Sustainability is a core issue for the institutions across the museum and science centre community, and at the core of this question is how sustainability can be worked into the different and diverse activities across these venues. And what sustainability even means in these different contexts.
Travelling exhibitions always risk being an example of one of the least sustainable activities of a museum: requiring shipping, wasting wrapping material, reprinting labels, and being subject to rising costs and even failure. This can present a potential danger for museums, especially those hosting blockbuster exhibitions. However, can they be a positive force for a museum, and for a wider area? How can temporary exhibitions be part of a sustainable economic and cultural rejuvenation? What effect do travelling exhibitions have on the wider economy? Can they increase overall sustainability? This article will look at the aspects that make touring exhibitions economically and environmentally sustainable.
This article is based on a session presented at the UK Museums Association conference in Brighton, United Kingdom, that took place on October 4, 2019.
Sustainability in a wider context, the economy
We mostly think about sustainability in terms of environmental and ecological footprint, but we often ignore the nuance in its fuller meaning of a “quality of being able to continue over a period of time” 1. In the context of museums, ICOM considers both parts: “… sustainability is the dynamic process of museums, based on the recognition and preservation of tangible and intangible heritage with the museums responding to the needs of the community. To be sustainable, museums, through their mission, must be an active and attractive part of the community by adding value to the heritage and social memory”.2 ICOM includes the community in this definition showing that this is not only about the ecology, but about the wider economy, the full eco-system of museums: visitors, stakeholders, local and global impact. This is backed by the Canadian Museums Association report, considering that a museum is sustainable if “it assessed the impact of its activities on the environment, on the quality of life of its stakeholders and on the economy.” The economy is obviously a corner stone here. Can you care about sustainability if the economics are not viable?
From an economic point of view, travelling exhibitions can be a great addition at the local and regional level. It is widely accepted that cultural venues, museum clusters and visitor attractions are a true asset for tourism. People may stay one more night just to visit this specific place. This has a multiplier effect, leading to more hotel nights, more visitors, more restaurants, more shops; all leading to increased business and more jobs! As stated by Pop and Borza,
“Diversification of museums’ functions is characterized by expanding the traditional role, i.e., keeping and researching cultural heritage, to include, directly or indirectly, new roles, such as functioning as: venues for experience sharing, spaces for interaction, playing or education, instruments of mass culture communication that contributes to improvement of social life, engines for economic development of their respective communities, tourist attractions within cultural centers, sources of income, and instruments for manpower employment. The new functions and roles that museums have to play, therefore, justify the accent laid on consideration of these institutions as important resources for territorial development.” 3
When TEC in Belfast (located across from the Titanic Belfast attraction) hosted the Games of Thrones4 exhibition in 2019, it was not only a one-time exhibition, it was also a fantastic way of promoting the region where the TV series had been filmed, and to contribute to a long-term tourism and investment plan. The “real” Winterfell castle is only 40 minutes away from the visitor attraction, what better way to increase the number of tourists to Northern Ireland?
Whether it is for a venue or a whole region, an equilibrium between the cultural, economic, social and natural is the best way to achieve a full and holistic sustainable strategy. Without any economic sustainability, museums will not be able to achieve an equilibrium, especially in the context of private museums, or public museums suffering from cuts in funding.
As a virtuous circle, an attractive venue will attain a certain economic status, allowing enough funds to fulfill all traditional cultural functions, e.g. heritage preservation, education and conservation. This is part but not all of their social mission which with success and funding could be widened to include community outreach, and more prominently promote and incorporate the ecological aspects such as recycling and carbon footprints. Hence, a travelling exhibition is undoubtedly a source of economic revitalisation but can also transform progress to attain a cultural target, for instance, by attracting new audiences.
Sustainability is also accessibility, in all meanings of the word. Accessibility is at stake when exhibitions are taken to places where there is a need for something new, not only in big cities, but also in second or third tier cities and towns. And this is particularly true for those where development opportunities have been overlooked, for example in Margate, UK, with the construction of the Turner Contemporary Gallery or with the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. But these do not necessarily have to be blockbuster exhibitions or large brand new galleries, there is room for all and a need for every type of travelling exhibitions in these less central locations. In France, for instance, regional venues such as Cap’Sciences have a rich temporary exhibitions programming, and they both produce and host external exhibitions. Also, some venues do not have the resources to create a temporary exhibition themselves once a year or more, considering the investment, resources and personnel required. Hosting an external exhibition in this sense may give some fresh air to the exhibition teams, allowing them to create maybe every two years their very own content, and in-between, focus on the outreach and communication missions to the community.
Some travelling exhibitions have also shown commitment in attaining eco-friendly objectives. This is for example the case of Universcience (grouping Cité des Sciences et de l’industrie and Palais de la Découverte, France) who developed in 2009 the Engineering Earth5 exhibition in co-production with venues in France. The exhibition, which focused on ecological architecture made of organic materials, was presented at the Cité des Sciences and toured between co-producing venues in France before going to Canada. The project included some eco-conception principles, from using recyclable materials to considering the life of the exhibition, questioning the life-cycle of the project and considering for instance giving exhibits to other venues.
