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.