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Inside this issue:

A Sustainable Strategy: Tracking the Triple Bottom Line

A Children's Museum Goes Green: The Path to LEED Certification

Walking the Walk:Conservation Practices at an Environmental Science Center

Environmental Guidelines for Exhibit Design

What's Reasonable to Expect? Gauging Visitors' Grasp of Conservation Messages

Changing Minds:Learning Outcomes in Environmental Education

Acting Locally: Community-Based Conservation Programming



Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: Nov/December 2003
November/December 2003
Environmental Awareness: What Can Science Centers Do?
Environmental Guidelines for Exhibit Design

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 up.

  • 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 and FedOSHA.

  • 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 chemicals).

  • 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.

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