RIBA awards 2015



“Measuring the environmental impact of temporary exhibitions: A methodology to encourage sustainable practice”

Author: Fernando Muñoz


In the context of Culture and Art; what is it the environmental impact of temporary exhibitions and what tools and methodologies can be developed and used by architects and designers to create more sustainable exhibition designs?



The aim of this research is to define a methodology that establishes the key aspects required for the design and production of temporary exhibitions based on sustainable principles.

This research also aims to develop and test a tool to measure the carbon footprint of temporary exhibitions and defines a scoring system for results that helps designers and museums practitioners identify good practice, encouraging data collection in the future.

The decision to incorporate sustainable design into an exhibition usually means that architects, designers or planners with specialized knowledge will be needed, becoming a niche in the market, interesting to develop new competencies.



Museums are continuously producing exhibitions, and therefore they require a huge amount of time, labour and capital investment. Experts from different countries and organisations agree that one of the key aspects in turning museums and galleries towards sustainability is improving their temporary exhibitions strategies (Madan 2011; Janes 2010; Baker 2009; Davies 2008; Wilkinson 2008; Willcox 2008; McLean 2007; Matthews et Abeyasekera 2007; Guarinello 2005; MEBC 2002). Resources used in exhibitions are small compared with the ones used to build and run their “containers”, however this activity never stops, becoming a part of the economy and carbon emissions in the culture industry to be considered (Throsby 2010).



The research was divided in four stages including: a) survey of current practice in procuring exhibitions, b) analysis of typical impacts and development of carbon impact assessment method, c) pilot study testing the assessment method by measuring the impacts of three different exhibition designs first as temporary exhibitions and then as travelling exhibitions, and d) considering potential scoring systems to guide clients and designers and encourage good practice.


Stage 1: Current practice

The survey included a literature review and a survey of museums and galleries, mainly dedicated to Contemporary and Fine Arts in the UK, administered between May and August 2014. 51 organisations were contacted, and 21 responses received, enough for a solid qualitative analysis. The survey included 35 questions covering three main areas: a) collaboration between museums and designers, b) reusing, recycling and waste disposal policies, and c) control and metering of energy in temporary exhibition halls.


Stage 2 – Assessing typical impacts and developing assessment method

The analysis of typical carbon and material impacts of temporary exhibitions was undertaken in parallel with the development of a carbon impact assessment method. Sixteen construction systems typically used in temporary exhibitions were assessed in terms of embodied carbon, including energy used in their construction and assembly, material use, transports and waste production. Carbon emissions from every process that takes place before, during and after the exhibition´s life were identified to develop a carbon calculator. The calculator was then used to assess the carbon emissions associated with the production of temporary and travelling exhibitions.

Gross (kgCO2e) and net emissions depending on space and time proportions (kgCO2e/m2 day) were measured for the study and viewing both measures changes significantly the perspective of how pollutant an exhibition is.


Stage 3 – Assessing carbon impacts of exhibition typologies

A case study approach was adopted to examine typical emissions from exhibitions. Three exhibition typologies formed the basis for the study, hosted by a cultural centre actively involved in sustainability.

The exhibitions selected for the analysis represent different common prototypes. The first one focused on an international well-known figure, showing material transferred from different countries. The second exhibition focused on national and local artworks and artists, and the third exhibition, which was the smallest, had an educational purpose, without art pieces.

The carbon assessment method was also used to compare the carbon emissions of temporary and travelling exhibitions. In order to assess the potential reduction in net emissions, the three case studies were transformed into travelling exhibitions.


Stage 4 – Scoring good practice

Finally, to set levels for good practice a scoring system was developed. A second round of calculations was done on the case studies to optimize carbon emissions. They were tested using the carbon calculator to obtain alternative emissions under the best potential scenario respecting the existing design and context conditions. These results set the target against which the actual carbon footprint was compared and scored by identifying the proportion of potential improvement that should be needed to reach the lowest emissions.



Museums are changing their roles in society and therefore so do the tools needed to design and understand the performance of their exhibits. The survey conducted in this study focusing on the implementation of sustainable strategies in temporary exhibitions suggested limited engagement in the field of sustainable design due to a lack of evidence of clear benefits, or fear of elevated costs, especially amongst respondents from organisations with sustainable policies.

This paper has demonstrated through the assessment of three case studies the importance of knowing their impact and the potential reductions that can be achieved if they are designed, produced and assembled considering their carbon emissions impact. Calculating their carbon footprint is a reliable way to help organisations understand how to reduce their environmental impact. The carbon calculator could not only be used as a design tool but also to raise awareness. In particular tools that can inform budget-holders are essential to move the agenda forward and create more sustainable exhibition designs.

The key conclusions drawn from this study relate to the design of temporary exhibitions to minimise carbon emission; the advantages of travelling as opposed to temporary exhibitions; benchmarking of low carbon practice; and education and awareness raising .



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