Sustainable exhibits: Finding the balance between permanent and temporary exhibits

Today’s Guest Post is by David Jensen, Principal at D. Jensen & Associates Ltd., a company of exhibit designers, planners and graphic artists located in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

Traditionally, Canadian museums design and build permanent exhibits. This has been the approach for many years, but things are beginning to change.

During a Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice session at the British Columbia Museums Association Annual Conference, a participant said

every few years we take our exhibits to the dump and start over.

Conference participant

I could hear the frustration in her voice as she lamented the waste of time and materials and the environmental impact such practices had on our world. This change in thinking is music to my ears.  What are the pros and cons of permanent versus temporary exhibits? How might we make our exhibition practices more sustainable?

Permanent exhibits


  • Permanent exhibits can be impressive, memorable and can be used to create moods or special environments within a space.
  • Permanent exhibits can also be used to accommodate built-in features and content rich exhibit elements like hands-on physical interactives or audio visual interactives.


  • Permanent exhibits can be expensive to build
  • Permanent exhibits become dated over time because they are difficult (or impossible) to change.
  • This inflexibility means that exhibits of this type are often thrown out before they wear out.

Temporary exhibits


  • Temporary/flexible exhibits can be updated, meaning museums can better respond to their communities and even engage them in the storytelling.
  • More time and money can be spent on developing new exhibits rather than on expensive permanent structures.
  • Temporary exhibits keep staff involved.
  • They present a great opportunity to bring in your community to celebrate as each new temporary exhibit opens (similar to art gallery openings).


  • Temporary exhibits often lack the impact that permanent exhibits generate.
  • Frequently changing exhibits put demands on staff to create new exhibits, which may be difficult to achieve with a small staff.
  • Temporary exhibits can look repetitive and visually predictable.

The best of both worlds

We feel that neither the permanent approach nor the strictly temporary approach are the answer. We believe that a blend of the two is the most successful strategy.

Use permanent exhibits to set the mood and dramatically define your themes and topics and use temporary exhibits to tell specific, ever-changing stories.

David Jensen

Visitors return to see the dramatic permanent exhibits and also to discover new temporary presentation and stories.

Let’s look at four examples …

Haida Heritage Centre

Permanent exhibit elements

Large, impressive Haida art pieces are permanent features in this gallery and used to set a mood and create a special place for visitors to explore.

Haida Heritage Centre 1
Example of permanent exhibit elements used to create a mood specific to the material being presented. Photo credit: Rolf Bettner

Temporary exhibit elements

Some elements like timelines or stories featuring Haida contemporary life were done as temporary exhibits. These exhibits need to stay current in order to remain relevant to the community.

Haida Heritage Centre 2
Example of temporary exhibit elements used to support the over-arching themes introduced by the permanent exhibit elements. Photo credit: D. Jensen & Associates

The Reach Gallery Museum

Over the course of a year, a committee of community members met every two weeks and provided recommendations on the design direction for this cultural centre. The community was clear, they wanted to see connections between art, history and culture. They wanted the exhibits to change regularly and wanted local artists to enhance the stories being told. They wanted an inclusive place where all the cultures of Abbotsford were encouraged to tell their own stories.

The solution took the form of a large, open exhibit hall with modular exhibit structures capable of creating walls and cases. This flexibility allows staff to reconfigure the gallery at will and mount new exhibits every few months.

Reach Gallery
Temporary exhibit elements shown at the opening exhibit of The Reach. Photo credit: Gary Fiegehen

Coos History Museum

For this project, the gallery was divided into 3 themed areas, each with 5 different stories. The director wanted the ability to change/update 2 stories per year to keep the gallery fresh and relevant so they chose to have a number of temporary exhibit elements. Because of the remote location, the exhibit was designed to allow staff to make new graphics in-house and to rearrange their exhibit structures into new configurations without outside help. The gallery was rounded out with impressive permanent features like locally made works of art, sculptures and artifacts (including the front end of a fishing boat ‘breaking through’ the outer wall of the building).

Coos History Museum
Modular,reconfigurable exhibit structures were combined with a modular graphic panel system. This approach allows staff to make quick changes to both the exhibit structures and graphics, in-house, with little waste. Photo credit: Logic Exhibit System

Japanese Fishermen’s Benevolent Society Building

This small historical building had a big story to tell. The exhibit structures and graphics panels needed to be flexible and changeable so that new exhibits could be mounted over time.

Japanese Fishermen's Benevolent Society Building
Exhibit and graphic structures have a simple, clean look with allows the visitor to focus on the stories and artifacts without distraction. Photo credit: Logic Exhibit System

By rethinking traditional approaches to exhibit design, we have an opportunity not only to save on time and materials but also to reduce our environmental impact.

David Jensen

David Jensen is an award winning exhibit designer with over 40 years experience creating exhibit environments for a variety of cultural institutions. David is also the co-chair of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice.

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  1. joyannedavis

    Thank you David — while the notion of more sustainable practices is a powerful motivator, so to is the value of continuously refreshing content in innovative ways. You raise and illustrate important points!

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