We take great care to reduce the environmental impact of the materials and processes we use to create exhibitions. But the fact is that the greatest part of a museum’s environmental impact is the construction and running of the building itself and the visitors’ journey to it by car, train, bus or plane. How can we, as creators of the experiences within museums, have a deeply meaningful impact?
There are ways to make our carbon footprint a talking point. Some exhibitions are tracking their carbon and using it as a springboard to start a dialogue about sustainability. Some exhibitions have set a carbon budget and closed to the public the moment they’ve reached it.
But perhaps the greatest impact we can have is through the persuasive power of storytelling. By helping visitors to leave an exhibition with a new perspective, we can contribute to society’s changing mindset, one changed mind at a time.
Naturally, you can do that very effectively within an exhibition that has a biodiversity or sustainability story to tell. But what we are realising more and more is how impossible it is to separate the question of how we live sustainably on Earth from any story that involves people or the planet we live on – pull at a thread and you’ll find it’s connected to many other threads.
Why not embed a sustainable storytelling approach into an exhibition that’s about something else entirely? That could mean writing labels from an air quality perspective in an exhibition about Dickensian Britain. It could mean asking people who’ve been affected by climate change to contribute a storytelling thread to an exhibition of landscape paintings. Could we, in fact, be bringing the hyper-connected context we’re living within into how we talk about anything and everything?
So, what’s the role of museums, and museum designers, in a world that’s facing climate crisis? Like any art, it’s to reflect society back at itself - to help us to think about ourselves and how we live; to help us to see things differently. Our role, in fact, isn’t to find new ways to tell the story, it’s to change the narrative altogether.