Going Green Exhibitions Survey – Where are we now, 10 years on?

Today’s Guest Post is by Stephen Mellor, formerly Exhibitions and Displays Co-ordinator at Tate Modern in London, England.

My turning green

Exhibition management in the museum and gallery sector had been for me a mid-career shift. By training I had come from film and television scenery design. At Tate Modern, using my design background, I slowly took away, from expensive contracted architect and exhibition designers who were usually commissioned for each project, the design and production elements of managing art gallery exhibition making and brought them ‘in-house’ – onto my desk.

The standard practice was a new build for each exhibition change resulting in huge amounts of building waste material and the frustration of dusty rubbish clearance being via the art-lift access. In addition, turnaround times were being compressed, as were the project budgets – nothing new in that of course.

Waste waiting for clearance from gallery space.Photo courtesy of the author.

I decided I wanted to learn more about what other galleries and museums internationally were doing in ‘greening’ their work practices and so in the first half of 2008 launched an on-line survey which I requested my international colleagues.to complete

The results of that 2008 survey can be found here

Meanwhile, I had decided we needed to make some changes at Tate Modern and searched for a re-usable walling system in an attempt to reduce waste. In discussion with a commercial display manufacturer, we came up with a totally de-mountable and re-usable gallery modular-walling system, dimensioned specifically for our building.

I admit to being a quietly subversive sustainability operator in the gallery and without notice inserted a 4800 x 2000 x 100mm (h x w x d) new walling system segment into our usual exhibition build. Apart from the art-handlers no one noticed this module. I re-used this modular segment in the following exhibition, re-assembling it in a new position in the gallery.

Having proved the system worked, I negotiated with the supplier, to acquire all the temporary walling we needed across our two main temporary exhibition galleries totalling some 2,200 m2 of display space. This one-off purchase was ‘used silently’ across the six following major exhibition project budgets, thereby not frightening the finance department horses.

Admittedly the modular walling is designed to look like the permanent gallery walls and the Tate Modern galleries are the traditional white boxes, so yes, there can be specialised display design challenges in using a system approach but of course we could incorporate special builds alongside our system as needed. The unused aluminium system parts and MDF panels are stored ‘on the floor’ within the 1000 mm thick walls. These thick walls, with their easy door access, could house inset digital screens and all associated cabling and equipment. 

Special key assembly aluminium framing with snap-on panels.Photo courtesy of the author.
Framing floor to ceiling enclosing lightboxes or building columns.Photo courtesy of the author.

Around this time, Tate appointed an in-house Environment and Sustainability officer as Government agencies were beginning to face such issues and requiring sustainability activity reports, so my walling figures were a useful show and tell.

See Environmental Sustainability at the Tate.

Looking smug. 2011. Photo courtesy of the author.

In the first two years after Tate Modern introduced the walling system and after 10 exhibition changes we saved going to landfill waste:

  • 10,494 running metres of metal jumbo stud
  • 4,696 m2 of mdf  – if stacked this would be a pile of 18mm MDF sheets to a height of 29.3 metres!
  • an approximate value in materials at purchase prices of £77,340

In addition all of this not moving through the building or in the elevator, reduced cleaning costs, and delivery and removal transport charges.

Wilting greens

Late 2012 was my step into retirement, and like any grey ghost, I still hover in the background of the industry.

The situation now is that Tate Modern is still using the walling to some extent, but it was not incorporated into the new extension building galleries and exhibition build practices appear to have reverted to a mix with more ‘new build’. Statistics on green savings in this part of the gallery operations are not being maintained, though I hear this may be re-activated soon.

So I ask the question – can individual green warriors keep on sustainability paths without supportive institutional change and committed support?

Stephen Mellor

So where are we now?

At a social event gathering of the Sustainability for Exhibitions in Museums (SEFM) – a UK-based informal network of museum and gallery professionals who want to promote and encourage sustainability in all we do in this field, with a particular focus on the production and staging of exhibitions – I was encouraged to put the same survey on-line again to see what has been achieved in the last decade.

The currently still active online “Exhibitions – Going Green Survey 2018 – Ten Years On”, explores again how environmentally sustainable or ‘green’ our industry’s work practices and institutions currently are, compared with the results of the original survey conducted in 2008.

The aim of the comparison is to assess, in the context of environmental sustainability, how our approaches to exhibition-making have changed during the last ten years.

  • Have there been meaningful environmentally conscious advances since the original survey?
  • Have tighter budgets hindered sustainability initiatives?
  • Is it just too expensive to be ‘green’?
  • Is it too hard to be ‘green’?
  • Is it too time-consuming to be ‘green’?
  • How can we encourage green principles within our institutions?
  • How can we co-operate and share ideas internationally to achieve green gains?
  • Can we [and should we] set internationally agreed industry standards that we can monitor and work towards?

Survey invitation

We are looking for survey responses from museums or galleries of any kind – multiple sites may want to submit by each major site.

The 2018 survey link – active until 31 July 2019. DOUBLE CLICK and then wait as it takes some time to connect

In order to prepare and gather your information to complete this ten years on survey you can preview the survey first in its entirety by downloading the pdf at the following link – and then start the survey when you are ready

2018 Exhibitions Going Green Questions Preview DOUBLE CLICK and then wait as it takes some time to connect

This 2018 Survey is based on the original 2008 Survey so we can analyse ‘like for like’. We recognise though we may have advanced quite some way since then and that the questions/topics may have been overtaken by progress.

Most questions are ‘green’ and a few new ones ‘financial’ as we are taking this opportunity to see how [to what extent?] tight budgets have affected exhibition programming and museum operations – perhaps with green benefits.

The actual survey will take roughly 40+ minutes but you may need extra time to gather information. You can stop and start until finally selecting the ‘Submit’ button.

The results from this 2018 survey will be added to and compared with the previous 2008 data we have collected and will be shared later in 2019. All respondents will be sent the survey analysis report by email.

We understand how pressured your work-time is, so thank you in advance for your input. If you have any enquiries or questions about the survey, please email: stephen.mellor@chalkface.net.au

Please forward this information and links to any contacts you have and who you think might be interested in taking the survey – we want to share/connect as widely as possible across the world and join up the many green initiatives, supporters and enthusiasts that are already ‘green exhibitions’ advocates.

Thank you,

Stephen Mellor

This survey is a volunteer initiative and any views or information are offered in good faith.

Stephen Mellor. Photo courtesy of the author.

Stephen Mellor was Exhibitions and Displays Co-ordinator at Tate Modern, London and retired in 2010 at the end of a career span of over 46 years – a career always associated with 3 dimensional presentation, whether in commercial display, theatre and film scenery, museum or art gallery exhibition making. He remains interested in gallery and museum processes and occasionally provides consultant services in gallery and museum operations and exhibition production. He is currently a co-owner and director of a small educational publishing house, based in Western Australia. stephen.mellor@chalkface.net.au

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