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How To Design Museum Exhibitions With A Lower Environmental Impact

MuseumNext invited the Design Museum’s Head of Exhibitions and Environmental Impact Lead, Elise Foster Vander Elst, and Alexie Sommer of the URGE Collective to share how they are driving change by developing exhibits with environmental responsibility in mind. 

In her work at London’s Design Museum, Elise Foster Vander Elst oversees the delivery and production of ten exhibitions and displays each year. However, the changing priorities of the museum in recent times has led her to focus her attention not just on the quality of the exhibitions but also their impact on an environmental level.

In the museum’s exhibition Waste Age: What Can Design Do? first shown at the museum in 2021 and now on view in Hong Kong, the theme of sustainability was placed front and centre. The project highlighted a change in the culture of design, the industry’s impact and its responsibility for what it puts out into the world.

Working in conjunction with URGE – a collective of designers and creative practitioners working with leaders in business and society to improve our response to the climate crisis and drive meaningful change – the museum embarked on a comprehensive journey to assess everything from materials to construction methods to administrative processes.

Waste Age at the Design Museum / Image: Alamy

The museum set out to complete a full environmental audit of the exhibition and report on carbon emissions, waste production and a number of other key metrics along the way. And the learnings from Waste Age have enabled the Design Museum to develop a guide for the planning, design and operating of exhibitions in the future.

Elise says, “Waste Age is an exhibition we’d been looking to run for some time – since before the pandemic hit, in fact – but once we had greater certainty over the museum’s return to normality, it felt like a project we needed to develop as a priority.

“And while we started out with good intentions, we didn’t have the tools or the framework to develop a low-impact exhibition. We didn’t know how to accurately analyse carbon emissions or identify where to make savings.”

To find the answers to these questions, Elise and her team turned to Alexie Sommer and her colleagues at URGE. With more than 20 years’ expertise working in the sustainability design space and a client list that includes the likes of Philips Electronics, LOCOG, British Council and the Guardian newspaper, she has worked on initiatives across a range of sectors and organisations.

Alexie says, “We approached the Design Museum with a series of proposals that we thought would help deliver the right kind of audit, implement best practice and output findings that could inform future exhibitions. There hadn’t been much work done on exhibition impact reporting before that point – at least in terms of providing pre-, during and post-exhibition life cycle analysis.

“Clearly the Design Museum wanted to use this exhibition as a stepping stone towards more environmentally friendly exhibitions in the future. From that starting point, Waste Age is about benchmarking and saying, ‘OK, what does an exhibition’s footprint actually look like?’”

Elise adds, “Through this project it feels like we have drawn a line in the sand as an institution. A critical element for us was that we really wanted to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.

Benchmarking, reporting and setting supply chain expectations

Elise explains that Waste Age certainly was not about delivering the perfect “green” or carbon neutral exhibition; instead it was about understanding the elements of the project that had the greatest environmental cost, and how future exhibitions could cut that cost.

“Data allows you to make informed decisions. Being able to look at the pie chart at the end of the exhibition and understand where we did well and where we need to improve is essential.

“In other areas our eyes have been opened to wasteful aspects of our exhibition – areas that we can look to change and improve in the future. We now have a much better idea of where to focus our energies and where we can make the biggest savings in terms of carbon emissions.”

Alexie adds, “The museum had a solid energy strategy in place before work began on this project (it has a 100% renewable electrical supply and shares in a district heating scheme). Not all institutions will have a renewable energy supply and an advanced battery storage facility like the Design Museum does, of course. But when we think about exhibition-specific carbon emissions, those Scope 3 supply chain emissions come much more to the fore – from contractors, designers, transportation, etc.

“What we are building as a result of this project is some really solid guidance to help align that supply chain. That can mean asking suppliers the right questions about their own carbon emissions, setting expectations and even helping them to make more sustainable decisions within their organisations.”

Elise adds, “What we’ve found is that a lot of our suppliers really want to make changes and do better. This process has actually helped them to understand how to start going about making meaningful improvements and efficiency savings.

“It’s actually nice to be able to learn together; to bring our partners into the conversation and encourage them to help solve some of the challenges that present themselves.”

As part of the project with URGE, the curatorial team at the Design Museum have developed a decision tree to help them navigate some of the issues that arise when bringing in collections or pieces for an exhibition.

Waste Age at the Design Museum / Image: Alamy

However, both Elise and Alexie are quick to emphasise that the responsibility for developing more sustainable exhibitions can’t simply sit with one person. Instead it requires a level of understanding and attention from every member of the museum team and its supply chain in order to reach that goal.

Turning the screw on Museum sustainability

One of the more interesting examples of environmental responsibility in action within Waste Age lies in the humble screw.

“There were 4,800 stainless steel screws utilised in the creation of Waste Age,” Alexie says. “We were able to calculate that the associated impact of manufacturing and utilising those simple building accessories was 1.9million tons CO2e – roughly 7% of the exhibition’s total footprint.

“Knowing that information helps us to plan the life cycle of the exhibition more carefully. We can take steps to use those screws again.”

Elsewhere, the exhibition utilised unfired Adobe bricks, which saved an estimated 6 tons of CO2e. These were later disassembled for reuse in a future exhibition. Similarly, a central wall and several plinths utilised within Waste Age were actually taken from a previous exhibition – Charlotte Perriand.

When less is more in Exhibition Design

One other key factor that Elise says has to be addressed by the museum community when wrestling with their environmental impact is the number of exhibitions that institutions run over the course of a year.

“Perhaps keeping exhibitions running for longer creates less waste, extends the life cycle of materials and gives more people an opportunity to see them. We’ve actually rolled out this approach in one of our other exhibitions, Weird Sensation Feels Good, which we extended to last 11 months. We are pleased to see that it has remained popular and we estimate that an additional 50,000 visitors will see it before it closes on 10th April.”

Elise is keen to stress that the Design Museum have had a clear strategy to make improvements using a phased approach – helping them to identify precisely where efforts can have the greatest impact. While Waste Age was a foundational project geared towards benchmarking and insight, subsequent work has gone further – not least in the creation of a comprehensive toolkit developed in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

“We think it is a really valuable asset, not just for ourselves but for other museum professionals, too. In 2023, we are also collaborating with DCMS to work with the sector more widely and enable other institutions it their own.”

Alexie adds, “All too often, what happens after the exhibition is forgotten in the design process. But this really shouldn’t be the case. I think we should be encouraging museums to work more collaboratively in the way they reuse and recycle structures from exhibitions that would otherwise go to landfill.”

Waste Age at the Design Museum / Image: Alamy

Where next for environmentally responsible exhibition design?

As a place for research, the Design Museum has a clear role to play in driving the environmental responsibility agenda. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Design Museum’s Future Observatory programme, which launched back in 2021. This three-year project is focused specifically on design research to support the UK’s response to the climate crisis – making it accessible and engaging for greatest impact.

“I think the Future Observatory is a fantastic initiative that can really drive important change from a sustainability perspective,” says Alexie. “The Design Museum is closely connected to the design industry, which continues to be one of the UK’s most important exports. Through this focus on green design we will see, I hope, great innovations and advances in this area.”

Elise concludes, “While I think we’re all anxious about the future and the climate crisis we find ourselves in, I do feel that this is an important moment in time. It really does feel like the tide is turning and sustainability is finally moving to the top of the agenda where it belongs.

“It’s sad that it has taken this long but it does fill me with some hope that we may just make a difference before it is too late.”

The Green Museums Summit will be held from 26th – 27th February 2024, and will feature inspiring ideas and case studies from those championing sustainability in museums and galleries. Click here to book your tickets now, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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