Rethinking Exhibits

New Approach

If museums applied the visionary thinking of William McDonough and Ray Anderson, could we conceive of exhibit environments that rejuvenate the air we breathe, generate energy for our building's systems produce no waste or toxins, and contribute to the health of our visitors and planet?

What would a children's exhibit environment be like without Plexiglass, fiberglass, washable vinyl, plastic laminates, lightweight foam, or Gatorboard? Imagine a world where even large-scale exhibit components that were no longer needed could simply be composted, providing nutrients for the next season's vegetables. Imagine a world where large climbing structures were no longer made of plastics or fiberglass, but instead molded with injected soy or corn, that could be used as lawn fertilizer once their first purpose ended. What if our exhibits could be taken apart and reused for other things? What if our exhibits actually created energy and ran the systems of our facility? What if the smell of fresh paint was a distant memory? What if Interactivity in 2020 only highlighted exhibits that were 100% sustainable?

While many of us have been working toward this vision, we still have a long road ahead.

Rethinking Cost

A common misperception is that sustainable practices are more expensive. While materials may be slightly more costly up front, when one calculates the savings over time, sustainability almost always wins out. True cost is measured by weighing the combination of social, environmental, and economic costs against the apparent benefits associated with each choice we make.

By looking at leading players in industry, one can quickly assess that sustainability can be profitable. Innovative companies like Interface Carpets, Patagonia, Steelcase, Herman Miller, and Nike have show that embracing sustainability is not only the right thing to do, but can also be the most cost effective business decision.

Each choice we make has a "cost." Cost is typically measured in our culture by looking at the price tag. Instead, cost needs to be measured as the total expenses of growing, producing, and transporting materials and resources, the durability of those materials, their reusability, and the cost of eventually disposing them.

While there are fewer concrete examples from the children's museum field regarding economic advantage of sustainable design, museums that have used green design have already reaped financial benefits. At Madison Children's Museum, our green exhibits have been very cost effective. Not only have they cost us less per square foot than traditional exhibits, they have also lasted longer and aged more gracefully. At both Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and Brooklyn Children's Museum, sustainable design has been a compelling aspect of each museum's case for expansion, bringing in new donors while cementing their role as community leaders.

Aesthetics and Durability

While not all sustainable materials are inherently beautiful or long lasting, many do cultivate a warm feeling in visitors and are durable for the long haul.

Many people who have built sustainable exhibits and environments report visitor feelings of calmness in the space. Using materials with "low embodied energy" encourages use of sustainable wood, which by its very nature feels warm. These intangible aspects of green materials help visitors feel good and feel connected with the natural world.

When considering which products to use, the possibilities are daunting. Is it better to use a chlorine-free product, or one that is made with non-recyclable materials? These questions and contradictions arise throughout the process. The ultimate goal is to use quickly regenerated sustainable materials that are highly durable and contribute in some way toward enhancing, rather than depleting, Earth's resources.