Design, Climate Action: regenerative exhibition design

How exhibition designers, institutions and industry specialist bodies can work together to embrace regenerative principles in the gallery and museum sector.

The first UK sector-by-sector report by non-profit organization Julie’s Bicycle and BOP Consulting, commissioned by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, highlights the fact that, unlike many creative sub-sectors, UK galleries no longer have a dedicated industry to “develop programs to educate its members and encourage change”.

However, with the relatively short duration and frequent turnover of exhibits, there are significant opportunities to use design to reduce the environmental impact of the industry.

“How do you do sustainable exhibitions in the first place?”

Andrew Lock, associate director of museum and exhibition design firm Event Communications, explains that “there’s already a huge amount of thinking about embodied carbon and carbon in use” coming from the architecture industry.

He describes it as a “trodden path” but adds “how often does this happen in exhibitions? […] which must go down further, in my opinion”.

Emphasizes the importance of reusing and retaining materials: “We’re talking about auditing what [a museum or gallery] has there,” while for new materials, he says, “how can you design for it to be recycled in the first place? You know, don’t use glue, don’t use laminate, use things where the materials can be broken down into the component parts.

Event’s modular displays for the Burrell Collection, Glasgow allow for flexibility and reconfiguration. Image: Glasgow life

However, Lock suggests that the circular mindset should extend beyond the exhibition materials themselves.

“You can rent light, you can rent elevators, you can rent escalators, you can rent AV equipment, you can rent a whole load of stuff that you traditionally couldn’t do. You can contract with Phillips, for example, to provide a certain level of lux for x-many years,” he says.

What this means then, he adds, is “that the company must be responsible for what it does with the [products] after; it’s an incentive for them to do good things that last a long time.

Energy in use, meanwhile, can be reduced by taking a more thoughtful object-by-object approach when designing an exhibit, he says. “What condition should they be in? Do we need to provide the same conditions for each of these objects? We need to air-condition the entire exhibition space or we can simply air-condition the cases for each item.

“The same goes for the lighting,” he adds. “How can you light these things naturally, are there things you would light naturally, and can you avoid light fixtures?”

Tensions in sustainable exhibition design

Lock admits that every project has a different motivation, and that sometimes the desired aesthetic can clash with achieving sustainability. Particularly in the branding experience at the end of Event’s work, “where people want things that are shiny and that tend to not be very sustainable,” he says.

“The aesthetic that we currently expect, or customers expect, or consumers expect is not compatible with a sustainable material palette, probably.”

“It’s a nice change as a designer to say I’m not using this material even though it’s the perfect material to achieve this effect because it’s not sustainable,” he adds.

Material samples for Waste Age. Image: Material Cultures

For Material Cultures, the practice behind 3D design in the Design Museum’s Waste Age exhibition, there is an argument for making an exhibition’s sustainability visible. Co-director George Massoud explains, “our approach is always to celebrate the materials that are used and to make them an integral part of the narrative of the show.”

He says Material Cultures works with bio-based materials, but other parameters set for Waste Age included “proximity to site and an understanding of where raw materials come from and how and where they are processed.”

Now that the show has moved to the Hong Kong Design Institute gallery, the change of venue has required a new phase of research to understand local conditions. For the HKDI fair, while many of the materials may remain the same, “we will use bamboo, as bamboo is available nearby”.

Waste Age exhibition interiors. Image: Oscar Proctor

Meanwhile, for the upcoming exhibition at the Building Center in London, Homegrown: Building a Post-carbon Future, Material Cultures will showcase sustainable prefabricated building techniques, via the unlikely move of placing a thatched pavilion in a city center exhibition .

However, Massoud acknowledges it, “because of the type of work we do […] there’s never been that conflict between whether to hide or display the material,” but he also argues, “there are ways you can display the material without displaying it. There are ways you can incorporate sustainable materials without having very textured walls.”

“The customer holds the cards”

While both Massoud and Lock emphasize that architects and designers working in the sector can take on more responsibility, they both believe clients should do their part too.

“We are just a service industry. You do what the customer asks you to do in the end because he has what it takes,” says Lock who adds, “But how can we be ambassadors to advocate for sustainability?”

Massoud comments, “Because of the nature of how many of these teams are organized and the hierarchy involved, I think a lot of that has to come from the customer side.”

“I find it interesting that even though the market and people – certainly in museums – tend to be very responsible and very aware of all these issues, somehow it’s not written enough in the briefs that the whole thing should be sustainable in the first place” , Block comments.

Event-tested LED lighting and energy-efficient AV equipment for the Riverside Museum of Transport

Massoud suggests that this may need to be a defined role within a project or institution, so that the afterlife of materials, for example, is written into the design strategy. Reflecting on Waste Age, he says, “Our scope didn’t include that, and neither did the project manager scope, or the museum scope and that’s not great, because everyone starts thinking, ‘OK, well, I tried and it didn’t worked out training”. Whereas if you’ve been appointed to do that job, then you know you have to deliver.”

Plans in action

Urge, who worked on Waste Age with Material Cultures and the designers 2D Spin studio, and created an exhibit carbon impact audit, continues to work with the Design Museum on guidance for improving the sustainability of its exhibits going forward.

At the V&A, meanwhile, a sustainability plan was put in place for 2020-2021 by then head of sustainability Sara Kassam, which focused on reuse, designing waste, adding sustainability criteria to specifications and tenders, as well as a “sustainability focused learning programme” which aimed to “support and empower employees”, with most sessions open to all staff and volunteers. “We wanted to encourage people to see the course as part of their professional development,” according to Suzanne Goode, head of learning and development at the V&A.

Despite the lack of an industry-wide body, however, one organization that is working with many galleries to reduce the industry’s environmental impact is the Gallery Climate Coalition. It shares best practices and offers leadership on specific issues, working to “leverage the collective power of our members to achieve systemic change,” says the GCC.

Aoife Fannin, GCC project coordinator, explains that the first step in the GCC’s decarbonisation action plan for its members is the formation of a “Green Team”.

“We have found this to be a critical step in creating a strong climate awareness culture within an organization and normalizing environmental considerations throughout all stages of the decision-making process,” she says.

A number of specific campaigns target areas such as promoting a transition to ‘environmentally responsible freight operations’, ‘calling all stakeholders and operators in the supply chain to take responsibility and make effective changes’ .

He also points out a “peer-to-peer resource sharing tool”, which the GCC is currently working with and explains that across the arts sector “About 90-94% of emissions are shipping, energy and travel – moving works of art, people and powering the buildings that house them”.

Numbers or narrative?

“In addition to that, we recommend all members complete an annual carbon report using our free carbon calculator,” Fannin explains.

“To set a 50% reduction target for 2030 (which all GCC members agree upon when they join), we need a starting point. That’s why we’re asking members to calculate a baseline carbon footprint for a pre-covid year.

“GCC members make carbon reporting an annual activity, similar to tax returns or general financial record keeping,” he says.

Beyond the metrics, however, both Lock and Massoud have suggested that a particular opportunity for impact lies in the narrative nature of exhibitions: their power to influence change, in conversation with their audiences.

“We know absolutely, 100 percent, that we’re screwing up the world, but we’re not doing anything about it. And it’s really interesting, all that disconnect,” Lock says.

With the arts and exhibitions in particular, she says, “that’s their power. It’s about telling powerful stories.” Highlights an exhibit at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. “They did Canaletto, but they’re framing it in the context of rising sea levels in Venice,” he explains.

“Can you make an effective exhibition that will change the way people behave? That shows, that’s the power,” Lock says.

Banner image: interior of the Waste Age exhibition. Image: Oscar Proctor

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