Unbuilding Exhibitions: Harnessing the potential of deconstruction

Viviane Gosselin
Director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Museum of Vancouver.
She is on the Advisory Group of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice (CMCJ).

Museum professionals are a resourceful and thrifty bunch when it comes to saving money and conserving materials for building exhibitions. Staff in small to mid-size museums, especially, have become experts at repurposing display units. Recently the listservs of several provincial museum associations, too, have become powerful platforms for passing along, exchanging or salvaging exhibition props and display units among museum colleagues.

Building on these initiatives, the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) team has committed to reducing, reusing and extending the life of construction materials by establishing new design and fabrication guidelines for the production of its exhibitions. We were fortunate in 2017 to receive municipal support for an initiative to develop building practices that were more environmentally sustainable.

It was a straightforward experiment: build a large exhibition, using primarily reclaimed materials, and identify the processes and systems required to implement the same approach institutionally.

This initiative aligns with the City of Vancouver’s efforts to create a circular economy—an economic system where waste is minimized, and resources are maximized by reusing products and materials and reworking production chains. In 2018 Vancouver was the first city in the world to approve a comprehensive plan to become a zero-waste city by 2040, but other cities across Canada are now moving in that direction too.

For our curatorial department and fabrication team, contributing to the shift to a circular economy has involved not only developing more and new ways of sourcing exhibition materials but also changes in the design, construction and use of display units. These efforts to reduce our consumption of raw materials triggered a fascinating chain reaction that has permanently altered MOV’s exhibition practice.

Wild Things as eco-design prototype

Our eco-design journey began with our exhibition Wild Things: The Power of Nature in our Lives, which opened at MOV in June 2018. Wild Things examined the relationship between urbanites and their natural surroundings, paying particular attention to personal stories of encounters with nature. It capitalized on the power of storytelling to evoke a range of emotions associated with meeting nature face to face, creating an intimate and poetic space for thinking about personal connections (and disconnections) to nature in the city.

At the same time, the exhibition underlined the threat to this relationship from rapid environmental degradation. Given the project’s goal of fostering environmental literacy in the public, developing our environmental consciousness as an institution was vital.

Getting back to my question about how to get started: deconstruction was the answer. The term refers to the process of mining, retrieving, sorting, cleaning up, redistributing and reselling building materials for future reuse or recycling.

Beats demolition! For reference, according to the City of Vancouver, as much as 40% of Vancouver’s waste comes from the demolition of homes and other buildings. New city bylaws support deconstruction, which in turn has helped divest several tons of material from the landfill. A deconstruction mindset can be applied to design and architecture as well, leading to structural systems that aid the dismantling, recovery and eventual reuse of building materials. For example, using clips and screws instead of nails and glue to assemble material will make it easier to take them apart.

Sourcing and procuring building materials

In my quest for used materials, I learned I was not going to find a one-stop shop. Organizations that specialize in salvaged materials could rarely tell me when their next shipment of framing lumber or plywood sheets would arrive. I had given myself two months to map out the local deconstruction landscape and identify allies. After weeks of site visits and pestering the “deconstruction people,” I started receiving calls about imminent shipments.

We struck gold on one occasion: structural wood and over 60 sheets of plywood and conglomerate that had been used on a film set. It cost nothing to buy as the company disposing pays, but we had to rent a truck and hire a contractor to deliver the supplies to the museum and prep them for fabrication, which included disassembly, cutting and cleaning. What we saved on the purchase price was largely offset by the cost of delivery and preparation.

Despite a tight work schedule, Wild Things opened on time and on budget. And it yielded positive results. Displays in the first 2000 sq. ft gallery met our target of 70% reclaimed material. Approximately 30% of the displays in the second gallery used salvaged material. We also have a deconstruction plan in place for all the materials used in the exhibition.

MOV is now working to source construction materials more efficiently, to increase our use of reclaimed materials in all temporary exhibitions to 70% and to fine-tune guidelines for staff and contractors. My hope is that interactions with the deconstruction community become commonplace in our professional practice; it is the kind of cross-sectoral collaboration that we need to foster design innovations and push the reduction and reuse of building materials to new heights.

Greening the fabrication and theming of our exhibitions is only one part of the equation, however the MOV Leadership Team is working to integrate climate-friendly procedures across our organization. Work on Wild Things showed us that striving for more environmentally sustainable practices engaged and enthused all departments and contractors: beyond the initiatives of the design, fabrication, curatorial and conservation teams directly involved in the project, administrative staff applied for grants to purchase the storage container, programmers coordinated roundtables on eco-design, communication staff shared our greening efforts on social media platforms. We are currently working with the City of Vancouver to conduct an energy audit and have started replacing all incandescent lighting with low-energy LED.

We are also looking at ways to encourage visitors to walk, bike or bus to the museum. While an instant green revamp is not possible, we are implementing incremental and enduring changes. Several museums (and non-museum organizations!) in Canada have begun to develop environmentally sustainable operations. The more we learn about these initiatives and seek inspiration and guidance from other sectors, the more we will be able to amplify our learning, generate innovative solutions and get closer to creating an authentic culture of sustainability in museums.

Ideas for greening your design and fabrication practices

For readers interested in greening their design and fabrication practices using a deconstruction approach, here are some suggestions:

Scout the deconstruction players in your community: They may not identify their work as deconstruction. What you are looking for are organizations that retrieve, sort and distribute reclaimed materials you can use to build your exhibitions.

Get on their radars: Introduce yourself and the work of your museum and share your exhibition schedule to show them you mean business and will pick up the supplies when they arrive. One of the biggest challenges these businesses face is storage space.

Build an inventory: No more ordering at the nearest lumberyard requires adjusting to sporadic availability. Obtain materials when they’re available and stock them for future projects.

Create that (special) storage space: Storage space is limited in museums and stocking large quantities of materials ahead of time is not usually an option. MOV purchased a large shipping container to use for storage that we set up in our parking lot. An external storage unit has the merit of being removed from the building, reducing the risk of pest infestation in the galleries and collections storage.

Make a deconstruction plan: It’s one thing to extend the life of building materials to the final day of your exhibition—it’s another to keep them from the waste bin afterwards. Plan the reuse of each exhibition unit ahead of time (e.g., offer them to other departments or institutions, disassemble them for reuse in future projects).

Advocate for a deconstruction hub: Deconstruction businesses operate all over large urban centres, but so far there are no hubs or formal networks to facilitate extensive and ongoing exchange and distribution of salvaged materials among museums or other potential clients. Several players in the field are collaborating with the City of Vancouver to formalize such a hub. MOV is a big supporter of this initiative.

Budget for extra design and fabrication time: Salvaged materials may require additional prepping and design time. We used part of the Vancouver Upcycle grant to compensate designers for adapting their design solutions to our deconstruction needs and to hire extra fabrication technician.

Hire the keeners: Work with designers and fabricators who rise to the challenge of working with reclaimed materials — frequently of non-standard shape — and turning them into compelling exhibition structures and display units.

Make it policy: Make expectations explicit and clear to staff and designers. Include them in job descriptions and contracts.

Apply for infrastructure or capacity-building grants: Funding programs for a variety of green initiatives and capacity-building projects can help support the development of environmentally sustainable design practices.

A version of this article was originally published on the CMCJ’s blog, https://coalitionofmuseumsforclimatejustice.wordpress.com/.