New Ideas in Green Exhibit Design
By Adam Mikos
Recently, I attended an exhibitSEED workshop, presented by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). Established as a green and sustainable exhibition development resource, this two-year project is rolling out workshops in several cities across the U.S., starting with Portland.
Initially, exhibitSEED and their Green Exhibit Checklist were a response to LEED standards in architecture. Attempting to apply LEED to exhibit development, OMSI exhibitions staff discovered that there wasn’t a simple translation from one to the other for determining sustainability in exhibits. On their website (exhibitseed.org), it is explained like this, “the LEED system has many categories that do not apply to exhibits and involves complex calculations that seemed overly complicated for busy museum professionals.” Ha, much appreciated! Undeterred, the staff kept the spirit of a scoring system based on environmental criteria and re-jiggered it to fit museums. This new system was intended to be easy to use and could be used in a variety of situations.
ExhibitSEED is built around a framework of three central pillars; environment, society, and economy. Within these there are a handful of additional considerations when breaking down particular issues of green exhibit design. One important point to make is that exhibitSEED isn’t a “how to” guide of improving the sustainability of your exhibits. To my mind, it is more of a process for examining what you are doing currently then building a better understanding of what that actually looks like from an environmental standpoint. Most importantly, it isn’t trying to determine if you’re doing it “right” or “wrong”.
Led by staff from OMSI, the workshop begins by asking what you already know or think you know about sustainable practices. The process is actually very simple. It gives you a series of lead off questions to keep in mind when planning a new exhibition. Individually each question is fairly harmless, but when asked as a group they identify numerous small steps that could/can/do add up to significant changes for an institution. In terms of resources, what does it take to present a new exhibit? From planning meetings, ordering and fabricating materials, producing didactic panels, then how much of that is thrown in the garbage afterwards. The intention is to establish exactly what an exhibitions life cycle, from planning to trashing, looks like. Spoiler alert: it’s way more than you think.
There are so many factors to bear in mind. Buying local, buying renewable, repurposing existing materials, and on and on. Even considering what your volunteer program requires in terms of staff time, additional materials, transportation, and energy. All of these consume resources other than just your budget.
ExhibitSEED’s strength comes from how they have chosen to deal with these questions. They do not prescribe a path to redemption or chastise your failings. Simply put, they are presenting a framework for looking at a broader impact statement for the price of your exhibitions.
Sustainability in exhibit design is a balance. Utilizing sustainable practices (material selection, recycling exhibit components, printing didactic panels on different materials, etc.) will decrease the amount of resources used, but it can’t compromise the end result. Ultimately the exhibit still has to look great, function properly over time and engage the audience. Additionally, there are costs to be considered. For example, LED lighting is “greener” than traditional lighting. It uses less power, produces much less heat, and doesn’t have the UV output. However, LED components are considerably more expensive. When re-using materials, it can increase staff time trying to figure out how to adapt old pieces to new exhibits. How your institution prioritizes these needs can determine what is possible. By extension, being able to coherently present why sustainable practices are the right choice can be very persuasive.
To this end another piece of the exhibitSEED program that I appreciate is it’s purposely open source nature. All of the forms, checklists, and resources are available for anyone interested. There is also an emphasis on users sharing the results of their own green assessments once they have been completed. By sharing results from different exhibit projects the data becomes infinitely more useful and robust. Surely greater communication, both for successes and failures, will benefit the field exponentially. Also of great interest is the materials guide. Once you’ve asked the question of “how” to change having a list of “what” to try next is crucial.
Exhibit sustainability evaluation reminds of the early days of municipal recycling. When it first rolled out, with the extra garbage cans and having to think about what trash went where, the whole process seemed cumbersome. However, in a very short amount of time people took it in stride and the process made everyone more cognizant of what they were consuming. Now, when I visit family in southern Illinois where there isn’t any kind of city recycling program, it freaks me out how much waste goes into the landfill. ExhibitSEED and the Green Exhibit Checklist are the first of many tools to take sustainability thinking in exhibits out of the hypothetical and into the norm. First, the industry doesn’t realize there is a problem, then there is resistance to change, but once you get into the swing of it it’s no big deal: in retrospect it seems strange that it hadn’t been done long before. I was also encouraged by the variety of participants at the workshop. There were people from the National Parks service, Oregon Zoo, children’s museums, exhibition consultants, design firms, and curators. These ideas apply across the field and if they can pick up steam, the impact will be even larger.
I would encourage everyone in the museum field to visit the exhibitSEED website and read through some of the materials. Not only will you find the Green Exhibit Checklist, you will also find a lot of information on practical tips for each stage of exhibition development, tools for weighing the different priorities, a materials guide, and access to other case studies uploaded by other participants. Such an amazing resource and one that will hopefully continue to grow. Try it, I promise it won’t hurt.
Houston, Miami, St Paul (MN),and Philadelphia