We are honored to be featured in the New York Times as part of a feature on finding new uses for displays after their time at museums ends. Take a look at the full article below!
Making what is old new again with fresh displays has long been the province of museums. But what happens to all the stuff left over when shows end? Many museums are going beyond traditional recycling efforts and giving second lives to exhibit materials.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science recently donated tiles to Habitat for Humanity, left over from the counter of a thermopolium, an ancient Roman dining place recreated for the “A Day in Pompeii” exhibition, and about 300 old uniforms from a Space Odyssey exhibit were sent to a company that recycles fabric.
“A natural part of our work at natural history and science museums is the study of the world and understanding its implications,” said Jodi Schoemer, director of exhibits. “It makes sense to embrace sustainability in a serious way. It’s a natural outgrowth of our mission.”
At the Field Museum in Chicago, “the focus is on cradle to cradle rather than cradle to grave,” said the exhibition design director Álvaro Amat, describing the museum’s approach to recycling.
The museum commissioned a life-size Columbian mammoth replica for a current traveling exhibit rather than a woolly mammoth, because the Columbian mammoth could be made of environmentally friendly materials, like water-based resin, ensuring durability and a longer life span.
“The piece would never go to a landfill,” Mr. Amat said. The alternative would have been a plushlike synthetic fiber that would have been discarded after several years because it could not handle much wear and tear.
“One of the biggest challenges is finding a balance between being environmental and creating unique and informative experiences for the public,” Mr. Amat said.
Before unusually large items for temporary exhibits are even built, the museum looks for future homes for them. The same goes for items no longer needed, like a huge rotating globe that now hangs at a nearby middle school.
Sarah Sutton Brophy, co-author with Elizabeth Wylie of “The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice,” said that in contrast with the past, “there is a sense of urgency to set an example” among museums now — a recognition that as houses of preservation, museums play a unique role.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston led the movement to widen ranges for acceptable temperature and humidity levels, reducing energy consumption and costs but still providing maximum protection, and pioneered the use of reusable shipping crates with adjustable interiors to accommodate paintings or objects of varying sizes. Both are becoming industry standards, Ms. Wylie said.
Today, many museums routinely reuse construction materials for exhibit furniture and displays, and what cannot be used again is donated or sold at a discount to smaller, regional museums and other nonprofit organizations. The Denver Art Museum donates many items, including leftover exhibition materials and office supplies, to the Resource Area for Teaching, a local group.
Paint consumption is reduced by focusing on main areas in an exhibit or by using lighting instead. Hard-to-reuse items like draperies might go to local theater groups, and many items go to in-house education departments. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts routinely “upcycles” old marketing materials for use in collage and mixed media projects.
Museums also share practices and resources. The Field works with local organizations like the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group and Creative Reuse Warehouse. National initiatives include the American Alliance of Museums’ PIC Green professional network and Took Kit, and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s ExhibitSeed.
“The key for reuse is standardization, not customization,” said Michael Sampliner, who until recently was chief operating officer of Arts & Exhibitions International, which produced large traveling exhibitions about King Tut and pirates. “We quickly learned to build less supercustom stuff that can work in any museum so less ends in a trash heap.”
Movable wall systems are built in favor of temporary walls that would be torn down after shows, and nearly everything, including lighting fixtures, graphics and display cases, is built in modular components that can fit together and be easily updated for any museum with simple design adaptations, Mr. Sampliner said.
Many museums repurpose vinyl and fabric banners into handbags, totes and laptop and iPod cases sold in their gift shops after shows. Kathryn Rush, store manager and buyer at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said its bags, made by a local artist, have become so popular that patrons sometimes contact her before banners come down to request first pick. A current exterior banner for a show of Japanese prints inspired one eager art lover to recently declare, “I have to have the bag with the samurai’s face,” Ms. Rush said.
Relan, a Twin cities area company, has repurposed billboards and banners since 1995, and today works with about 50 museums across the country. A large banner yields about eight bags, said Della Simpson, president of Relan. Banner Creations in Minneapolis commissions banners for museums of fabric made from recycled water bottles, with an extended life span in mind. When exhibits end, banners are returned to the company and made into bags to be sold by the museums. When the bags wear out, buyers can send them back to the mill or Banner Creations to be recycled — again.
Leftover materials can have unexpected outcomes. “You never know when something is going to be just the thing you need to finish the job,” said Brandon Larson, installation manager at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Years after the Olafur Eliasson show, which featured large-scale water and ice installations, “we even tried using some pool cleaner from his show to kill a mold bloom in the wine show,” he said, referring to another exhibit. “And no one knew what to do with an enormous walk-in freezer, but a guy from Texas about to launch a commercial cookie business purchased it.”
Once a large, adhesive graphic that promoted an exhibit (and hid a service elevator) was destined for a landfill, but it was carefully removed and installed as wallpaper in an employee’s kitchen. “The last thing we want to do is throw anything away,” Mr. Larson said.
In Europe, there is plenty of innovation, too. In Vienna large fiberboards from a recent installation are drawing tables in children’s workshops at the MAK Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, and the Kunsthalle Wien in Austria organizes a flea market twice a year to sell unneeded items.
The “What Remains Gallery,” based in Munich, creates new exhibits from material left when shows close. René and Christian Landspersky, cousins who got the idea as technical workers setting up and dismantling art shows, founded the traveling gallery in 2009 and are developing an archive of their work that will eventually be cataloged and made available to other artists. “Our show is not the end. It’s the beginning,” René Landspersky said.
Image: The New York Times