Questioning the Sustainability of Museum Exhibit Design – Expensive to Build, Difficult to Change

Today’s Guest Post is by David Jensen, Principal at D. Jensen & Associates Ltd., a company of exhibit designers, planners and graphic artists located in Vancouver, B.C., Canada

Museum exhibit design in Canada has been following a rather predictable, unsustainable, design approach for many years. Current economic and environmental conditions suggest to me that this traditional approach needs to be questioned.

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Example of a Permanent Exhibit – Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

In my experience, Canadian museums tend to design and construct ‘permanent’ exhibits. These exhibits are expensive to build and difficult to change. No matter how impressive they are on opening day, they tend to become dated and sometimes irrelevant, over time. After a few short years, museums are often faced with the dilemma of whether to make costly changes or scrap their permanent exhibits completely and start again.

This approach produces significant, unnecessary waste that eventually ends up in the land fill. So, for both financial and environmental reasons, we need to find a new way of doing things.

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Coos History Museum, Coos County, Oregan – This client was very hands-on, needed to produce graphics in-house and wanted to be able to configure their galleries in a variety of ways to tell new stories.

I believe the new approach we need includes building flexibility into museums to assist them in becoming more efficient and responsive to the communities they serve. This new approach of using flexible, reusable exhibit and graphic systems allows museums to make quick and economical changes as well as to address environmental concerns. In my experience, museums become essential components of the communities they serve through this more immediate engagement.

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Japanese Fisherman’s Benevolent Society Building, Steveston, BC – Flexible exhibits and changeable graphics were used to tell the story of Steveston’s Japanese community during WWII

These experiences led my team and I to develop the Logic Exhibit System to help our clients contend with the issues we observed. There are many ways to incorporate flexibility, sustainability and environment responsibility into museums, I mention our systems only as one example of what can be done.

This is not to say exceptional, long term, exhibit constructions or art, can’t be used to set a mood or make impressive visual statement.

But too many big, expensive, fixed exhibit elements can limit a museum’s ability to stay relevant and to attract people back to experience new ideas.

Perhaps the solution lies in a hybrid of the two approaches – blurring the distinction between permanent and temporary presentations.

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Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay, Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, B.C. – Impressive permanent features are paired with a temporary graphic system

Large impressive constructions could provide the “bones” of the exhibits and carry key messages, while flexible, reusable exhibit and graphic structures could carry the majority of the content (the meat of the exhibit).

Essentially, ‘temporary’ exhibits need to be considered throughout the visitor experience, not just in temporary galleries.

I feel that both staff and the community are much better served if they are given the opportunity to constantly develop and present new stories, rather than just maintain existing presentations. A hybrid approach addresses this.

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The Reach – Gallery Museum, Abbotsford, BC – This facility has embraced the idea of reuse, reimage, and reconfigure, continually revitalizing their space with new, community based exhibits and expositions.

I believe it’s time we revisit our standard procedures when designing museum exhibits. Re-evaluating the way we do things could address many issues faced by museums today, including environmental concerns. It could also have a significant and positive effect on the museum’s bottom line as well as helping staff and encouraging greater community engagement.

I respectfully suggest we need to consider not only what we’re doing but also how we’re doing it.


David Jensen

David is the Principal at D. Jensen & Associates Ltd.  D. Jensen & Associates Ltd. (DJA) is a company of exhibit designers, planners and graphic artists who for the past 40 years have been involved in the research, planning and design of exhibits for museums, science centres, world expositions, cultural institutions and government agencies. David believes museum and other cultural institutions can play an important role in educating the public about climate issues and inspiring them to make changes in their everyday lives to help address this exigent situation. He is also Co-Chair of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice.

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