Recycling the past

Budget cuts are limiting the possibilities for museums and galleries at a time when their audiences are steadily growing. Emily Pacey describes how designers are helping exhibition organisers to reuse display materials

The sight of visitors queueing round the block for the latest hotly tipped exhibition is a relatively recent phenomenon that shows no signs of abating. And yet many of the biggest museums and galleries are calling on designers to help them save money by creating flexible, reusable exhibition designs.

’Museums and galleries are becoming more financially embattled and much more conscious of the last ten pounds rather than the last thousand,’ says Grant Windridge of exhibition design group Hemisphere.

At present museums vary wildly in the percentage of display materials that they reuse, from about 20 per cent at some smaller regional galleries to 70 per cent or more at national institutions. One thing that large and small have in common though is that they would like to reuse more than they do.

’The levels are not anything like what we would like them to be, but it’s quite hard and I have to admit that we are not building reusability into briefs for temporary exhibitions,’ says Leigh Cain, head of design and exhibitions at the Museum of London. She says the museum is on the brink of thinking more seriously about reuse.

’Clients are increasingly coming to us with this kind of awareness of sustainability and economics,’ says Esther Dugdale, creative director at the exhibition design group Event Communications.

Similarly, the Natural History Museum’s spokeswoman says, ’Over the past three or four years, repurposing and recycling has become a critical and necessary part of how we maximise the use of diminishing budgets, as well as implementing the museum’s sustainability policy.’

Cain explains that while they reuse showcases, other elements such as graphic panels which at the Museum of London may have a plastic finish on MDF ’tend to be fairly unique to the exhibition and it is impossible to reuse them’.

However, Dugdale says, ’I haven’t come across any media that flexibility cannot be applied to. It is not the material that is flexible, it is what you do with it that is where the flexibility comes in. It is about templating the system to allow them to update a graphic without having to completely redesign stuff, which costs an arm and a leg.’

Rebecca Lim, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s head of exhibitions, finds that the desire of designers to tinker with elements such as graphics can compromise the sustainability brief. ’They are always coming up with different graphic solutions, but this is one area that does not really get noticed by visitors,’ she says.

Dugdale suggests that designers could create a reusable structure that would hold graphics printed on nothing sturdier than paper. ’It’s all about how creative you are,’ she says.

However, she adds, ’There comes a point at which you have to make sure that the furniture is singing that individual display strongly enough, but there is always that moment, that tipping point, that you have to look for, balancing reusability and individuality.’

Event Communications is currently working with Glasgow Museums on the new Riverside Museum of Transport’s permanent displays. ’This is a completely flexible system that is like a huge Meccano set, featuring a family of modular cases, walls and plinths,’ says Dugdale.

The consultancy’s work with Glasgow Museums includes Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, which it completed in 2006. Dugdale claims it ’was the first done anywhere that required such a level of flexibility’. She describes how she painstakingly researched and reflected the proportions of the huge, grand Victorian building to ensure the flexible system belonged solely to Kelvingrove, no matter what its configuration.

At Riverside, a Zaha Hadid building, Event is applying the same principle, creating a Meccano-style metal skeleton that reflects the proportions of the galleries. The basic structure can be faced with different materials to guarantee uniqueness to each display.

The V&A has begun to put sustainability clauses into its briefs, and recommends the work in this area of several of its design partners, including Opera. However, Lim believes that in general exhibition designers could be doing better.

’As a design museum we should be leading the way on this, but designers embrace this part of our brief with varying degrees of enthusiasm. When it comes down to it, there is a tension between wanting to have really high sustainable design values and for it to look stunning,’ she says.

Built from one structure – A responsible approach

The V&A conducts sustainability sessions as part of its selection process, but Lim finds that design groups struggle to communicate how they will tackle the question of reuse. ’As yet, I have never been completely wowed by someone. It is something for people to think about.’

Hemisphere has worked on shows at the Imperial War Museum North’s 500sq m special exhibitions gallery since 2002. ’At the start, we would begin with an empty room and build the show to fit the subject, demolishing it at the end,’ says Hemisphere’s Grant Windridge. But today, a basic exhibition structure exists that forms the foundation for each show.

’In the past six months the brief has changed from “use this basic structure if you can” to “you must use this structure”’, says Windridge.

Hemisphere has responded partly by using cheap but effective paint techniques to create differentiation between shows.

’We are ever more mindful of making the best possible show but also helping the client financially. We don’t go careering into an exhibition and then run away afterwards, abdicating all responsibility. If the client understands that we are working with them for the future, then we are going to get another call,’ says Windridge.

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