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Sustainability in Exhibition Spaces

Jeroen Broeckx

Sustainability is high on the agenda for museums today. Production Manager Marie Vandecasteele shares this concern. Together with the scenographers and curators, she is turning the exhibition spaces a more conscious place.

Behind-the-scenes mounting 'Man Ray and Fashion', April 2023
Jeroen Broeckx

"Today, we can no longer pretend," states Marie Vandecasteele. As production manager of the exhibitions, she is making efforts to become more sustainable, together with the curators, scenographers and production companies. "Both in our personal lives and in the workplace, we have to put sustainability first."

"Before I ended up in a museum, I worked as a theatre technician. When I applied for a job in the museum sector, I naively believed that the production of an exhibition was more sustainable than that of a theatre production. But building exhibitions creates a huge amount of waste. Scenographers and curators should therefore ask themselves how a museum can operate sustainably. I try to look critically at the materials we use, how an exhibition is constructed and what experience curators and scenographers want to create."

"That approach sometimes leads to differences of opinions. It’s not always nice to have to reflect critically on a new design idea from the get-go. Luckily, I have the support of my colleagues and we face these challenges with enthusiasm. The production companies we work with also keep an open mind."

  • 'MIRROR MIRROR - Fashion & the Psyche', exhibition view, 2022
    Stany Dederen
  • Behind-the-scenes dismounting 'MIRROR MIRRROR - Fashion & the Psyche', March 2023
    Stany Dederen

Optical illusions

Vandecasteele learned that it is best to look at things with a sustainable perspective as early in the process as possible. "You don't want to limit the scenographer's creativity, of course. But if you wait and leave everything to the production company, things don't work out. That's why at the beginning we examine what materials we really need, where we can source them and how many individual object presentations we can put together."

"Even during construction, I continue to reflect on how we can reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible. Those savings usually lie in small things that the audience doesn't get to see. Opting for thinner wood, for example, or using fewer supports where possible. Through those optical illusions, we try to reduce material use."

Complex puzzles

"When preparing a new exhibition, I also ask the scenographers to take into account the existing decor," Vandecasteele adds. "Although it doesn't make the puzzle any easier and requires a lot of energy, we can often reuse objects in their entirety. For example, after dismounting 'MIRROR MIRROR', we set aside several pedestals with glass bells to reuse in 'Man Ray and Fashion'."

"Another example are the three walls of 'Ribbons', Ed Atkins' video installation at the end of 'MIRROR MIRROR'. Those got a new lick of paint and can be found in the new exhibition as a stage, a wall and a partition."

Pedestal with glass bell, used for 'MIRROR MIRROR' and 'Man Ray and Fashion'
Stany Dederen

New lives

Vandecasteele further ensures that the objects are also given a new place outside the museum walls. "As soon as the end of the build-up approaches, I email a number of local ateliers. I invite them to come see the exhibition and list things they might be able to reuse after completion. In the past, they transformed pedestals from a previous exhibition into flower boxes. It's rewarding to see how they handle the material and what new lives they give to it."

"During construction, we always keep reuse in mind. So we try to choose wood species that are interesting for the recovery workshops, and we build everything in such a way that it is easier to take apart afterwards. The production companies that take care of assembly and disassembly also think about recycling. They often make the walls in such a way that they can later use the inner frames for other projects. But recycling is by no means the only solution. Because if everyone keeps producing recyclables, this market will also become saturated."

Inspiring ideas

"Fortunately, sustainability is not only high on our agenda," continues Vandecasteele. "Other cultural institutions are facing similar challenges. There is even a network group on sustainable exhibition construction. We often exchange ideas. Reading what other museums and organizations are doing helps me make certain choices. There is no manual for sustainable scenography. So it is mainly a learning process: with each exhibition, we learn what works and what doesn't so that in the next exhibition, we pay attention to its sustainability in different and new ways."