Our first in person breakfast talk of 2022 brought together museum curators, designers, and sustainability experts to discuss the viability of short-term exhibitions and installations, and examine how the cultural sector is responding to net zero targets. An undeniably relevant and timely topic, the speakers provided a variety of examples of large-scale exhibitions and festivals that have carried out a rigorous sustainability audit and tracked their waste and carbon footprint. Most importantly however, were the crucial learnings that emerged when adopting best practice, and the importance of sharing resources and cross-collaborating in the journey to achieving net zero.
Has the role of the museum changed forever?
Our host and Managing Partner at Grimshaw, Kirsten Lees kicked off the discussion by noting how the cultural sector and cultural industries have responded creatively to the pandemic but have had to ultimately change their relationship to exhibition-making by challenging the very nature of the museum itself. What emerged from this reassessment was the need to think more holistically about the process of exhibition-making.
A joint action approach
Discussing the impact of the design industry, Cat Drew, Chief Designer at Design Council, presented the Design For Planet Festival at V&A Dundee in November 2021, which featured talks, workshops and design tools geared to help designers address the climate crisis.
Sustainable design was not only the overarching subject matter across the programme, but a main consideration during the production, energy consumption, travel, food and experience of the festival. From monitoring audience travel, locally sourcing vegan plastic-free food, to deciding to host in a venue that uses geothermal energy, a ‘joint action’ approach was discussed when considering the implications of event planning. Cat referenced Proseed
by Isla which is the event industry’s first best practice online framework providing guidance and policy across energy, food & water, travel and production.
Sophie Thomas, founding member of URGE, discussed the environmental audit that was carried out for the Waste Age exhibition at Design Museum (31,000 visitors), which calculated the environmental impact of the exhibition and provided the museum with benchmark data for future programming. It amounted to 21 tons of CO2 emissions. Sophie went on to highlight the importance of working with the museum in the early stages to influence the designer briefs, design review, and carry out interviews that enabled an overall understanding of how changes in practice can have a major impact on the final outcome.
Key priorities were: creating an impact model for the various stages of the exhibition, carrying out a life cycle analysis for the materials used and repurposing and locally sourcing where possible. Interestingly, materials and processes that are commonly used to reduce impact such as timber, for example, turned out to be less efficient than aluminium frames due to the high use of screws needed and the difficulty when monitoring numbers.
Other guiding principles flagged were: the venue’s existing energy supply, reuse of materials from previous exhibitions, low impact construction materials, designing structures that can be deconstructed and reused, but most importantly including the above in the designer briefs.
A changing narrative
From a curatorial standpoint, Gemma Curtin, curator of the waste age exhibition at Design Museum, discussed the challenge of sourcing low impact objects without compromising on content or changing the exhibition narrative. Sustainability was at the core of this temporary exhibition, stated in the design brief as “The materials, methods used in the build of this exhibition will be scrutinised, the choices made should be transparent, with the aim to have a carefully chosen palette of ethically considered materials.” The Design Museum worked with URGE to carry out their first environmental audit, a first for the museum. The graphic designers Spin and exhibition designers Material Cultures were chosen carefully for their expertise and knowledge in sustainable designing. Water based inks were used in place of vinyl for graphics, recycled plastic captions were adopted and temporary walls were designed for disassembly.
Often overlooked, the digital footprint of an event or exhibition gets forgotten but can often contribute a significant percentage of the overall environmental impact. Waste Age used approximately 1 ton of CO2e equating to 11,000 emails and 11GB of data.
The post-analysis of the exhibition was the following: all wood and timber donated to the construction company New Road Group, 150 fired bricks donated, all felt donated to Phoebe English for future collections.
Place, people, programme
Our final speaker, Sara Kassam, Sustainability lead at V&A, presented the V&A’s Sustainability Plan
that was published in 2021 and was developed to monitor and create annual reporting on a wide range of sustainability measures guided by ‘Place’, ‘People’ and ‘Programme’.
Sara shared her expertise on working on large scale exhibitons and the need to consider the role and impact of all internal and external teams involved. Highlighting the importance of putting document templates and briefs together at the start of the project for tenders, Sara also put emphasis on sticking to a sustainability checklist and carrying out a life cycle assessment.
The duration of an exhibition and the object selection can also provide an opportunity to waste less, as well as collaborating with other local museums to share build items. Sara shared an extensive list of resources that will be useful across industries and across scale, with the goal of reducing waste when delivering temporary exhibitions and events.
Again, we were reminded of the value of a multi-disciplinary approach to adopting sustainability strategies cross-sectorally, learning from best practice, and the importance of knowledge sharing as we strive to achieving net zero.