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Museum Affairs

Exhibiting Sustainably: M Leuven and Its Green Book

December, 2023

Sustainability policy is important in numerous areas of society, and it is increasingly acquiring a key role in museums. For instance, ICOM recently announced the inauguration of an Award for Sustainable Development Practice in Museums. In this second article in CODART’s series on sustainability in museums, we will be focusing on sustainability in exhibitions. What does it involve and how does it affect the curator’s work?

CODART spoke to Marjan Debaene of M Leuven, a museum with a comprehensive sustainability policy and a Green Book that it has developed to translate this policy into good practice. But M Leuven is not alone. In addition to the Leuven story, several other curators from the CODART network discuss the ways in which their own institutions are approaching this issue.

Could you give us a few details about your Green Book?

Marjan Debaene: “The Green Book is essentially a collection of our internal guidelines to maximize sustainability. At M Leuven we have been focusing on climate and ecology since 2013. That is partly because for several years we belonged to Greentrack Network, an organization that focuses on achieving sustainability – particularly in an ecological sense – in the cultural sector.

Sustainability has many different facets, and we try to achieve it in every aspect of our work. Our new policy plan states that we aim to increase our cultural footprint while reducing our ecological footprint. That said, we are always aware that the museum remains a house that consumes a vast amount of energy. Both in the galleries and behind the scenes we work on improving our sustainability, especially in an ecological sense. But also qualitatively, since sustainability requires long-term vision – it is literally about sustaining resources – which means working things out in depth. In addition, we reduce our waste to a minimum, we use renewable energy, we are careful with our use of water and sustainability is an important consideration in our purchasing policy and when granting commissions. Promoting health, well-being and accessibility is also part of our sustainability policy.

Recently, as part of the Green Book, we drafted a memorandum on sustainable exhibitions. We see this as including virtual couriering and sustainable transportation (group transports) and incorporating these issues systematically into our loan applications and contracts. By now, these are no longer new or original measures, but implementing them structurally and stating our position helps to achieve change. It is difficult to compel cooperation, and each new interaction must be approached individually, but it is important to uphold this principle.

In addition, when designing an exhibition, we try to incorporate a recycling element. To make this easier, we have devised a kind of house style for exhibition designs. That is visible not so much in the way the exhibits are displayed, but on the inside – the ‘skeletons’ of display cases, bases, and walls is almost always the same at our museum, to make these easier to reuse. Of course an exhibition can have its own appearance, but we try to reuse as many elements as possible while giving each show its own characteristic aesthetic.

Take our exhibition on Borman, for instance. There we used bases with wooden skeletons that were covered in travertine tiles. It was an exhibition on sculpture, so we wanted to introduce a clear material dimension to the design that would provide a sufficient contrast with all those wooden sculptures. It was also a nod to the museum’s façade, which also has travertine cladding. After the show we were left with these tiles. These were expensive, high-quality materials that we did not want to throw away. So we stained them all black and were able to reuse them in the exhibition Rodin, Meunier, and Minne. Another example: the glass panels (to enclose display cases) in our current exhibition on Bouts are the same ones we’ve been using since 2016. When we had them made, we decided we would reuse them as often as possible.”

Ingmar Reesing of Museum Gouda takes up this point with an example from his own institution, commenting that it is important to think ahead in this respect. “In the exhibition Cool Waters, with loans from the Rijksmuseum, we added pieces from our own collection, including cartoons of the stained-glass windows of St John’s Church – for which we commissioned special display cases. Since these cartoons are of varied width, the display cases were deliberately designed to fit all of them. After the exhibition we had to temporarily store them externally, since we wanted to use them in our renewed permanent exhibition in our chapel. There we now show different cartoons in the same display cases, varying the selection according to a fixed schedule. And when we were designing The Miracle of Gouda, we explicitly planned to reuse materials for the refurbishment of the chapel. We were able to reuse the steel frames from which the altarpieces were hung, with a few modifications.”

The chapel in Museum Gouda, with the repurposed steel frames for the altarpieces, and the showcases for the cartoons of the stained-glass windows

The chapel in Museum Gouda, with the repurposed steel frames for the altarpieces, and the showcases for the cartoons of the stained-glass windows

M Leuven has two in-house designers – the scenographers. Some say having this consistency benefits sustainable exhibition design more than taking on a different external designer for each new show. For each designer will often want to place their own “stamp” on the design, which is hard to achieve if they are expected to work with existing materials and elements. What’s your opinion on this?

Marjan Debaene: “Our ‘house style’ for design is definitely an advantage in this respect. We devised it in 2017 when we changed the way we displayed our collection. Instead of having one permanent exhibition of the collection, we switched to two or three smaller shows per two years, each one highlighting part of the collection. When we made this change, we commissioned a permanent house style for types of walls, partitions, bases, and display cases in a modular system. Since we planned to change the displays quite frequently, we needed numerous different options. So we have worked with similar display cases and bases (with curtains, reupholstered benches, and so on) for some five to six years. Since rapidly-changing shows do not in themselves have a high sustainability score, we tried to compensate for that by always reusing as many materials as possible.

