Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Green Museum: An Interview With Sarah Brophy

Sarah Brophy is a writer, museum consultant and a LEED Accredited Professional. She works with museums and historic sites to develop sustainable institutions through grant funding, green practice and mainstreaming.

She is co-author of the new book The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice and author of Is Your Museum Grant-Ready? Assessing Your Organization’s Potential For Funding.

She grew up in Rochester, NY, and worked at the Genesee Country Museum & Village for her first museum job. She has a B.A. in American Studies from Sweet Briar College, VA, and an M.A. in American History from the College of William & Mary with a certificate in History Administration from Colonial Williamsburg. For nearly 20 years she lived and worked in New England; now she and her family live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She works, speaks and writes for organizations in the United States, and increasingly in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Sarah was kind enough to answer some questions regarding green museums and green design for ExhibiTricks:

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to write "The Green Museum" with Elizabeth Wylie?

Five years ago Elizabeth asked me to write a grant proposal for a client of her architectural firm. The topic was an energy assessment and green design solutions. When I finished we both said: “Why they heck aren’t museums doing this?” So we pitched an idea for Museum News. Being Green: Museums in the Green Movement came out in Fall 2006.

From that the Building Museums Conference folks asked us to give a plenary session in 2007; while we were there AltaMira asked us to write a book. Elizabeth and I have both been in museums for years in Massachusetts, she as a curator and director, while I have been a development person and director. Since we share some experiences, and have different interests, too, I think that makes the writing partnership much stronger. We push each other and build on each other at the same time. As we were finishing the book, The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice, we wrote The Greener Good: The Enviro-Active Museum for the new Museum magazine, and now we’re finishing one for AAM on energy and the future of collections care.

What has prompted your interest in "green" design and materials?

As an independent professional helping museums raise grant money, I was desperate to find ways for my museum clients to do more with less, and to build more ‘oomph’ into their projects to make them the most competitive ones in the proposal pile. My rule is that money has to do more than one thing – Hope Alswang, now of RISD, gave me that ‘aha’ experience. Green is EXACTLY that – saves money, achieves the central purpose, works well AND is good for the environment all at the same time. Sure, critics will find the expensive parts of green and complain, but folks who want to find smart green choices will easily discover those that cost the same or less than traditional ones, are easy to implement, and add value to the physical plant and the educational program.

I love that green materials and design just make sense and are so lovely to see and touch. Kresge Foundation staff will tell you that they support integrated design methods because they produce the best result, and gosh darn if the best result doesn’t repeatedly turn out to be a green one!

The bottom line is that I believe green is a moral imperative for museums. That doesn’t mean a museum has to be all-green and all-green now. It means that we have a responsibility to thoughtfully, energetically, learn about green and begin strategically implementing its principles in our work and operations. I believe it is a moral imperative because museums are:

• charitable institutions of public benefit
• stewards of objects, animals, plants and environments
• and educational institutions with very deep, broad connections to the community IN the environment we’re trying to save.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) resources for people interested in finding out more about eco-friendly design or materials?

The Consumer’s Guide To Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It’s written by Warren Leon and Michael Brower. It’s nearly 10 years old, but it ages well, remains one of the most popular environmental books out there, and – get this – Warren Leon used to work at Old Sturbridge Village. His wife Cynthia Robinson now runs the Tufts Museum Studies Program – so it comes from good stock. The book is a great primer for how to make green choices. From that basis you can move on to museum decisions.

Offline, of course, there’s the opportunity to touch, see and feel. If you’re in Boston, The Green Roundtable's Showroom Nexus, is a great way to see for yourself what the options are, and then adapt them to your personal needs, or take the ideas to your designer and say ‘hey, what about these materials?’. Check with and see if you the local chapter can direct you to show rooms or sites where you can see and handle a variety of green materials, research the materials and their providers, and learn about how to use them best.

Online, the best resource is The Green Design Wiki out of UC Davis under Tim McNeil’s auspices. I see you’ve interviewed him on your blog. (Click here to see our ExhibiTricks interview with Tim.) He is part of the strategic planning committee of AAM’s new professional interest committee PIC Green and we’re delighted to have him.

And for those who need a good introduction to green exhibits The Green Exhibits Checklist on the ‘Rethink’ page at Madison Children’s Museum’s site is a good primer on what to think about. Learning to think green is a critical first step folks often overlook. They think that if they just go buy the right materials, that it’s good enough. Green is a process, a concept, not a ‘thing’.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing more eco-friendly exhibitions?

