Sustainability, Personal Values and an Institutional Culture

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NEMO Science Museum’s Studio is a laboratory which cooperates with partners and the public on devising low-threshold, interactive programs related to science and tech.

Sustainability, Personal Values and an Institutional Culture

Conversations with Lizzy Bakker, Senior Exhibition Maker at NEMO Science Museum, Amsterdam

In this fourth blogpost Dr. Sandro Debono, a museum thinker based on the Mediterranean island of Malta, shares his thoughts and reflections about the Chatter Marks Museums in a Climate of Change podcast series with museum professionals from all over the world, co-hosted with Cody Liska.

On the first three podcasts, our conversations with museum professionals and knowledge seekers featured museum leadership. We charted our way through inspiring conversations and actionable possibilities but those did not get us deep into the workings of a museum institution. We were still unsure about the ways and means of how climate change agendas would implemented and put to practice from within. How would this happen and what would be required for meaningful action, nevertheless inspired by leadership, to happen?

Lizzy Bakker works on the Energy Junkies exhibition
We got some of the answers to that question during our conversation with Lizzy Bakker, Senior Exhibition Maker at NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam. Lizzy is based at NEMO De Studio, a space formerly used as a gymnasium and with a footprint of roughly 900 square meters that serves the purpose of an experimentation space. This is where NEMO staff develop playful, interactive exhibitions for grownups and projects with a focus on societal themes.

We did expect that our conversation would focus on exhibitions making. In-deed, Lizzy took us through some of the projects at De Studio, charting what constitutes a good and a bad exhibition. For Lizzy, a good exhibition would be about the power of interactivity with much less text and a combination of storytelling methods. Exhibitions should be about showing different perspectives and let museum publics form their very own opinion, each with his own way of learning and accessing information.

Cody and I could not help ask Lizzy take us on a podcast tour of the latest exhibition at De Studio which Lizzy kept mentioning. ‘Energy Junkies’ ques-tioned the comfort and convenience of our everyday lives and how much that depends on energy consumption. Everything we take foregranted would come to a halt if humanity had to loose this one vital source - energy.

Can our dependence on energy can be described akin to an addiction? As we continue to depend on fossil fuels our addictions leave their mark on climate change. What if we had to create healthier habits of energy consumptions also including a carbon diet or medicines from a climate pharmacy where we can be cured from our energy addiction?

The Energy Junkies Exhibition at NEMO De Studio

‘Energy Junkies’ presented options and possibilities to choose from. There is certainly no one straight answer to such complex questions. I could sense how the conversation was also hinting at a strategic approach informed by the need to strike a balance between adaptation and mitigation. As the leading science museum in the Netherlands, NEMO would seek to create science capital with tangible goals that are within reach of its prevalently Dutch public. There was more to come.

At one point, the conversation took a turn to focus on the bigger picture—sustainability. Temporary exhibitions make use of materials that are often-times single-use. Materials and energy resources go into creating one-off, temporary experiences that generate large amounts of waste. Can we bring sustainability into the conversation in the case of temporary exhibitions?

Lizzy certainly thinks we can. Recycling materials used in previous shows is certainly an option but sustainability also needs to come in at design stage to touch upon all aspects of production. The use of wooden pellets and second hand materials is one other possible way forward. Working with companies within the region also helps NEMO mitigate the institution’s carbon footprint.

NEMO's use of scaffolding systems for the purpose of sustainability

For ‘Energy Junkies’, NEMO used modular scaffolding as a basic structure and that can be used for future exhibitions projects. Becoming greener nevertheless is not a walk in the park. ‘Time also has a price tag to it,’ Lizzy adds.

Lizzy does, however, underpin the risk of having design and story in conflict with each other. One need not get to the point where doing nothing at all is the best way forward to achieve sustainability. It does matter, however, that an exhibition has a sustainable look and feel. Design highly impacts the way people experience the exhibition so besides being meaningfully and tangibly sustainable it also has to look so.

Lizzy’s commitment to the cause of sustainability goes beyond her designation as Senior Exhibition Maker and this, I think, is the key message of this podcast. Lizzy forms part of NEMO’s Green Team which is a voluntary group of eight colleagues from across the organization advocating for sustainable and climate change action. I found this part of the conversation rather inspiring, given that neither Lizzy nor the other colleagues on the Green Team form part of the museum’s senior management team. We did get a list of things done and a mention of an inventory of other things that can be improved when seen through the lens of sustainability. More than a list of actions, the Green Team sees itself as being akin to a movement from within the organization with the purpose of pushing different departments into placing sustainability high on the museum agenda. Cody and I couldn’t help notice the enthusiasm with which Lizzy described this commitment to us and the meaningful initiatives that are also in the works.

Exterior of the NEMO Science Museum in Amsterdam

There is much more that museums are doing to address sustainability and NEMO’s efforts certainly fall in line with the general picture. Circularity can also be thought of being part of the exhibiton concept and design from the very initial stages. It can also be conceived across the organisation whereby materials used for one project are intentionally purchased for use on other projects from the start, but what really struck me about our conversation with Lizzy is her personal commitment to the cause of sustainability and how that comfortably overlaps with institutional designations. Lizzy quips that this also concerns her colleagues, particularly those working on ‘Energy Junkies’ who got to think seriously about their personal energy consumption. Some pledged to take action by going for second-hand clothes rather than buying new ones or keeping an eye on energy consumption when heating their homes in winter. I thought this was a very good way of how to put into practice the ambitions of the Green Team to which Lizzy belongs.

Lizzy works in a museum where visitor experience provides lots of satisfaction. Museums can indeed be fun and offer a sustainable experience that is enrich-ing, engaging and thought provoking also when presenting complex topics such as energy. "Sometimes we forget about the fun that people have with museum content and projects we spend so much time working on," Lizzy adds.

I cannot help thinking about how a good exhibition can also be transformative for staff working on that project, especially if their values comfortably overlap with those that same exhibition is promoting. Lizzy shared all the right reasons for this happen.

I don’t think this would have crossed Lizzy’s mind when visiting NEMO as a six year old student way back in 1997. More of that on this podcast episode.

Editorial note: Lizzy Baker would leave NEMO shortly after Cody and I recorded this podcast to join Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden (the Netherlands) as Head of Presentation. We are sure that Lizzy’s personal commitment to make museums more sustainable is still strong.

Listen to the podcast in its entirety here.

As you listen to this podcast you will hear Lizzy mention ideas, projects and many other details. Should you wish to explore further, these are some links to the things that get mentioned:

NEMO Science Museum, the Netherlands
The Studio
Energy Junkies Exhibition
Speculative design
Plastic Crush (Exhibition) at the Traupen Museum, the Netherlands

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