Greener Museums: Tim McNeil Champions Sustainable Exhibition Design


At the University of California, Davis Design Museum, 2007-08 is devoted to a series of “Eco-exhibitions” that follow design themes related to environmental stewardship and social issues. At the same time, the Design Museum is looking inward, at the massive amount of resources consumed by museums and exhibitions themselves, and addressing some of the key environmental concerns, starting in its own backyard. Leading the charge is Getty Museum veteran Tim McNeil, who since 2005 has served as director of the UC Davis Design Museum and as an assistant professor in the school’s department of design.

Under his leadership, the museum has developed and implemented a range of green initiatives. Many of them are highlighted on a new series of reusable signs (downloadable here) that use bold graphics to highlight such topics as the museum’s use of energy-efficient lighting, reusable exhibition furniture, and green construction materials like wheat board and biodegradable graphic substrates. The eco-initatives even extend to the food served in the museum: it’s now all organic or locally grown, served on/with recycled or biodegradable plates/utensils, and leftovers are composted (hmm…what about using them in an exhibition?).

“The strength of the UC Davis Design Museum lies in its ability to experiment with objects and content and how this material is communicated within an exhibition environment,” McNeil told Paul Orselli in an interview posted to his ExhibiTricks blog. “I wanted to demonstrate to the museum community that an exhibition can be designed and built using entirely recycled, rapidly renewable, and non-toxic materials, and that the design quality of the space, furniture, and graphics do not have to be compromised.” After the jump, McNeil’s top ten list of ways to green an exhibition environment.

  1. Improve the energy efficiency of exhibition lighting by installing timers and sensors to manage usage. Install CFLs when appropriate.
  2. Adjust exhibition climate control settings where possible. Do the objects or exhibits need to be that cool or warm?
  3. Design modular exhibition components/furniture that can be easily recycled or reused.
  4. Practice the 4R’S (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Reinvest). Do more with less.
  5. Use low VOC paints.
  6. Avoid vinyl based signage products.
  7. Print on 100% post-consumer paper using non-petroleum-based inks.
  8. Use Agri-fiber products such as wheat straw rather than wood based particle boards.
  9. Use screws instead of glues.
  10. Inform staff, vendors, and most importantly visitors about your efforts.

For more information, check out the Green Design Wiki, a collaborative project of McNeil and his former student, Alan Wells.