So, travelling exhibitions themselves are ecological in a sense: why constantly re-invent the wheel? Of course, there might be some adaptations, but again, the core of the exhibition is reused. Shipping remains a major issue, but it is important to note that some models are still less polluting than others, especially when trains can be used, or when shipped materials are really designed for the less impacting transport. Not all exhibitions can fit into containers, but there is room for improvement in the reduction of carbon footprint in the actual shipping of travelling productions.
Environmental Sustainability in Travelling Exhibitions: a case study from the Science Museum Group
In general, travelling exhibitions have a lower carbon footprint compared to one-off temporary exhibitions as they are effectively recycled by visiting several venues over a longer life span. However, what can make travelling exhibitions less sustainable is the use of unrecyclable materials and environmentally unfriendly transport. To address this, travelling exhibitions must be designed and fabricated with materials in mind that are recyclable and reusable. This can include whether the materials can be reused across the Group’s sites. If not across the Group, then can materials be given to the host venue? This was the case with the recent Soyuz capsule national tour where structures were repurposed for other exhibitions. Additionally, materials can also be reused by giving them to a third party. For example, transport contractors can reuse touring crates that are no longer needed by the museum.
The Science Museum Group (SMG) recognizes that climate change is one of the most significant challenges facing society today and have made it a core part of the Group’s strategy. SMG is currently acting to reduce energy and increase efficiency throughout its estate. This is partly through its masterplan redevelopment of its buildings, but also includes projects such as its Solar Farm at the National Collections Centre in Wroughton, where 88 acres of land is devoted to generating solar energy for the national grid. In addition to a Sustainability Guiding Team who advocate sustainability across the organisation, there is a dedicated Group Sustainability Partner who oversees the overall sustainability of the Group’s sites and assesses what can be done to increase sustainability across the Group and form a Sustainability Strategy.
Aside from increasing sustainability across the Group’s museums, sustainability is a fundamental feature in the design and management of its travelling exhibitions. SMG travelling exhibitions are a relatively new area of engagement for the museums. Established in 2013 out of the tour Collider, since then SMG’s travelling exhibitions have reached over 2 million visitors and have travelled to over 40 countries. This has not only provided STEM education and increased public engagement, but it has also allowed the Group to reach new audiences and find new partners to collaborate with.
Another way that SMG has made their travelling exhibitions more sustainable is by digitising the original exhibition and transforming it to become a digital package that can then be hired by a tour partner. Known as a Blueprint Pack Exhibition, in a single link these packages contain all the content and digital assets to produce a modern, educational and dynamic exhibition on a contemporary topic. The tour partner can decide which materials to use, whether to display their own objects from their collection and to adapt the content to fit their space. The concept has been very successful and has created a sustainable way to broaden participation and increase partnerships. The concept also allows the exhibition to reach smaller and previously inaccessible venues, and for the same exhibition to be displayed in multiple places simultaneously.
For the Science Museum Group, incorporating sustainability into its museum policy will never be a fully completed objective. There will always be further scope for development of new concepts, better use of materials and more intelligent designs that can increase sustainability.
Sustainability in travelling exhibitions is about the topics and stories you focus on, where you tell them and how you choose to tell them. Visitors – and indeed, venues – often seek more social topics, and stories linked to ecology and environmental concerns. This was highlighted in a survey by Imagine Exhibitions in 2019, which they shared with all TEN6 (Traveling Exhibitions Network) members at the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). Not surprisingly at all, there is an increasing demand for exhibitions about climate change and ecology. At Ecsite 2019 in Copenhagen, the session “What’s new in touring exhibitions?” concluded with a similar assessment.
Travelling exhibitions also have a real impact on the community. Beside from kickstarting economic development of an area, they help become part of a foundation for wider economic investment and opportunity. They generate events and rich associated programming, sometime connected to “pop culture” topics, often making it possible for some visitors to enter a cultural venue for the first time. This allows exhibitions to provide not just a fun and memorable day out with one’s family or school, but also to form a social link between culture and pleasure. And ultimately isn’t the overarching aim of cultural venues and visitors’ attractions to disseminate culture, whatever form it takes?
Finally, by leading innovation and development on new concepts, touring exhibitions can increase the sustainability of museums by providing reusable and recyclable components to tell new stories with less resources.
Sustainability in travelling exhibitions in one glance
Less containers (but still, shipping containers!)
Less expensive for host's budget
Content / Material
Reuse, Reduce, Recycle, Digital labels
Consultants or team's time, More time for outreach
Topics / themes related to a sustainable living
In-house productions require more time, sponsoring, workers and overall COSTS
Can adapt to various spaces, More potential venues, Make the most of your exhibition space