‘No Going Back’ – The Happy Museum’s peer learning programme for ‘Rapid Transformation’

Exhibitions and Loans
January 18, 2022

The Happy Museum supports museum practice that places wellbeing within an environmental and future-facing framework. The Sustainable Exhibitions for Museums Network [SEFM] that I was co-chairing prior to the pandemic, was selected to be one be one of the 15 working groups for their Peer Learning Programme, which focused on the power of museums to draw on past stories of transition and transformation and inspire us to shape new stories and actions to address the climate and ecological emergency.

Part of the Sustainability and Subversion display in the Design 1900 – Now galleries at V&A South Kensington. Image Zoe Louizos

The network had been on pause for many months, and we wanted to find a way to re-launch it in a smaller way, but that was still useful to the community and our individual institutions. The first session was held in February 2021, where we met our peers and mentors from the 52 participants in a mixture of collective and breakout sessions. We discussed what was most urgent to us, what was most inspiring and what issues we find most challenging.

Key themes to emerge reflect the programme’s assertive title ‘No Going Back’: that there is an urgency to find ways to avoid a return to ‘business as usual’ in terms of museum practice. We discussed how this opportunity to re-think our work allows us to ask probing questions that have the potential to inform our relationship with our ‘new normal’: our focus on perpetual growth, how we measure ‘success’, our relationship with ‘waste’; the need to better measure the intangible and holistic impacts to understand the true environmental and social cost of our actions.

This resonates strongly with my work on exhibitions, which in its current ‘single use’ incarnation, remains wasteful and at odds with the messages of care, integrity and sustainability we aim to enshrine at the V&A. Visitors too, are becoming increasingly aware and invested, and do not want excessive waste to be created in their cultural experiences.

This is where the V&A has great potential to be sector-leading; embedding ‘circular design’ principles in our tenders and supporting innovation through our festival and learning programmes; building on the successful projects we launched with our waste materials last year, and programmes such as ‘Innovate’ run by the Learning Department.

A key theme running throughout the scheme is the renewed valorisation of imagination, reminding us of our role as cultural and creative stewards. Imagination is of course, one of the V&A’s four core values. As a museum of art and design, we showcase and explore how artists and makers have brought new worlds into existence and engineered new ways of living and relating to our communities and environment.

In this time of great change, the V&A has the power to support the creative community in envisioning new ideas, materials, processes and designs to make the world a better place, inspiring the next generation of change-makers through design.

The primary challenges that our network community wish to address are:

  1. Reduce exhibition waste and move to circular economy principles as a creative design challenge
  2. Establish standardised metrics and reporting on impact of exhibitions in a way that aids transparency and accountability and exposes ‘hidden’ costs and takes account of well-being/values
  3. Embed these practices across the sector, enacting cultural and behavioral change and pushing new industry norms
  4. Align the circular economy with social outreach – support and engage a diverse design community

Our aim through this scheme was to understand how SEFM could continue to operate as a network when much momentum and core membership had been lost. We wanted to continue to grapple with these big questions and engage the museum community in discussion and knowledge-sharing, but felt increasing pressure in terms of our resourcing and our capacity.

Through our participation, we learned that the key principles we could still encourage, through a more informal network, would be community, playfulness, support, resilience and well-being; a peer-led community where the focus could be less on outcome, and more on process and flow – something we all felt was often missing in faster paced working lives. We are currently looking at how we can continue to hold a space for sharing sustainability practice in exhibition delivery.

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