First, start with your local hardware store or home store, your paint and glue supplier. You’d be amazed how many different items come in low/no-VOC varieties now, and staff can quickly direct you to them. These days they often cost the same, or nearly the same as traditional products, so don’t use cost to hide behind!

Second, think reduce, reuse, recycle. The less you throw out and build new, the less you add to the landfills, pay for, and inflict on the environment through painting, printing chemicals. Small museums already have good environmental habits developed from penny-pinching; use them to your advantage:

• Reuse cases, pedestals, platforms and movable walls, and share them amongst colleagues in the area.
• Think about designing so components can be reused as is, or only somewhat remodeled to fit the next design.
• Paint smaller: you don’t have to paint a whole wall for a full effect – the area around the exhibit area, or individual objects can be even more effective

Can you tell us more about the Green Museums Wiki?

The Green Museums Wiki is starting to pick up speed. It’s not nearly as slick and handsome as is the Green Design Wiki of Tim McNeil, but for a collaborative site, it works. I created it so that everyone out there quietly ‘doing green’ can ask their questions or share their experiences. Anyone can join and post. That’s the value of it: green is moving so quickly, and so many folks are doing exciting green things, that print books and magazines can’t fill the need. Your readers should feel encouraged, nay begged, to go to the site, add pages, add comments, ask questions, post images and videos, and use it to brag about their work so that others can join in the movement!

Have you come across any obvious examples of overselling or "greenwashing" in any particular areas of exhibition design or materials?

I know this more from a whole-building construction perspective. Some museums’ plans to build green did not materialize to the extent intended simply because construction folks didn’t keep an eye on the green details, or the building committee let some green aspects be engineered out.

Other museums came to green part-way through the building process, so they missed some opportunities, yet are still considered green. Well, they are green, and let’s give them credit for what is honestly green AND ask them for proof – real data like the nutrition facts boxes on food. I’d like to see those for exhibits, buildings and operations. It’s incredibly important to focus on the positive – what green we do do, be specific it about it, and then let the market and our internal compass direct us ever more toward green.

I'm interested in green aspects of printing and graphics for exhibitions. Do you have any pointers you could offer in that area?

Be creative; search, search, search for better green options; and pressure your suppliers to help you find the greenest options. Whether or not you get a really green option for paints, inks and graphic materials, be vigilant about using as little as you can to still produce the exhibit you want, and then think about the end use of the materials.

For Green Graphics - I have the greatest pain when I see those banners outside museums and along whole streets advertising a show. Before you go that way, plan for the end use of those materials, and if you have an end use – a re-seller, an auction, a bag maker, etc., then find someone like Green Banners to talk to about making what you need. Ask questions, though – they say the materials are recyclable…well will they take them back, or do you have to go to heroics to recycle them? That’s where your end-game comes in.

BetterWall will give you a portion of the sales income for your banners. You get a little cash, someone gets a wall covering, and you delay the trip to the landfill; better yet, put recycling instructions on the banner.
Relan can remake your banners into items for your gift shop. The Walker Art Center uses them.
Timbuk2 is getting ready to offer their popular messenger bags made out of reused exhibit banners.

For walls and exhibit furniture - when you use paint and ink, if you can’t use or find water-based (which is even better for the environment than some soy-based inks) use a vendor who re-uses or recycles the leftovers, or you should have a plan to do so yourself. Actually, any vendor should have that plan and be able to describe it in detail.

Last year Montserrat College of Art Gallery had a great program where people dropped off their used paint. The students sorted it all and re-mixed a line of colors that they packaged to give gave away to exhibit visitors. They kept some to use on campus and in the gallery – awfully creative.

For print collateral – no question, just figure out how to do it on 100% post-industrial or post-consumer waste paper, with green printing techniques, and a plan for recycling. Limit the amount you print and distribute. Better yet, create gallery cards that visitors reuse and leave at the museum, so nothing goes home and then into the landfill.

What new green exhibit techniques/materials look especially promising?

I’m amazed by the speed of improvements in energy-efficient lighting. That’s where museums will save the most and do the most good for the environment. Bill Gilmore at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum has great relationships with lighting vendors. He tests their materials free of charge and learns about what works best for his uses. The rate of change in the lighting industry is impossible to keep up with unless you have this kind of partnership. The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia worked with EwingCole to improve their energy efficiency in exhibit lighting. They are so happy with their first lighting re-installation that they’re scheduling more.

