Environmental Guidelines for Exhibit Design
Environmental Awareness: What Can Science Centers Do?
By Kathleen McLean
The choices we make as exhibit designers are difficult enough when we are considering only functional issues: Will this material serve its purpose in the exhibition? Make the necessary statements? Look good? Hold up? But we must be just as critical when examining the environmental implications of that material.
Take paint or ink, for example. Not only must
we consider its effectiveness in the exhibition--does it attract,
create context and drama, encourage associations, provide legibility--but
we also have to think about its composition. Does it contain heavy
metals, such as lead, that could later contaminate groundwater in
a landfill? Is it made from a nonrenewable source? Does it require
drying agents that release toxic fumes into the air?
Although "environmentally friendly" materials are
now more common, and some manufacturers and environmental organizations
have begun to compile "life cycle assessments" (LCAs)--documenting
the inputs, outputs, and potential environmental impacts of a given
product from raw-material acquisition to final disposal-there is no
one authoritative list of environmentally correct materials. The following
general guidelines, however, can help us plan exhibitions with environmental
considerations in mind.
Reduce the amount of materials
Source reduction is the best solution to the problem
of municipal solid waste. If a sign will need continual updating and
changing, use an easily repaintable substrate or try a chalk board.
Instead of distributing flyers and handouts, allow visitors to create
their own "notes," taking away only what they need.
Avoid toxic materials
Avoid specifying materials that require toxic production
processes, such as chromed metals, pigments with lead and other metals,
and chlorine-bleached papers. If a particular material is essential
to the project, design so that the toxic parts are easy to remove
prior to disposal or recycling.
Design for reuse
Traveling exhibitions are usually one-shot deals,
with components (and even crating) custom-designed and custom-fabricated
for that project. By creating a furniture "vocabulary"--a modular
standard for exhibit components--we can accommodate a variety of configurations
and arrangements. Furniture can be designed in such a way that only
surface treatments and detailing need to change with each exhibition.
Use recyclable materials
Paper and paperboard, corrugated cardboard, wood,
aluminum, steel, copper, glass, textiles, rubber, and some plastics
can all be recycled. The outlets available to you depend on your location
and your perseverance. (If the manufacturer can't provide information
about a product's recyclability, call the trade association for that
industry.) The most difficult products to recycle are those that require
labor-intensive separation processes, such as plastic-backed paper
or adhesive-coated laminates. But if plastic is screwed to wood rather
than laminated, both the wood and the plastic could be recycled.
Use recycled materials
Many of the materials we recycle can be purchased,
in turn, already made into new products. Examples include paperboard
and papers, drywall, wood products, some plastic products, aluminum,
and glass. Some of these products are more expensive than similar
ones made from new resources, and some standard exhibition materials,
such as plastic laminates and acrylics, are not yet made of recycled
materials. But one of the most important things we all can do is to
create a demand for more variety and choice in recycled products by
purchasing them as often as we can.
Design for energy efficiency
Whenever possible, specify compact fluorescent
lamps, which produce a warm light, use one-quarter to one-third the
energy of incandescent lamps, and last 10 to 13 times as long. When
designing exhibitions to travel, consider the energy consumption required
to move them around the country, and try to keep their size and weight
to a minimum.
Use exhibition design to educate
Wear your environmental consciousness proudly.
Acknowledge suppliers of recycled or recyclable materials, and let
visitors know that you have chosen exhibition materials that save
resources, include nontoxic materials, or can be reused and recycled.
Provide outlets for visitors to return and recycle flyers and handouts.
Invite suggestions for processes and materials that would help you
do an even better job.
Kathleen McLean is director of the Center for Public Exhibition and Public Programs, The Exploratorium, San Francisco, California. This article is adapted from an appendix in her 1993 book Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions, published by ASTC. (Member price, $29; to order, call 202/783-7200 x140.)
Current Environmental Practices at the Exploratorium
We recycle all the usual metals the old-fashioned
way: Fisher comes by in a truck now and again and takes
it away. (Fisher is 78 years old.)
SCRAP (Scroungers Center for Reusable
Art Parts) takes an assortment of sundry items that we think
teachers might use. We give them everything from old phones
and lamps to plastic pieces and old "Tiling Table" exhibit
blocks. Scraps are cut into usable sizes.
Other old stuff goes to Building Resources,
another landfill-diversion program. They usually take exhibits
and exhibit parts, as well as lighting and construction
equipment. We have experienced a steep learning curve trying
to stay ahead of the need to dispose of large objects responsibly.
A little bit of lead time for planning adds up to a lot
of resource savings.
HMR and Marin Computer Resource recycle
our electronic equipment.
We used to take our Styrofoam peanuts
to Mail Boxes Etc., but now we have a vendor who picks them
We recycle old batteries (staff bring
their own from home to recycle as well).
We recycle all paper and cardboard.
We donate leftover latex paint to the
San Francisco Art Institute.
All gas-filled lights, such as fluorescents
and halogens, are recycled, and we are converting to lower-consumption
and electronic-ballast lighting.
Recent exhibits have been built with
a number of alternative wood products. We had a sales representative
come to a shop meeting to show us new materials, and we
are planning to try building exhibits with bamboo products.
We have generally reduced the quantity
and frequency with which we use toxic chemicals. We have
banned the use of certain solvents and oil paints, and have
limited the use of medium density fiberboard (mdf) and particle
board. We have also switched from a Formula 409 cleanser
to a wintergreen-oil equivalent.
Some shop users are actively looking
for ways to reduce energy consumption by paying increased
attention to existing exhibits.
We are also looking for lower-wattage
solutions, including use of fluorescent and LED components.
We went through our entire facility to
locate any unidentified chemical compounds. We had these
analyzed and paid for them to be taken away and disposed
of. (This included one 155-gallon drum of Vietnam-era weapons-cleaning
solvent that was donated years ago. We had no idea what
it was until we had it analyzed, since the labeling on the
drum wasn't helpful.) Having gone through this process,
the Exploratorium is in complete compliance with CalOSHA
We participate in the San Francisco "Very
Small Quantities Generated" (VSQG) program, a toxic-substances
disposal program run by the city for entities generating
small amounts of toxics (like leftover paint and cleaning
We have gone through all fluorescents
and machines that have capacitors and ballasts, getting
rid of all PCBs.
An incredible number of Exploratorium
staff bicycle to work. We won the "Bike to Work Day" contest
that the Presidio conducted for its tenants by having the most
people who checked in at their bike station.
Diane Whitmore is an exhibit developer and Andy Hirshfield is manager of operations at the Exploratorium, San Francisco.