In a groundbreaking initiative, the Design Museum, in collaboration with the Urge Collective, has spearheaded a significant stride towards environmental sustainability within the realm of museum exhibitions. This collaborative effort has culminated in a pivotal report that offers a comprehensive roadmap for reducing the carbon footprint associated with the design, construction, and operation of temporary and touring museum exhibitions.

The genesis of this report was under the auspices of the Future Observatory at the Design Museum. This initiative was generously supported by a consortium including the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It marks a notable endeavor within a broader series of cultural policy fellowships aimed at aligning the UK cultural sector with the nation’s ambitious net-zero environmental targets.

Simultaneously, complementary reports have emerged, such as the one by DSDHA Architects, which urges cultural entities to pivot towards retrofitting existing infrastructures over new constructions. Similarly, the collective initiative South Ken ZEN+ is making headways in developing a comprehensive sustainability reporting framework for diverse organizations along London’s prestigious Exhibition Road.

This journey began with a pilot project in 2021, where Urge Collective was tasked with conducting an environmental audit of the Design Museum’s Waste Age exhibition using the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology. This foundational work not only paved the way for the development of an Impact Model carbon calculator but also served as a beacon for sustainable practices in future exhibitions. The project’s momentum continued into 2022, with the publication of a guide to lessen exhibitions’ environmental impacts, further refined through workshops and sector-wide consultations in early 2023.

The report illuminates several key findings and recommendations. It emphasizes the necessity for cultural institutions to publicly acknowledge the climate crisis, setting clear policies and targets. The feedback from workshops underscores the importance of embedding environmental goals across all organizational levels, akin to the integration of diversity and inclusion principles.

Despite the enthusiasm for sustainable practices, the report identifies a disparity in commitment across the sector, hindered by cost considerations and a lack of incentivization. It proposes the adoption of a “carbon budget” alongside financial planning to encourage sustainable decision-making. The report also suggests that extending the duration of fewer exhibitions could enhance material reuse and reduce the overall carbon footprint.

A notable barrier to sustainable practices is the procurement process. The report advocates for the inclusion of environmental impact criteria in tender documents and suggests the development of standardized tendering documents to ensure best practices. Moreover, it highlights the contractual and regulatory challenges that deter material reuse, pointing out the need for a shift in contractual agreements to encourage waste minimization.

The research advocates for the adoption of a standardized carbon calculator to aid in planning and decision-making. It points out the necessity of developing tools that are comprehensive in assessing material use in exhibition design, recommending the integration of such tools with design software to facilitate sustainable decision-making.

In conclusion, this report not only serves as a testament to the collaborative efforts of the Design Museum and Urge Collective but also as a clarion call to the wider cultural sector. It lays down a pragmatic and visionary path towards sustainability, urging institutions to embrace innovation and sustainability as integral components of their operational ethos. The full report, along with additional resources and insights, is available through the Future Observatory, providing a valuable resource for institutions committed to making a positive environmental impact.

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