Green Exhibits

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 24 No. 1 (2009). Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: What is a green exhibit? How green does it have to be?

A: A green exhibit isn’t necessarily one that tells visitors how your garden is becoming more sustainable and how they can, too (though that’s a good idea!). Exhibits of all types and sizes can be beautiful expressions of sustainability. As for how green to go, you should make your exhibits as green as you can, and keep growing greener.

By now, most people in the public garden world are familiar with the LEED guidelines, performance benchmarks, and rating system for green buildings. The same basic guidelines can also be used for creating a green exhibit.

Like a green building, a green exhibit is one that is designed to minimize the use of resources and the generation of pollution, including the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

A good source of information specifically on greening exhibits is the Green Design Wiki a publicly created and accessible resource modeled after Wikipedia. The website is divided into four sections. The first covers choosing materials and finishes, such as plywood and paints, when designing and constructing an exhibit. It includes good background information and tips, but an even simpler way to choose green materials is to look for those that have been certified by an independent organization, like Green Seal or the Forest Stewardship Council. And don’t forget to consider the ecological footprint of ancillary products, like the food you’ll be selling to the people who come to see your exhibit. It’s worth noting that a 2008 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that red meat is 150 percent more greenhouse gas-intensive than chicken or fish. Cutting back on the red meat and dairy products you sell can make an even bigger difference than offering locally grown foods.

A second major consideration is how to minimize the use of energy over the exhibit’s entire life cycle, from fabrication and transport to operation and breakdown. I’d add that since the whole idea of an exhibit is to attract visitors, often as many as possible, a big part of reducing energy consumption should be encouraging them to walk, bike, or use mass transit to come see it.

A third goal for green exhibit developers is “closing the loop.” Many special and changing exhibits at public gardens and other museums are one-shot affairs. No matter how important the message, interpretation as currently practiced often is basically a throwaway business. But in the words of Kathy McLean in “Environmental Considerations: Some Guidelines for Exhibit Developers,” “what if the furniture and crates could be reused for another exhibition? Museums can design for reuse by creating an exhibition furniture vocabulary—a modular standard for exhibit components—that can accommodate a variety of configurations and arrangements. Furniture could be designed in such a way that surface treatments and detailing could change with each exhibition.” It’s certainly possible right now to at least create exhibits with materials like paperboard and glass that can be recycled. Some standard exhibition materials, such as plastic laminates and acrylics, are not yet made of recycled materials.

A final section of the Green Design Wiki, on sustainable graphics and signage, includes links to a few green vendors, such as a printer certified by several groups, including the Forest Stewardship Council, and a company that prints banners and other products on material woven from recycled soda bottles using water-based inks.

Green exhibits often cost more initially. But in the longer run, conserving energy and reusing the components can offset the cost and may even save money!

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