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SMG touring and sustainability

Embedding sustainability in the Science Museum Group’s working practices is not just a priority for the museums and sites, but for the exhibition touring programme too. Here, Emily Cronin, Partnerships Manager (Cultural & Commercial Partnerships) explains more.

Of the many scientific topics that are explored through the work of the Science Museum Group, climate change and environmental sustainability is one that permeates the work of all departments. I continue to be impressed by the Group’s commitment to increase sustainability across our sites as well as how, through inspiring galleries, live events and thought-provoking exhibitions we continue to educate the public about the impact of climate change.

But how do we apply this further, and in particular, for our exhibition programming? Within the Cultural & Commercial Partnerships team we have been learning from our colleagues about how we can be more sustainable in the development of our exhibitions, including our touring exhibitions.

Sustainability is a key consideration for the team when building a new exhibition and also when an exhibition has reached the end of its lifecycle. A full list of parts and items, such as interactive or AV equipment, is compiled and then circulated across our museum sites, and sometimes UK museums more widely, enabling them to be identified for new projects, recycled and repurposed. The team also make sure to avoid environmentally unfriendly materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

In general, touring exhibitions have a lower carbon footprint compared to one-off temporary exhibitions as they are essentially recycled by visiting several venues over a longer life span. However, what can make touring exhibitions less sustainable is the use of unrecyclable materials and environmentally unfriendly transport. To address this, touring exhibitions should be designed and fabricated with materials in mind that are recyclable and reusable. Considerations include whether the materials can be reused across the Group’s sites or offered to the host venue if they wish to keep the materials for their own use. An example of was the popular Tim Peake’s Spacecraft Tour presented in partnership with Samsung where structures were repurposed for other exhibitions. The materials can also be reused by giving them to a third party. For example, transport contractors can reuse touring crates that are no longer needed by the museum.

Another way we are increasing sustainability in our touring exhibitions is through our Blueprint Pack exhibitions. This model is unique to the Science Museum Group and distinct to the traditional touring exhibition model: it is a ‘blueprint’ of an original exhibition which is then transformed into a digital package to be sent electronically to our hiring partners. These packages contain all the content and digital assets to produce a personalised and dynamic exhibition on a contemporary science topic. There is nothing physical that accompanies the package, which means that there are no additional carbon emissions from transporting materials or objects. It also means that a partner can choose which materials to use to create the exhibition, as long as they are recyclable and environmentally friendly.

SMG’s Superbugs Blueprint Pack Exhibition, presented at Gallery Puesto, Seoul, South Korea in partnership with Pfizer.

The concept has been very successful and has created a sustainable way to broaden participation and help us to partner with many organisations around the world. The concept also allows the exhibition to reach smaller and previously inaccessible venues, and for the same exhibition to be displayed in multiple places simultaneously. An example of a recent partnership was working with Pfizer to bring a topical Science Museum exhibition, Superbugs: The Fight for Our Lives to Seoul, South Korea as a Blueprint Pack exhibition. This exhibition was designed and built in South Korea, based on the Science Museum Group’s content and was very popular at the Gallery Puesto in 2020. Subsequent partnerships included the National Science Museum of Daejeon and Superbugs is now currently at its third tour venue in South Korea, the Busan Science Experience Center. The advantage of this model is that exhibition content can be adapted to suit local audiences and can be responsive to the latest scientific innovations and events. Superbugs has not only been shown in South Korea, but also has been displayed simultaneously in China, India, Argentina and Russia. Without a Blueprint pack a tour of these venues individually would have taken several months.

Our Superbugs Blueprint Pack Exhibition that was shown at the National Science Museum Daejeon, South Korea last year.

Currently, our Blueprint Pack Exhibitions are being presented all around the world, including at Bletchley Park Trust in the United Kingdom, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Saudi Arabia, as well with partners in India and China that are part of the Wellcome Trust project. The carbon footprint of these traditional touring displays are really low compared with touring displays as there is no shipping involved between the UK and the host country. For example, for our Wellcome Trust funded projects in India and China, two shipping containers were used in India and in China, one shipping container worth of materials that were all locally sourced and built instead of being loaded up on ships to travel the globe.

This model is a great example of how a touring exhibition can be more sustainable than in the past, reach broader, more diverse audiences, and also promote the fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

Our Blueprint Pack Exhibitions have been simultaneously shown around the world, all sent digitally. This has resulted in reaching wider audiences and promoting a more sustainable type of touring exhibition model.

We are, of course, very excited for our next contemporary science exhibition, Our Future Planet, to open this spring at the Science Museum and which will explore the latest carbon capture technologies that will help remove excess carbon from our atmosphere and mitigate some of the devastating impact of climate change. Our Future Planet will join the Science Museum Group’s portfolio of Blueprint Pack Exhibitions and will allow us the opportunity to partner with organisations around the world to help engage international audiences with the science of climate change and also further our mission to inspire futures as visitors discover the incredible work being done by scientists to find solutions to humanity’s greatest problem.

You can find out more about the Science Museum Group’s touring exhibitions here.

Emily Cronin is a Partnerships Manager at the Science Museum Group, based at the Science Museum in London. She is passionate about building relationships and promoting the wonder of science through the Science Museum Group’s extraordinary collections, exhibitions and projects.