Time for a museum design Freecycle?

Urban Salon’s Alex Mowat has a proposal to tackle waste from temporary exhibitions.

The Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition at VA, designed by Urban Salon

Source: Gareth Gardner

The Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition at the V&A, designed by Urban Salon. The consultancy reused many elements from a previous exhibition

Newness, fresh ideas, displays that you have not seen before and specific atmospheres are all key elements in the creation of stimulating temporary exhibitions. Temporary exhibitions have a role to showcase research and help museums boost visitor numbers and thus need to be in a state of constant change.

What this means is that many of the materials, settings and showcases end up in the skip as soon as possible after an exhibition finishes in order to make way for the next. Imagine what this amounts to when added up across the nation’s museums each year. Measured in either physical waste or financial cost to the taxpayer, it is equally problematic.

Display cases, picture frames and mannequins are expensive and resource-intensive to make. After only three or four months use, they are still very much reusable if they find the right home. Storage space within museums is at a premium and often it is simply not viable to keep large items on the off chance that they will get reused.

To some extent, this reuse is already happening. In the recent Italian Fashion exhibition at the V&A, we reused many elements from a previous exhibition. The Barbican Art gallery gave a second home to display cases we had designed for Royal Manuscripts at the British Library. However, this recycling tends to be ad hoc and time-consuming as the donor museum needs to find someone who needs a similarly proportioned exhibition element and who can pick it up on the exact day it gets removed from the end of a temporary exhibition. The odds on this happening are small.

One way to boost the sustainability of temporary exhibitions is to enable museums to recycle their temporary exhibition elements more easily. One solution that could help museums to do this, is the creation of a museum Freecycle website – an online tool, working in the same way as a webshop, to connect museums who are discarding setworks and elements from temporary exhibitions with other organizations looking for new elements.

People who want things could enter details and receive notifications when anything matching their criteria are offered. Once expiry dates for pick-up periods have expired the item could be automatically deleted from the site.

As an online tool, and not a physical warehouse of junk, it would not need a new organisation, a roof, insurance, staff or overheads – just a simple template and a core of high-quality museums making offers.

The first thing that is free is this idea… please take it and make it happen. It would be a simple way of saving taxpayer’s money and reducing waste.

Alex Mowat is creative director at Urban Salon.

Hide Comments (7)Show Comments (7)
  • Deron Beal November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Find (or be? : ) ) a volunteer moderator (or two) and we’ll set up a Museum Exhibitions Freecycle group for free on Freecycle.org.

    We can do this because it’s our mission as a charitable nonprofit. We’d love to experiment with a specific segment group like this with you.

    Membership to the group would also need to be free for all. (donations always appreciated of course… )

    Email me at the above addy or at help @ freecycle.org.

    Keep on keepin’ on!


    Deron Beal
    Executive Director
    The Freecycle Network

  • Zoe Hewett November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Absolutely love this idea! The waste in the theatre industry, not exactly known for having stacks of cash, used to frustrate and worry me as a set designer. Producing houses and travelling theatre companies alike could benefit hugely from the same kind of group (not to mention the planet). Although I’m in interiors these days, perhaps I can suggest this to the http://www.theatre-wales.co.uk and http://www.theatrebristol.net forums, and hope there will be some uptake!

  • Paula McKeown November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    As someone who helps with the running of a very small mill museum that has little money, this sounds like a fabulous idea.

  • Ed Haslam November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Hi Alex

    I have had the same idea for years having worked in museums and galleries witnessing the large amount of waste in temporary builds. It would be great to discuss the ideas I have with you – please email me at ed.haslam@dickensmuseum.com

  • Eilidh Sinclair November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Hi Alex,

    Really interested in waste and reuse of materials in all aspects of the creative industries. I’m working at the Glasgow School of Art on a project which looks to try and tackle this issue and would be really interested in speaking to you!


  • Justin Robinson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great idea Alex. Having had experience working with The Haunch of Venison founder Harry Blain I’m aware of the waste you describe. I’ve just founded a Social Enterprise designed to tackle exactly this problem as swiftly, simply, and effectively as posting a photo on Instagram. We’re working with The Founders Forum for Good, Nominet Trust and have Eden Project founder Tim Smit as a mentor. Get in touch and we can make this happen in a flash 🙂

  • Pamela Parker November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’ve always been shocked since moving to London from NY that nothing like this yet exists here yet! In NY we had Materials for the Arts – a massive warehouse space not-for-profit where artists and schools can come to pick up industry refuse: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcla/mfta/html/home/home.shtml

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