Specimens in a Sustainable Environment

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Jonathan Katz

Published on February 06, 2009, Modified on November 06, 2014

  • Description and goals

    Sustainability & Specimen Display: a Conflict of Program?

    Key to the design program of the new California Academy of Sciences was incorporating the Academy ethos and commitment to sustainability into the design of the building. (Photo #1)The result is a LEED Platinum building which, among other attributes, has interior public spaces openly ventilated to the outside and extensively illuminated by daylight. The east and west walls of the building that face the exhibit halls are 36’ high and 126’ wide, and of the clearest glass obtainable. When the windows are clean, you cannot even see that they are there. The architect, Renzo Piano, stated that he wanted people inside the building to feel that they are in Golden Gate Park, connected to nature.

    When the time came to develop exhibits, this commitment to sustainability was also primary. Beyond the obvious “green” tropes of “reduce, reuse and recycle,” the Academy wanted to extend the concept of sustainability to include an evolutionary approach to exhibit content -–that is, to create exhibit systems that could be flexible. This led us to devise a modular exhibit platform that could easily be reconfigured to accommodate change, both in small adjustments and additions or to be re-worked into substantially new exhibits. This was soon dubbed the “kit-of-parts” approach. (photo #2)

    Another very central objective of the exhibit design program was to enable the widespread display of scientific specimens in the public space. A museum’s baseline of authenticity is the display of artifacts and specimens from its research collections. In a digital world where avatars, replications, simulations, and virtual existence are becoming implicit substitutes for the real, the collections of real things found in museums provide an opportunity for visitors to see the original object, an increasingly rare experience. These objects are links to all the spheres explored in the exhibit experience: they are sources of knowledge, confirmations of fact, symbols of authenticity, and triggers for the imagination.

    These core tenets established by the Academy for the exhibits we were developing on the main floor embodied a conflict, a primary challenge that was imperative we address and resolve. The programs of sustainability and specimen display are in opposition to one another. To meet the Academy’s key goal of having extensive and varied public display of scientific specimens from its research collections and for Collections Managers to allow them to be displayed, one must adhere to conditions that will preserve the scientific integrity of those specimens. Our LEED Platinum certified space, with its natural ventilation, open-to-the-outdoors environment replete with airborne flora & fauna, fluctuations in temperature and humidity and strong daylight, made meeting specimen display and storage specifications very difficult. (photo #3)

    In addition to these specimen requirements, the design of all the exhibit elements, including display cases, was based on sustainable principles, meaning that criteria such as carbon footprint, adaptability and re-use, building materials and cost were all constraining factors in achieving display conditions that met specimen preservation standards. In addition to these constraints, we were provided only the broadest of projections from the building engineers in terms of temperature and humidity fluctuation data, making us realize that the humans in the space could tolerate far wider environmental variations than the specimens.

    Developing solutions to this tension between program goals was shaped by the “kit-of-parts” design of the exhibit modules and their component parts, including display cases of various sizes and configurations. As the interior space is open to outside air, the specimen display cases themselves had to control temperature, humidity, airborne contaminants & pests, and light levels –all with little or no help from the building systems.

    Parameters for case design were developed by reviewing the different types of cases needed in relation to the types of specimens to be displayed. Case types ranged from a simple box with minimal control, to a case with full environmental control: humidity, temperature, ultraviolet spectrum, lighting, and instrumentation, not to mention accessibility, security and maintenance. This called for the most difficult type of design: keeping it simple! We arrived at a standard case typology with three levels of performance. (photo #4) The case material is birch/alder FSC plywood, sealed with a factory-applied UV-cured modified acrylic coating on both sides. A key function of the sealant/stain is to limit off-gassing of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), both from the wood and the applied material. The transparent material is 1/4” laminated glass, gaining UV filtering (98%) in the lamination layer. Interior clips retain the glass and the case walls when removable are sealed with a rubber gasket. (photo #5) These materials were selected on the basis of carbon footprint, recyclability, flexibility and in relative terms, low cost.

    Our light control strategy was straightforward. We designed cases with cut-in glass panels, placed to optimize viewer sightlines, which resulted in greatly reduced transparent surface area. We also faced cases with their viewing sides away from the windows whenever possible. In several instances, such as in the Galapagos finches exhibit, (photo #6) cases have a hinged lid that must be lifted to turn on LED illumination and see the contents. Not only did this result in a dramatic reduction of light exposure to the specimens, but the act of lifting the lid also stimulated viewers’ curiosity and motivated them to look more closely.

    In cases where temperature control was essential, we used a modular solid-state system similar to a miniature heat pump that circulates temperature-controlled air. (photo #7) Due to the limited capacity of these units, it became necessary to add an insulation sandwich within the walls of most of these cases. (photo #8)

    For the most part, humidity control was achieved through the use of desiccant packs, sized to the volume of each case. These can be serviced via separate, sealed ports so that the entire case does not need to be opened.

    As the exhibits change and evolve, Collection Managers, working with exhibit staff, will continue measuring the critical environmental factors in the public spaces for the effective display of specimens. The availability of sensitive, low cost, networked sensors to measure environmental variables such as temperature and humidity will enable data collection and monitoring of display methodologies. As data is gathered, we will be able to assess the efficacy of various solutions and make adjustments in design and systems with the goal of putting more specimens on public display. As a type of industrial design project, a five-year timeline makes sense.

    Overall, sustainable design is a question of resource trade-offs. At the moment, 100% green is impossible, especially if one accords value to other criteria, such as effective communication techniques. A sustainability initiative should be understood as a strategy executed over time.

  • Development process and challenges

    see description above.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    see description above.

  • Exhibition Opened: September 2008

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: San Francisco, CA, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Over $3,000,000 (US)

  • Size: Over 10,000 sq ft.

  • Website(s):  http://www.CalAcademy.org, http://www.Cinnabar.com

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