We are on the cusp of a century of reflection and radical change.
“We are on the cusp of a century of reflection and radical change. We need to compensate for the ecological imbalance, excessive consumption, greed and violence of the previous century. For the first time, a post-fossil society is emerging in which the use of natural ingredients and alternative energy sources offers hope for the future.” There’s no way round it anymore: the need for sustainable ways to create exhibitions is clear. We use sustainability not because we have to, but because there’s no other way. That means sustainability has to be incorporated into the design process from the start. But how do we do that? And is sharing exhibitions a solution or are touring exhibitions an even greater burden on the planet?
At the same time, it’s also legitimate to ask whether an exhibition even has to be physically accessible. Since 2018, the call for a moratorium on blockbuster shows has grown louder; they are too expensive, involve too much risk, have insufficient meaningful content, and are in many ways non-sustainable. While interest in digital art, such as NFTs, has taken off in recent years, and the covid pandemic has helped people realize that digital presentations and exhibitions can also provide a successful platform from which to convey a message. Is there a future for digital exhibitions and digital art?
During the pandemic, almost all the big museums provided options to view their displays in 360-degree interactive experiences. Today, audiences can enjoy all the great exhibits in the comfort of their livingroom. This kind of presentation obviously has many advantages; no production costs, no exhibition materials, no climate controls, no journeys, no damage or danger to the collection, while a digital visit often lasts a lot longer. On the other hand, it entails considerable digital storage space, data traffic and a data centre. What kind of impact does that actually have? And is the physical experience of an exhibition replaceable?
This dossier offers an inspirational interview with Margrit Reuss, who curated Plastic Crush, a Museum of World Cultures exhibition. In this show, produced with Studio Harm Rensink and KODE21 design studio, the museum made a serious, profound attempt to compile a presentation that produces as little waste as possible, with sustainable, environmentally-friendly recycled materials and new, purpose-built parts that are also suitable for reuse. We also discuss our own attempts to create a sustainable touring exhibition in a hackathon and share initiatives in the field of circular exhibition construction, examples of digital exhibitions and articles about the impact of data storage and data centres.
What the hackathon? A National Maritime Museum attempt together with Slijpstof to make (touring) exhibitions sustainable.
Touring exhibitions are no new phenomenon in the museum sector. However, transporting an exhibition has a negative impact on the environment. That’s the dilemma which faced the hackathon organised by the National Maritime Museum and Slijpstof creative design agency in May 2022. Together with partners in and outside the museum world, participants looked for ways to make museums and exhibitions more sustainable. The problem was analysed with the Eco Design Strategy Wheel and prototype solutions were created.
The idea of a hackathon is to divide into quick (non-stop) teams to look for solutions to a problem. Since the session had a limited timeframe, we focused on an actual case, namely making Rising Tide, Kadir van Lohuizen’s touring photographic exhibition, sustainable. The show is due to appear at various venues in the United States over the coming years.
With Slijpstof guiding, potential solutions were examined using the creative problem-solving method. The hackathon comprised three phases:
- Problem finding (examining and defining the problem)
- Idea finding (devising new ideas to solve the problem)
- Solution finding (turning ideas into solutions)
In Phase 1, the groups defined the problem for which we are seeking a solution. Using the Ecodesign Strategy Wheel , the impact of the different themes was identified.
Employing eco-design options from the start of the design phase of an exhibition can greatly increase its sustainability. Since the impact of materials, production processes, distribution and energy savings throughout the duration of the exhibition are considered at an early stage, as well as choices at the end of the trajectory, like dismantling, reuse and recycling.
Using why-laddering we then defined the overall problem that our solutions were intended to resolve and the underlying causes. The problem’s various abstraction layers were then used to formulate a series of design issues.
In phase 2, the idea-finding phase, we used the brain-writing technique and random stimuli (images or words) to work on new creative, out-of-the-box ideas to tackle our problem.
In phase 3, the solution-finding phase, one idea was selected to work into a prototype after it was first improved using eco-design themes. For example, by asking the following auxiliary questions: Can the product also be a service? Can the product also be transported by train or sail, can it be produced locally, biologically or using recycled materials?
Eventually, the five groups each presented a prototype based on certain starting points, ranging from an impact app to a community engagement manual to a DIY kit. We took elements from all the prototypes to develop our final product: a sustainable version of the Rising Tide touring exhibition. This is currently being developed.
The DIY toolkit consists of a complete design for an exhibition that is flexible and adaptable to any space (100 to 400 square metres), which can be produced locally and sustainably. Besides picture-panel, text-panel and video downloads, the toolkit also contains a DIY wall for a local or regional perspective on the exhibition: for Rising Tide this could include local information and images relating to sea level issues, content generated by local contributors, and activist appeals or work by local artists linked to the exhibition theme. The DIY toolkit also contains instructions for construction and production, including a sustainability framework for the actual exhibition production and for the building or campus of the host venue for the duration of the show; a marketing manual with a draft press release, marketing tips and tools, visual material and texts; and an education guide with ideas on how to maximise the exhibition’s impact through public and school programmes.
The advantage of this toolkit is that it doesn’t require transport and maintains a sustainable framework, plus it’s relatively low-cost, making it easier for venues to present the exhibition. Using these premises enables us to spread the exhibition’s crucial message regarding rising sea levels (more venues can show Rising Tide and it can be shown at more places simultaneously) and it makes the whole process of adopting and sharing exhibitions easier.