Museum standards

The parameters of sustainable practice are shifting rapidly in the world of exhibition design, with many key institutions seeking to make their shows less taxing on the environment. Anna Richardson reports on the latest initiatives

When it comes to museums and exhibitions, striving for sustainability seems a bit of a Sisyphean task – temporary shows are seen as inherently wasteful, exhibit conservation stipulations require energy-sapping climate control and travelling exhibitions present a carbon footprint nightmare. But, as in other areas, the quest to make exhibitions sustainable and museums more aware of environmental responsibilities is well under way.

Some consultancies, such as Thomas Matthews, have been at it for a long time. For the National Maritime Museum’s Your Ocean gallery in London, which opened in 2005, it used recycled and reclaimed materials and sustainable construction methods in what it said is one of the most sustainable permanent galleries in the capital.

Redesign, meanwhile, organises annual temporary exhibitions to highlight issues of sustainability. The upcoming Away? is an installation in the City of London next month that uses two shipping containers to highlight issues of waste. ‘We try to tell stories, so the materials that we choose try to match what we’re talking about,’ says Sarah Johnson of Redesign. ‘Using shipping containers is about referencing how far materials have come, and where products come from.’

On the larger scale, attitudes are also starting to change. The UK Museums Association completed a consultation on sustainability and museums this year, and the Royal Academy in London has undertaken its first, full-scale sustainability audit of its Byzantium exhibition and will release its findings and recommendations shortly.

At London’s Barbican, the Radical Nature exhibition opening this month will be built on sustainable principles. Designer Sara de Bondt even drew up a manifesto to keep on the Green track through the design process, aiming to banish the ills of spot varnish, foil-blocking, heavy-waste paper stock, vinyl lettering and printing abroad, and replace them with 100 per cent post-consumer recycled paper, blind embossing, local printers, screws and, generally, ‘smaller, lighter, fewer’. The exhibition will also use the plinths and the walls from the current Corbusier show in an attempt to recycle the entire project.

The Natural History Museum, meanwhile, has been developing a holistic approach, including regular audits and consultation exercises. Its display team set environmental standards for materials usage a while ago, for everything from formaldehydefree MDF, low-volatile organic compound paints and lower-energy equipment to lighting and the complete lifecycle of materials.

The museum is now formalising the process, undergoing a three-year Going Green initiative run by its public engagement group. It also writes guidelines into designers’ contracts, urging them to use environmental practices. Mike Sarna, head of interpretation at the NHM, concedes that designing sustainably can be a struggle. ‘Sometimes there are limitations in materials choice and there are also cost thresholds,’ he says, but urges everyone to ‘give it a go’.

The development of the new Darwin Centre was the first formal application of the approach, with audits taking place at regular construction milestones on everything from materials used to lifespan projections.

Across the Atlantic, Tim McNeil, associate professor at the University of California, Davis, and principal of exhibition design consultancy Muniz McNeil, has been looking into sustainable exhibition design since working on an environmental action centre for the Natural Resources Defense Council in the US. ‘Ten years ago it wasn’t as easy to find sustainable materials,’ McNeil recalls. ‘We spent most of our energy on them. We used some of the first low-VOC paints, particle board made from agricultural materials and recycled steel and aluminium.’

McNeil is now positive about the progress on available materials. ‘This vicious circle has been broken. There are more products out there and more of a willingness, certainly within the design community, but also on the vendor side, to [work with them]. Low-VOC paints, for example, have mushroomed in the past year, which shows that the demand is out there,’ he says. To share some of his accumulated knowledge, McNeil set up a Green Design Wiki website. It accompanied a series of sustainable exhibitions last year at UC Davis Design Museum, and details materials, from rapidly renewable or certified woods to eco-textiles and bio-based plastics, as well as tips on energy use and lighting efficiency. ‘That’s one of the big hurdles – availability of a product and creating a knowledge base,’ says McNeil. ‘There aren’t enough case studies out there yet.’

Where design can play an increasingly valuable role is in looking at energy efficiency and ‘closing the loop’ by reducing waste, reusing, recycling and reinvesting, says McNeil. Modularity is another area designers should tackle. ‘That’s where we need to focus,’ says McNeil. ‘How to build exhibits that can be used multiple times and make them modular, yet maintain the aesthetic and quality expectations that the museum community demands. It’s an issue that could do with more discussion.’

In the current exhibition of Chinese art at the Huntington Library, San Marino, Muniz McNeil developed new modular case furniture, minimising the amount of acrylic plastic used and reducing the material needed to construct the exhibition environment by 40 per cent. Most of the exhibition components can be broken down and repurposed or reconfigured for future exhibitions, and McNeil also sourced a type of strip LED lighting to use within cases that would not detract from artwork on show.

These days, sustainability is more about the process rather than just the materials, adds McNeil. ‘The cradle-to-cradle approach: that’s where we can make a difference.’ This is a sentiment echoed by HKD’s Kate Kneale, who is currently working on the Lifeskills Kent Centre, a new community centre striving to be an exemplar of sustainable development.

‘Sustainability needs to be factored in at the beginning. The valuable and commendable projects have sustainability in the initial brief,’ she says. ‘The challenge is to sustain that ambition, as the project comes together and when the budgets come back.’

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