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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