Don’t listen to the traditional complaints about energy efficient lighting where bulbs don’t give you the colors you need, the dimming you want, or the price you hope for. Prices are dropping rapidly and more and more types of bulbs are becoming dimmable. As for light colors - set up a blind test for yourself. See if you can really tell any difference. Often it’s an assumed difference, not a perceptible one for most viewers. And keep rethinking your lighting sources. By the time you plan your next exhibit all that you learned last time will have changed.

I worry we’ll see some fall-out from disappointment in some green exhibit materials, fall-out because we don’t see miracles in a product or we didn’t use the product properly. Those errors will cloud the prospects for more green exhibit components. This is a very new area and there is a lot of trial and error to go through –let’s embrace the opportunity to try new things, educate the public and ourselves as we explore new areas, and then build on what we learn. Museums are places of learning for the public AND the staff – why be shy about that? Tell the public an exhibit is also a test case for green practices …they’ll eat it up.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?

I’m a sucker for any museum, so the list is long. For green museums:
The Green House, at The National Building Museum, was a major one for me.
I can’t wait to get to the NBM’s new Green Community exhibition or to President Lincoln’s Cottage at The Soldier’s Home and its Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center. The VEC is a LEED Certified renovation.

But I’m most at home in an open air museum. My recent visit to Strawbery Banke, where I recently took a garden tour and learned about all their green initiatives was a real inspiration and remains a highlight.

For not-necessarily-green museums: During our family’s sabbatical in England in 2004-2005 (with a few trips to France) I loved and was fascinated by the experience of watching the public worshipping great collections in The Louvre and the British Museum. My personal exploration into all things Roman, particularly Bath, and taking part in the early stages of a dig on a Roman Villa in Kent, was a treat.

Most recently, two of my top-ten museum experiences were a personal best-tour-I’ve-ever had, and it was led by a volunteer who offered the tour when he overheard my questions at the exhibit entrance, at the Naples Art Museum, FL, and my October visit to the Pointe-à-Callière, Musée d'archéologie et d'histoire de Montréal during the Quebec Museums Society conference. The Archeology Museum in Montreal is a good example of an exhibit experience that has a ‘hook’ for the public – a sound and image introduction that marvelously recreates four centuries, populates it with human beings, and tells a great story in an efficient and engaging way. It satisfies the younger generations, while preparing any visitor for the stunning experience of the underground visit to the dig site and the foundations of early Montreal.

My next focus, when green becomes the norm, will be mainstreaming museums. Mainstreaming is making our museums part of daily public consciousness, making them a natural part of daily life. But first, we have to renew the public connection to museums, and the Archaeology Museum in Montreal is an example of a classy way to create that bridge to excite museum-going.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?

I worked with the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, MD, to offer a free workshop for area nonprofit organizations on greening their campus.

I’m helping the Maryland Historical Society raise the money for HVAC system upgrades that will reduce their dependency upon a single provider for steam, improve efficiencies, and seriously reduce the break-downs and system damage from poor steam.

With Connecticut Landmarks, I am working with Bill Hammer of HKT Architects to help CTL green their historic properties and develop a program to help other historic sites in the region become more sustainable.

I’ve just become an Advisory Board Member for Tusculum Institute at Sweet Briar College where I was an undergraduate. Tusculum Institute will be a great resource for exploring and promoting historic preservation and sustainable practice.

And I’m teaching a green museum course in George Washington Universities Museum Studies program next spring, and starting January 8th I’m doing another three-part webinar for AASLH on green at historic sites and museums.

What I’d really like to do, too, is start a membership roundtable where a dozen or so museums banded together to learn together about green, and to implement new practices while sharing what they learn. It’s so hard to spend the time to research options, and test them, why not have a group that designates a green advisor who will do the research for you, then the group can test the ideas they like and share the results? It shortens the learning curve for everyone, saves money on staff time, and pools knowledge to make us all more efficient. Green practice is now the expectation for museums and museum staff, but there’s a lot of learning we all have to do to keep up.

Thanks again to Sarah for her insight on green design issues!

Special for ExhibiTricks Readers!
Just join the Green Museums Wiki between December 10 and midnight December 31st and you’ll be automatically entered to win a free paperback copy of The Green Museum. Simply provide your real name and contact information when you join.

One lucky winner will be announced on January 1 on the Green Museums Wiki homepage.
And – if you already have The Green Museum and would prefer a copy of Is Your Museum Grant-Ready? instead of a second copy of TGM, just let Sarah know that if you're the winner.

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