Sustainable development

Good Cents in the Museum – a case study

Many people will wonder at first, what the connection is between immigration, museums and the environment?

For the last two and a half years Melbourne's Immigration Museum has been developing a unique and contemporary exhibition based on what identity actually means to those living in Australia today. The transient nature of 'identity' as a concept meant a high degree of creativity was required. The project team worked on this challenge for over two years, and in addition, managed to integrate a high degree of environmentally conscious initiatives. Identity: yours mine ours launched on May 9, 2011 and has an eight to ten year life span.

Identity exhibition gallery Identity exhibition gallery
Image: Andrew Scott-Young and Gina Batzakis
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Commitment

One of the first commitments the project team made came in 2009, with a collective agreement to seriously consider environmentally sustainable initiatives within the concept and development process. Each important element of an event – be it exhibition, festival, theatre production – needs a champion. Identity had champions for content, multimedia, lighting and so on, but it also had a champion for environmentally preferable initiatives.

Methodology

Keeping an eye on the overall production, and another on the possibilities of integrating sustainable initiatives into the proposed design, isn't that difficult.

Re-use (re-using stuff)

The demolition of the exhibition previously occupying the Identity gallery enabled the team to save various materials for use in Identity itself, and for use throughout the rest of Museum Victoria.

Around 18m² of laminated glass was saved and reinstalled into purpose-built Identity cases, a saving of around $8,000. Around 500kg of timber was saved for other uses as well. Graphic panels from the old exhibition were reused for education and decorative purposes in the Immigration Museum's education room and theatrette. The Public Programs department took possession of older bespoke plinths and cases, and fitted them with wheels for portability, thus extending their original life expectancy many times over. Another site rich in immigration history, Station Pier, is negotiating with the museum to take the remainder of the exhibition graphic panels in order to augment its premises on the pier.

It is worth noting however, that construction methods and material choices made much of the pre-used timber untenable. 'Screw don't glue' is definitely something the team has a deep understanding of after watching the demolition process and noting the broken and torn elements thrown in the skip. Undaunted, 'small steps' was a common maxim throughout, and one which reminded us that every environmental achievement enables future teams to take our lead, and go even further.

Identity exhibition gallery Identity exhibition gallery
Image: Andrew Scott-Young and Gina Batzakis
Source: Museum Victoria
 

De-materialisation (using less stuff)

Knowing that exhibition graphics are one of the most energy, material and maintenance intensive components of exhibition production, keeping a vigilant eye on the emerging design is crucial. Within Identity, the unique line-work developed by Gina Batsakis emerged as a major graphic feature. Previous work with a landscape artist/signwriter provided the impetus to explore similar possibilities within Identity, and although the team initially felt anxious, our early commitment to facilitate a sustainable outcome determined the contracting of a specialist painter.

The results are surprising – far superior to that which could have been produced mechanically by a printing machine. Early planning and decision-making enabled enough time for the extensive paintwork to take place – a crucial factor in an innovative environment. The final outcome consumed similar financial resources to that required from graphic printing and related materials. More importantly, the 150m² of painted graphic will require very simple, low energy maintenance across its ten year life – involving human dexterity, paint and a paintbrush. What could be more...sustainable!

This environmental achievement was important in terms of boosting the project team's satisfaction in their commitment, and gave an eye-opening model initiative to other Museum Victoria exhibition project teams. Scienceworks has taken up the scenic painter challenge and greatly benefited from it. Being brave and trialling new concepts has always been crucial, especially in the world of the museum. Have we forgotten this in our world of automation and programmed productivity? The Identity project team discovered an unexpected delight and control in veering away from machine-led production.

Some of these practices are standard in many smaller organisations throughout the country because of individual budget restrictions. Some are practices that have died out only in the last few years. Even so, it's liberating to explore and rediscover new frontiers, and if you can save money and time while simultaneously reducing your impact on the environment, it just makes good sense (and cents) to continue pushing those boundaries.

Carole Hammond
Immigration Museum Exhibition Manager
July 2011

Comments (1)

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Pete Wilson 27 July, 2011 09:41
Congratulations Carole and team. An inspired approach and commitment to tackling the complicated challenges ESD has resulted in an exhibition that is not only refined and engaging but a big step forward for establishing sustainable design for museums as an achievable standard rather than a desirable option.
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