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Developing Sustainability Strategies for Exhibitions

Maintaining and looking after museum exhibitions can have a measurable effect on an institution’s environmental impact. With one eye on the future and an appreciation of how all organisations must respond to the climate crisis, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, has made environmental sustainability one of the key pillars of its strategic plan since 2021.    

In his recent presentation at the Green Museums Summit, Daniel Vega Pérez de Arlucea, Deputy Director for Exhibitions and Conservation at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, discussed the ways in which the museum defines their environmental action plan and the concrete initiatives developed to meet sustainability goals.

Climate considerations

On the back of international calls to review the climate standards required for storage and exhibition areas of a museum, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao worked with maintenance departments and conservation exhibitions to relax the environmental temperature range from 21 plus minus one degree to 21 plus minus two degrees.  This meant that in the 10,000 square metres of the collection galleries and temporary exhibitions of the museum, the temperature now ranges from 19 degrees in December, January and February to 23 degrees in July and August, with a fluctuation that never exceeds one degree per month.

It is estimated that this change represents a cost reduction of approximately 40,000 euros per degree Celsius per year. There is room for further change in the relative humidity but several years later, and this change has caused no problems with lenders of thousands of works of art.

LED lighting

LED lighting is far more energy efficient than traditional filament or halogen light bulbs. In 2015, once LED technology was sufficiently evolved to meet the technical demands of the unique exhibition spaces at the Guggenheim, the museum began a complete replacement of all halogen lighting to LED technology.

The project had four main objectives:

  1. To improve the quality of the lighting.
  2. To favour the conservation of the works of art
  3. To increase efficiency of work processes
  4. To contribute to the economic and environmental sustainability of the museum

The implementation process took three years and presented a significant cost but the new LED light system uses only 8% of the energy of the original halogen equipment. An annual saving of 250,000 euros through reduced energy consumption and maintenance costs will pay back the annual investment within a short period. The museum’s next step is to install mechanical light filters that can reduce lighting consumption during periods of natural light, lowering energy consumption even further.

Logistics

As well as working to reduce the construction of new walls within the museum to support new exhibitions, the Guggenheim implemented a new policy of using rental boxes to transport works of art in 2019. This reduced reliance on specially fabricated boxes for transportation which were difficult to recycle and nearly always destroyed.

Although it is worth noting that not enough artwork is being transported in this way. The availability of rental crates is an ongoing issue from a sourcing perspective.

Logistics is a key area for sustainable changes. For instance, virtual couriering had to be implemented during the Covid pandemic and this has remained as a much more sustainable solution.  Meaning teams can install and de-install exhibitions with the support of tracking devices or live stream cameras instead of in-person teams.

According to Daniel, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao acknowledges that many of the different sustainability solutions implemented may be impracticable for other institutions given the investment in time and lack of available financing for R&D and technical upgrades. However, there are many benefits to pursuing greater environmental sustainability, including opportunities for creative thinking, innovation and excellence.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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