Sunday, May 23, 2010

OMSI Sustainability Symposium

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is working on a NSF grant funded project on sustainability that includes a 1500 sf exhibit, offsite exhibits and an expanded design checklist that will give the museum field a way to measure the sustainability of an exhibit. I am serving as a professional advisor for the design checklist on this ambitious project so I was at their Sustainability Symposium in Portland on May 17th and 18th.

The approach to project is being framed by the 3 pillars of sustainability : environmental, economic and social sustainability. While these are familiar terms, and come from the broadly accepted definition of sustainability, it was an interesting challenge to examine them within the context of the museum and of creating a guide for exhibit design and fabrication. Typically, when we think of sustainable design we focus on the environment.  Materials and energy usage are measurable issues that we can all understand within the context of an exhibit, but by including the economic and social dimensions OMSI is encouraging some new thinking.

Ben Fleskes, the Production Director at OMSI suggested that the design and fabrication of exhibits could be a tool for creating social value by inviting volunteers into the process. OMSI is also trying to incorporate the social dimension by using outreach programs and engaging the community in the development process. Ben is also interested in finding a way to mark the tangible value of the contributions of the PEOPLE who are a part of the project. So the social piece is about being local, building knowledge and valuing volunteerism. 

On the economic side we talked about the need to doing more with less - with the overall goal of creating "a sustainability of abundance and prosperity". Finding ways to do more with less could include leveraging prior work done in the field (to avoid reinventing the wheel for every exhibit). The Exploratorium Cookbook is one such resource for this way of thinking about conservation of resources. 

The economic issue also needs to color how we think about green materials.  There are ample choices for specifying $400/sheet "green" materials.  But is that material sustainable when you consider the economics?  Maybe green and sustainability are starting to mean different things in this framework.

Using the "three pillars" framework for museum exhibit design leads to some other opportunities (in addition to the ones OMSI has identified). 

I'm thinking specifically about DESIGN.  The way design creates a context for social interactions in the museum suggests that it can be a key tool for social sustainability. The design of the exhibits can support social interaction, collective work, and parent child interaction all of which can in turn support the central tenets of sustainability OMSI has articulated. This synergy between design, content, and the social context is really a rich point especially for a project with sustainability as the content not just the strategy.

OMSI's commitment and enthusiasm for this project along with their impressive capacity gives them a real opportunity to develop something that will have impact within the field. I look forward to the evolution of the sustainable design checklist to see how these less measurable dimensions of sustainable design can be represented in it.  We all presented projects we are working on at this meeting, so I have heard of some interesting approaches.  But we are interested in your experience.  Do you think about green and sustainability as meaning the same things? Do you agree with me that the exhibit can go beyond modeling the "social pillar" of sustainability and actually encourage visitors to engage in the kinds of behaviors that OMSI wants to support through its exhibit development practice?

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