No change too small: how an LGBT+ exhibition at Museum of Oxford blazed a sustainability trail

Article: David Styles

As the much-anticipated COP26 climate summit looms over all sustainability decisions made at present, it’s not always the large-scale work that makes the biggest impact – as last year’s Sustainable Project of the Year winner perfectly demonstrates.

Given its unprecedented virtual format, the Museums + Heritage Awards 2020 was ever likely to stand out. It was, however, the launch of a new category in partnership with National Lottery Heritage Fund which grabbed much of the attention in September.

The inaugural Sustainable Project of the Year gong highlighted “such an important issue for us, and indeed the sector”, according to Ros Kerslake, chief executive of National Lottery Heritage Fund, who revealed the winner selected from a highly competitive shortlist.

Standout sustainability

The projects shortlisted for the 2020 prize were:

  • The National Trust – Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant climate adaptation/mitigation project
  • Imperial War Museums – sustainable storage building
  • Museum of Oxford – temporary exhibition Queering Spires: A History of LGBTIQA+ Spaces in Oxford
  • The British Museum/Free Practise Ltd – Disposable? Rubbish and Us exhibition
  • Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales – exhibition Dinosaurs and Activism? Yes Please
  • Natural History Museum Tring – self-sustaining building

National Lottery Heritage Fund hopes the award, which is back again for the 2021 edition, can serve as a melting pot for creativity and best practice – as well as a means by which to celebrate the sector’s environmental trailblazers.

“Showcasing all those who apply for the award is an essential part of what we’re trying to achieve. While it’s lovely to be the winner, the priority is surfacing good practice that we can share more widely,” notes Drew Bennellick, Heritage Fund’s head of land and nature policy.

Last year’s brand-new category attracted a diverse array of entries, but it was the one deemed to have shown the most ambition – not by any means the largest budget – that drew the plaudits.

In explaining why Museum of Oxford had won the prize, the judging panel noted that “sustainability was at the very heart of this winning project” and that its “commitment and authenticity” had greatly impressed them. Perhaps most importantly of all, it was the creation of a “model which could be replicated across the sector” that saw the project pip several outstanding initiatives to the post.

How did they do it?

Temporary exhibitions have a tendency to generate a lot of waste, with the majority using brand new materials for signage and interpretation. These materials are then often sent to landfill as soon as the show closes.

The Museum of Oxford’s Queering Spires: a history of LGBTIQA+ spaces in Oxford opened in September 2019 as the antidote to this customarily inefficient format.

© Museum of Oxford/Twitter

Learning how to produce a more sustainable exhibition from an arsenal of industry best practice exemplars wasn’t an option. Instead, the team had to interrogate every decision in order to identify junctures where more environmentally-conscious choices could be made.

Running the event as if they were heritage-loving Wombles, the Museum of Oxford staff decided incorporating borrowed and second-hand items throughout the project would be a pertinent way to minimise waste.

Furniture and decor pieces were purchased from homelessness charity Emmaus Oxford, with all these items then being donated back for resale after the exhibition closed.

Even the artwork wasn’t exempt, with a piece commissioned for the exhibition having been made using recycled shoeboxes, old magazines, and boards of reclaimed plywood sourced from a local social enterprise recycling service.

© Museum of Oxford/Twitter

Other exhibition staples were sourced from closer to home, including plinths and a display case reused from previous exhibitions. The museum’s events store cupboard was also raided for a table and chairs that would otherwise have been bought specifically for the time-limited show.

Working closely with local contributors also proved a savvy way of reducing the emissions associated with sourcing items for display. Artefacts loaned from personal collections were delivered to the site using public transport and bicycles, with just two items having to be delivered by car – even then, an Oxford-based low emissions taxi service was called on.

Eradicating new materials altogether proved impossible. This did not, however, mean the exhibition’s principles were abandoned. All items unable to be sourced second-hand were made of reusable or recyclable materials, meaning nothing bought would go to landfill.

Finally, all the printing for Queering Spires was done by a local ISO14001-accredited company which operates under the British Assessment Bureau’s standard of environmental practice.

Marta Lomza accepts the award at last year's ceremony

“Trying to have sustainable projects in museums is not a tick box exercise, it’s a journey,” said Marta Lomza, community engagement & exhibitions officer at the Museum of Oxford, as she accepted the award.

“We keep adapting our practice as new information and facts come to the fore. It’s often really hard work but it’s definitely worth it.”

Are you this year’s top green regime?

Applications for the 2021 Sustainable Project of the Year prize are being encouraged from organisations which have made changes in areas as diverse as energy efficiency, recycling and reuse, sustainable procurement, or even incentivising green visitor travel.

“The fundamental point anyone applying needs to address is how their actions have helped the organisation think differently as a whole,” Drew Bennellick states, asserting that size and budget are irrelevant if a project incorporates fresh ideas that could inspire others.

Apply now

Sustainable Project of the Year is one of several categories exempt from fees in light of the challenging year the entire sector has faced. All entrants need to do is apply via the new online application portal before the deadline on 31 March 2021.

To be eligible, projects will have taken place in the 2020 calendar year and demonstrate best practice in approaches to the managing environmental impacts. Entries should also identify any wider economic, social or environmental benefits to the organisation or community which have arisen from thinking sustainably.

To submit an application, click here.