Our scenographer also plays an important role here. He trained as an architect and engineer and is a real expert on materials, which is also an advantage in procurement. For instance: for the Alabaster exhibition, we had a design with wooden bases and wall panels, and where possible reused glass display cases. In the design as well as when ordering the wood, the scenographer took care to ensure that the wooden panels were sawn down as little as possible– for instance when the show was being set up. This enabled us to dismantle the panels afterwards, still with the original standard dimensions, which made it easy for us to sell them. It is a great advantage that more and more organizations are focusing on circularity and recycling to facilitate this approach.”

But even without intermediaries, it’s perfectly possible to put elements from exhibitions to a different use. Ingmar Reesing: “I have found that the best way to pass on materials is by drawing on my network; colleagues from other museums will ask if we can let them have certain elements from an exhibition. For instance, I have already received many queries regarding the carpeting in our current exhibition. And it works the other way rouand as well: I sometimes ask whether we can use materials I see in exhibitions elsewhere. For instance, we reused the curtains from the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum for our show Match, after which they were passed on to another institution. Simply asking whether you can take over something often leads to an excellent solution.”

Aside from the reuse of materials, what are other ways in which you incorporate considerations of sustainability into making exhibitions in Leuven?

Marjan Debaene: “As I said, for several years we regularly changed the displays of our collection. We have somewhat stepped away from that practice since the COVID years. It’s extremely time-consuming to prepare the content of the displays and puts curators under immense pressure. In 2024 we are changing to a semi-permanent five-year display of the collection, a length of time that enables us to take a more in-depth approach. You might call it a ‘slower programming’ or ‘slower curating’ approach. In addition, we will be putting on one exhibition a year. That too has certain ecological advantages. And we will also be trying to extend the length of the exhibitions themselves. In the past, the standard length for an exhibition was three months. That is very short. If we can lengthen them to four or five months, we will do so.

However, how long a particular show can last also depends on what objects can physically withstand. Opinions on this issue are changing. In recent years, research has produced many new findings relating to climate and light damage. It takes an enormous amount of energy to correct all the fluctuations in humidity and temperature. We have now discovered that objects do not actually respond very quickly to those changes, certainly not in a new building. That means the requirements are gradually being relaxed somewhat, which can save a great deal of energy. Museums really need to cooperate in this respect, by agreeing slightly less rigid requirements than before. That is something that still needs to take hold in the sector.”

Erik Eising of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin gives a good example of this. “When war broke out in Ukraine and we could no longer rely on the gas supply from Russia, politicians urged us to cut energy consumption as much as possible. It meant we had to lower the temperature in our permanent exhibition in the winter. With exhibitions including loans, however, that’s not possible because of the requirements set by lenders. What struck me personally in the case of the loan contracts that we received for Frans Hals (2024), compared to those for Hugo van der Goes is that the margins for accepted temperature and humidity have in fact become wider. For instance, one lender prescribed a temperature of ‘15-25°C +/- 4°C’ and humidity of ‘40-60% +/- 10%.’ I doubt that this would have been conceivable a few years ago. We have also been trying for some time in Berlin to boost sustainability for instance by reusing architectural elements in our temporary exhibitions as much as possible, and recently we also introduced new, more energy-efficient lighting in our permanent exhibition.”

Some of these activities are actively required in Germany by funds and grant providers. Anja Sevcik of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne explained that sponsorship applications generally have to be accompanied by an Environment and Sustainability Statement as well as documentation of efforts such as the use of ecologically certified paper, LED lighting, recycled exhibition walls, avoidance of long–distance loans, attempts to find regional loans, and the selection of themes that maximize the use – and restoration – of works from their own collection.

How would you define the specific role of curators in relation to this issue?

Marjan Debaene: “All of this impacts the curator’s work if you incorporate this way of thinking into your considerations regarding loans, for instance. Curators must think carefully about which loans to choose, and in some cases be more selective. Which loans are crucial and which are optional? The loans list does not have to contain all the possible masterpieces or be completely comprehensive in order to mount a good exhibition. But the priority must always be to preserve the narrative content – you have to choose loans on that basis. If you can tell the same story with loans acquired from closer by, why wouldn’t you do so? I should add that ecological choices are often also financial choices. Curators need to develop a more conscious attitude there, even those who have a really generous budget. In my view, the time that every single object must be physically present has passed. That absolutely doesn’t mean I’m advocating more digital devices in the galleries, but for some objects there are other options. You have to arrive at a reasonable balance. You can’t say ‘We don’t need exhibitions anymore; we’re going to do everything digitally from now on.’ I still believe in the power of bringing objects together in a single space. The physical relationship between objects is important. We can retain that, in spite of the ecological constraints. It is our responsibility to contribute as little as possible to global warming. We are a sustainable sector in the sense that we preserve things for eternity. But that preservation must not be at the expense of the future of our planet.”

Marjan Debaene is Head Curator of Old Masters at M Leuven. She has been a member of CODART since 2010. Ingmar Reesing is Curator at Museum Gouda. He has been a member of CODART since 2018. Erik Eising is Assitant Curator at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. He has been a member of CODART since 2017. Anja Sevcik is Head of the Department of Baroque Painting at Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud in Cologne. She has been a member of CODART since 1998.