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.
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.
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. Public programs 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.
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. WithinIdentity, 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 withinIdentity, 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 trialing 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.
Identity is a big exhibition in a small physical space. How does one do justice to such a broad, contentious topic and still keep the exhibition spatially contemplative? By using hundreds of intangible layers of digital information of course. These digital stories are interpreted through touch-screens, the web and multiple projections.
The project team wanted gallery products that combined reasonable financial outlay, with low energy usage and long lived consumables – like globes. Using a range of product information and organisational experience, different products were put through a data-crunching excel calculator. After putting the exhibition’s lighting through the same rigorous process, the completed Identity now consumes the least amount of energy per square metre of any exhibition at Museum Victoria, and has set an organisational benchmark.
The environmental consequences of energy creation arguably impact our lives more significantly than any other human activity, and consume a huge amount of our finances. Reducing our need, and therefore general demand, is definitely something worth giving some time and thought to.
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.
the EcoMuseum, is a project of Carole Hammond, Exhibition Manager and museum professional: combining the complex ideologies of aesthetics, culture, objects, entertainment…and environment.