Museums are all about preserving the past, but could the models around which they’re currently built be jeopardizing our future? Some experts warn that the current approach to museum exhibits aren’t ecologically sustainable, and that could warrant a new model for museum design that takes into account the impact that is more sustainable in both economic and environmental terms.
Recent examinations of the museum model have focused on Canadian museums, but these concerns could be applied to the philosophy behind museums in most modern nations. Part of the problem could be the focus on “permanent” exhibits in many museums. These standing exhibits may seem cutting edge when they’re first released, but while history never changes, our perception of it can. Western museums, for instance, have a long history of centering themselves around colonial perspectives that often drown out the voices of marginalized people and minimize the impact of imperialist interests on their lives. And while recent exhibits have transitioned towards more inclusive exhibits that draw in a variety of experiences. Standing exhibits are slow to transition and hard to change, and that’s not necessarily a criticism of the biases of curators. Removing or making substantive changes to a standing exhibit are a serious economic consideration. Dismantling or changing an exhibit is expensive enough in its own right, but museums also have to consider the sunk cost of building the exhibit in the first place along with the substantive cost of renovating an existing exhibit or constructing a new one.
That said, permanent exhibits can serve as a lasting draw for guests for a long period of time, and acclaimed exhibits can significantly raise the cultural cache of a museum. But the solution might not be to continue building outward: investing in an increasingly bloated collection of long term exhibits that are costly in both economic and environmental terms. Long term exhibits can set a mood and define the tone of a museum, but they should be used in conjunction with more flexible and short term exhibits. These temporary exhibits can reuse components, thus minimizing both the economic and ethical cost, while spotlighting artists and stories that might not otherwise be able to support a lasting exhibit.
The results could be something more dynamic, less staid, and focused on the interests of the times rather than on more conventional subjects that are, by their nature, designed to appeal to the broadest audience possible. It could offer the both of best worlds and create a world where museums are dynamic and lived in places that still have a sense of historical gravity.