Thursday, May 20, 2010

6 Keys To Greener Exhibit Design

OMSI (The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) in Portland, Oregon has long been concerned about "green design" and the choices and approaches that museums can take to create truly sustainable exhibit environments.

I'm an advisor on OMSI's NSF-funded project on Sustainability,  part of which will involve creating a set of models and guidelines for the museum field in order to promote more reflective practice about "green" exhibit design.  (You can download a PDF article about OMSI's progress, as well as the "working model" of the OMSI Green Exhibit Certification assessment tool via the NAME website.)

During my recent trip to Portland to discuss the OMSI Sustainability project, I got the chance to tour OMSI's exhibit workshop, which, besides being big fun, gave me 6 takeaways regarding green exhibit design to share with ExhibiTricks readers through a mini photographic tour. Enjoy!

1) Internal Capacity IS Local Design

You don't necessarily need a huge shop like OMSI's at your museum, but if you don't have some minimal "internal capacity" to fix, prototype, and build at least some of your own exhibit elements and program props, how can you foster local design (which is often the greenest design) at your museum?

2) Sharing Models of Green Design Helps Everyone

Ben Fleskes, the Production Director at OMSI, shared the model of the simple math exhibit shown above.  From the locally-produced metal framing materials, levelers produced in house, powder coating for durability, an exhibit idea adapted from the ASTC Exhibit Cheapbooks, a recycled (from the OMSI Shop Racks) plyboo top, and the whole thing assembled by a community volunteer, the component above has lots of nice green design approaches embedded in it.

I will certainly be encouraging the OMSI folks to include models and examples of green exhibit design from the museum field into the final sustainable exhibit design project materials.

3) Materials DO Matter 

Some designers crab about sustainable design discussions (or any design discussions) degenerating into a drool-fest over the latest, coolest materials.  While this is often the case, it is still important to be aware of the materials available, their use, and most importantly, their re-use.

It was clear from the shop tour, that not only are the OMSI staff extremely careful about materials (PVC is just a non-starter) they are just as thoughtful about how to reutilize or repurpose materials from old exhibits into new exhibits.

4) Involving the Community is an Integral Part of Sustainable Design

Here Ben shows off work on a ball machine prototype being developed by community volunteers using lots of creatively "scavenged" materials from the OMSI Exhibits Shop.  It was clear throughout my visit to Portland how much OMSI included the community in their exhibit building efforts.

5) Green Design Includes Extensive Prototyping

Here Todd Kehoe shows us some cool nanotechnology prototypes involving reused materials that were mechanically fastened (not glued) together, so they can be easily modified.  Similarly, graphics were produced using low-impact materials that can be easily changed and modified.  Prototyping ultimately saves time and money by allowing for more thoughtful materials and design solutions in the final exhibit components.

6) Green Design Can be Fun!

There often seems to be a perception that sustainable exhibits need to be plain, rough-hewn affairs made of sticks and mud without a trace of color, fun, or design flair.  To disprove that notion, Ben showed us the beginnings of his desk prototype (created from reused extrusions and other OMSI shop scrap by volunteers, of course!) to harness the nervous fidgeting of a worker's feet through a treadle system and transform the motion into energy to power simple office devices like lights or smart phones.

Thanks to the entire OMSI crew for helping move the conversation about sustainability and green exhibit design forward for the entire museum field!

Have some of your own green exhibit design tips or resources to share?  Let us know about them in the "Comments" section below.

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  1. Great post, Paul! The treadle bit reminded me of something I read recently about office desks being modded with treadmills to encourage people to walk slowly as they work.

    One question: who are the "community volunteers" who are involved in exhibit development? Retired engineers and scientists? Teens? Are they formal OMSI volunteers or is this something more informal?

  2. @Nina

    My sense is that the volunteers who work with exhibits is a varied group.

    But someone like Ben or Tod from OMSI could best answer that question.

    If you need their direct contact info let me know.

  3. Hi Paul,
    Great posting!

    How is Green Museum Design dealing with lighting?

    Compact fluorescent bulbs use about 70% less energy but have significant flickering (causes stress on eyes and brain) and many CFL's still have significant color shift (though full spectrum is now available). Arrays of Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) in red, white, and blue can save about 99% energy and give good color light (depending on the array) but they are comparatively expensive devices and do not provide as intense light.

    Any "Green" recommendations? Standards?

  4. @Michael

    The lighting landscape is changing quickly, and reasonably priced LED light bulbs seem to be on the horizon.

    The important point you raise, however, is that "green" design is a much broader-based set of solutions (like lighting) than a checklist of materials.

  5. hi paul-
    all of what you say is great. its funny that with all of the discussions of "green" that the word does get tossed about quite a bit, along with "sustainable". in many sectors now its a catch phrase for marketing, and sometimes as a mask.

    Reusability, Recyclability, Awareness of Environmental Impact. Everything falls into those three catagories. But there are always trade-offs in areas when making choices, and many people don’t want to make those trade-offs unless they have no other choices.
    I’ve been designing museum exhibits since my early days at OMSI and now tradeshow booths, and the concepts of GREEN and SUSTAINABLE are pretty big now. Unfortunately, I think for the wrong reasons in some cases. Companies want to produce green because of the message they are producing to get more market share, not necessarily because the approach is smart. its hard to see, typical business approach. Some do it for the right reasons, though, and we find the best methods so as to not break their bank.

    I've always enjoyed OMSI's approach, this is no different.

  6. Paul, very interesting post! We just had an article published in "The Exhibitionist" about this very topic. We meant it to be another entry into this on-going and very complex conversation, which we think needs to be pushed beyond the simplicities of the checklist, as you pointed out.

    Your comment regarding "green" being a broad-based set of solutions is exactly what we heard over and over when interviewing people across the museum and exhibit design/fabrication spectrum. What's the point of using Plyboo on a dozen exhibit cases if you have to ship it from China, or keep floodlights burning all night on the "signature building" that houses them? Certainly, part of our work as designers and fabricators is helping our clients make truly intelligent decisions that support the sustainability of the organization, its community and the planet.

    If you're interested, we put the article up on our website. Just click on the lower right-hand corner of the home page: