ExhibitSEED- Measuring an Exhibit’s Sustainability

June 28th, 2013 by ExhibitFiles

Kari Jensen, Senior Exhibit Developer, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry tells the story of a problem the team encountered and about how it influenced the team’s understanding of sustainable decision-making.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) and project partners were awarded a five-year grant entitled Sustainability: Promoting sustainable decision-making in informal education by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009. Since then, the project team has developed and vetted tools including the Sustainable Decision-Making Tool and the Green Exhibit Checklist to help museum professionals create more sustainable exhibits that take into account social, environmental, and economic considerations. In 2012, www.exhibitSEED.org was launched, and in the spring of 2013, five ExhibitSEED professional development workshops were held around the country to train exhibit developers, designers, and fabricators on developing more sustainable exhibits.

At the outset of OMSI’s NSF-funded project on sustainable decision-making, we intended to monitor an exhibit’s sustainability just like anything else—with a set of quantifiable indicators that we could measure at different points in the project to see if we were improving, and if so, by how much. In order to achieve this seemingly straightforward goal, we devised a set of indicators to measure and assess the sustainability of our exhibit development process over time. These indicators would measure social sustainability, economic sustainability, and environmental sustainability of the project.

We created an online survey to track our progress. All project team members logged in weekly to report on social indicators like “team learning” and “team satisfaction,” economic ones like “variance to budget,” and environmental ones—like “waste generated” and “greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from staff project-related travel.” The surveys were tedious, and felt like a waste of time. Counting every sheet of paper and tea bag that was recycled was time consuming and didn’t feel like one of the more impactful decisions that could be made on a project of this scale. Plus, figuring out how much staff paper use was accountable to this project specifically was a challenge when most of us were working on several projects simultaneously. Whether or not people rode their bikes to meetings or drove cars to meetings was interesting but we just didn’t have very many off-site meetings, so again the impact seemed minimal. Plus, it was increasingly apparent than many of the social considerations were not necessarily quantifiable or comparable to other measures—for example, how do you measure a missed opportunity for supporting underserved audiences, and what would that mean in budgetary terms?

Our team was beginning to understand that sustainability is a much more complex concept—and that these specific measurements were almost meaningless without explaining the context around each and every number. We realized that measuring sustainability is far more nuanced and complex than a standardized set of questions could possibly represent.

Sustainability itself is an ideal—it isn’t a destination that is possible to achieve, but rather a journey along which we try to make better, more well rounded decisions by intentionally widening our scope of decision-making criteria. We widen this scope to give a voice to the many valid considerations that should play a role in decision-making but often don’t– especially ones that may not be easily assessed by looking at an Excel spreadsheet. For example, how much stress and grief might one of our budget-driven choices cause staff members or exhibit repair staff down the line? How might purchasing exhibit pieces from the cheapest vendor in town inadvertently harm a woman or minority-owned business struggling to make ends meet? What part does ordering plywood from across the country play in transportation related carbon emissions?

So after a year or two of struggling to measure specific indicators, we realized that it is more valuable to pay attention to the actual discussions that feed into making decisions, rather than the particular outcome of decisions. We developed the “Sustainable Decision-making Tool” to help teams identify these many considerations. When using this tool, teams are forced to take a hard look at all of the visible and invisible impacts of their decisions. The goal of making a more-sustainable choice comes down to making the choice that maximizes positive benefits. Of course every choice has tradeoffs and this tool is also intended to give light to the real tradeoffs that are being made with every choice.

ExhibitSEED workshop participantsAt the beginning of the project, our team oftentimes defaulted to making so-called sustainable decisions based on environmental or “green” considerations, but we tended to overlook some of the important social and economic ones. We found that after putting all of the considerations on the table with the Sustainable Decision-making Tool, we were automatically starting to bring up social, economic, and environmental aspects to every decision in every conversation we had, whether we used the tool or not. It became ingrained in our thinking. As a result of this new approach, we have made many choices that may seem to the untrained eye as less sustainable, but you may find that there were more net positive impacts of the decision than the alternatives.

We invite you to try out the tools and resources offered at www.exhibitseed.org, and challenge you to use the three pillars frame of social, economic, and environmental considerations with your project team. You may be surprised by how your project can be more sustainable!

Didn’t make one of the regional ExhibitSEED workshops? Please join us for a free pre-conference workshop at ASTC in Albuquerque (pre-registration is required)!

What is ExhibitSEED?

ExhibitSEED.org is a place for exhibit and museum professionals to find resources for developing, designing, and building more sustainable exhibits. ExhibitSEED resources are based on a three pillars approach to sustainability that includes environmental, economic, and social considerations. The resources on this website were developed from an interactive science museum perspective, but we hope the information will be valuable to exhibit professionals specializing in all types of museums. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) developed exhibitSEED.org with input from local and national museum industry and design advisors.

What will I find at www.ExhibitSEED.org?

Sustainable Practices: Practical tips for incorporating social, economic, and environmental considerations into each phase of exhibit development: Proposal Writing, Project Management, Content Research & Development, Design, Prototyping & Visitor Testing, Production, Evaluation, and End-life.

Decision Making Tool: An activity to use with your team, intended to inspire a well-rounded conversation that leads teams to decisions that consider all three (social, environmental, and economic) aspects of sustainability.

The Green Exhibit Checklist: a tool to evaluate the environmental sustainability of exhibits. It awards points in 5 key strategies for reducing the environmental impact of exhibit production, plus a sixth category for innovation.

Material Guide: an online guide that was created to help exhibit designers and builders choose materials that are better for the environment, for visitors and workers, and make economic sense.

Case Studies: Individual case studies of how museums are integrating the three pillars of sustainability into their operations.

Envisioning Sustainability: An activity designed to help teams explore the concept of sustainability.

Image information

Top: The Sustainable Decision-Making Tool is an activity that teams can do to inspire a well-rounded conversation that leads teams to decisions that consider all three (social, environmental, and economic) aspects of sustainability.

Bottom: ExhibitSEED workshop participants practice using the Green Exhibit Checklist to assess the environmental sustainability of an existing exhibit.

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