux level for x-many years”, he says.

What this then means, he adds, is “that the company has to be responsible for what they do with the [products] afterwards; it’s an incentive for them to make good stuff that lasts a long time.”

The in-use energy, meanwhile, can be reduced by taking a more considered object-by-object approach when designing an exhibition, he says. “What conditions do they need to be in? Do we need to provide the same conditions for each one of these objects? Do we need to air condition the whole of this exhibition space or can we just condition the cases for each object.”

“The same goes for the lighting”, he adds. “How can you light these things naturally, are there things that you would light naturally, and can you avoid light fittings?”

Tensions in sustainable exhibition design

Lock concedes that each project has a different motivation, and that sometimes desired aesthetics can clash with achieving sustainability. Particularly in the brand experience end of Event’s work, “where people want shiny stuff and that tends to not be very sustainable”, he says.

“The aesthetic that we currently expect, or the clients expect, or the consumers expect is not that compatible with a sustainable palette of materials, arguably”.

“It’s quite a shift as a designer to say I’m not using this material even though it’s the perfect material to achieve this effect because it’s not sustainable”, he adds.

Material samples for Waste Age. Image: Material Cultures

For Material Cultures, the practice behind the 3D design of the Design Museum’s Waste Age exhibition there is an argument for an exhibition’s sustainability to be made visible. Co-director George Massoud explains, “our approach is always to celebrate the materials that are being used and for them to be an integral part of the narrative of the show.”

He says that Material Cultures works with bio-based materials, but other parameters set for the Waste Age included “proximity to the site and understanding where the raw materials come from and how and where they are processed.”

Now that the exhibition is due to travel to the Hong Kong Design Institute gallery, the change of location required a new research phase to understand the local conditions. For the HKDI show, while many of the materials can stay the same, “we’ll be using bamboo, as bamboo is available nearby”.

Exhibition interior of Waste Age. Image: Oskar Proctor

Meanwhile, for the upcoming exhibition at the Building Centre in London, Homegrown: Building a Post-carbon Future, Material Cultures will be showcasing prefabricated sustainable building techniques – through the unlikely move of putting a thatch pavilion in an exhibition in the centre of a city.

However, Massoud recognises that, “because of the kind of work that we do […] there has never been that conflict of whether we hide or expose the material”, but he also argues, “there are ways that you can expose the material without exposing it. There are ways that you can incorporate sustainable materials without having very textured walls”.

“The client holds the cards”

While both Massoud and Lock stress that architects and designers working in the sector can take more responsibility, both feel that clients need to do their bit too.

“We’re only a service industry. You do what the client asks you to do ultimately because they hold the cards”, says Lock who adds, “But how can we be ambassadors for advocating sustainability?”

Massoud comments, “Because of the nature of how a lot of these teams are set up and the hierarchy involved, I think a big part of it has to come from the client side.”

“I find it interesting that even though the market and the people – certainly in the museums – tend to be very responsible and very conscious of all of these issues, somehow it’s not written into briefs enough that the whole thing should be sustainable in the first place”, Lock comments.

Event’s tested LED lighting and low energy AV equipment for the Riverside Museum of Transport

Massoud suggests that this may need to be a defined role within a project or an institution, so that the afterlife of materials for example, is written into the design strategy. Reflecting on Waste Age, he says: “Our scope did not include that, and neither did the project manager’s scope, or the museum’s scope and that’s not great, because everyone starts feeling like, ‘OK, well I tried and it didn’t work out”. Whereas if you were appointed to do that job, then you know you have to deliver”.

Plans in action

Urge, which worked on Waste Age with Material Cultures and 2D designers Spin studio, and created an audit of the exhibition’s carbon impact, is continuing to work with the Design Museum on guidance to improve the sustainability of its exhibitions going forward.

At the V&A, meanwhile, a sustainability plan was put in place during 2020 – 2021 by then-sustainability lead Sara Kassam, which focused on re-use, designing out waste, adding sustainability criteria to specifications briefs and tenders, as well as a “sustainability focused learning programme” which aimed “to support and empower employees”, with most sessions open to all staff and volunteers. “We wanted to encourage people to see the course as part of their professional development”, according to V&A learning and development manager Suzanne Goode.

Despite the lack of an industry-wide body, however, one organisation that is working with many galleries to reduce the sector’s environmental impact is the Gallery Climate Coalition. It shares best-practice and offers leadership on specific issues, working to “leverage the collective power of our membership to achieve systemic changes”, the GCC says.

Aoife Fannin, GCC project coordinator explains that the first step in GCC’s Decarbonisation Action Plan for its members, is the forming of a “Green Team”.

“We’ve found that this a vital step in creating a strong culture of climate consciousness within an organisation and normalising environmental considerations at all stages of decision-making”, she says.

A number of specific campaigns target areas such as promoting a transition to “environmentally responsible freight operations”, by “calling on all stakeholders and operators in the supply chain to take responsibility and make effective changes”.

She also highlights a “peer-to-peer resource sharing tool”, which the GCC is working with currently and explains that across the arts sector “Around 90-94 per cent of emissions are made up of shipping, energy and travel – moving artworks, people and powering the buildings that house them”.

Numbers or narrative?

“Beyond that, we advise all members to complete an annual carbon report using our free carbon calculator”, Fannin explains.

“In order to set a 50% reduction target for 2030 (which all GCC members agree to at the point of sign-up), we need a starting point. That’s why we ask members to calculate a baseline carbon footprint for a pre-covid year.

“GCC members make carbon reporting an annual task, similar to tax returns or general financial record keeping”, she says.

Beyond the metrics, however, both Lock and Massoud suggested that a particular opportunity for impact is in the narrative nature of exhibitions – the power of them to affect change, in conversation with their audiences.

“We know absolutely, 100 per cent that we’re fucking the world up but we’re not doing anything about it. And it’s really interesting, that whole disconnect”, Lock says.

With arts and exhibitions in particular, he says, “this is their power. It’s about telling powerful stories”. He highlights an exhibition at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. “They’ve done Canaletto, but they’re framing it in the context of rising sea levels in Venice”, he explains.

“Can you do an effective exhibition that’s going to change the way people behave? That exhibition, that’s the power,” says Lock.

Find the rest of our Design, Climate, Action series here.

Banner image: Exhibition interior of Waste Age. Image: Oskar Proctor









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