Exhibitions & the Sharing Economy

For the past few years, the “sharing economy” has been a great buzz word. With successes like Airbnb, Uber, Blablacar, Spock or Deliveroo, it seems that pooling resources using technology can make economies efficient and stop businesses from reinventing the wheel. I’ve even started describing Vastari as a sharing economy company for exhibitions.

Recently, at Web Summit in Portugal, I attended a roundtable discussion on “Waste to Wealth”, run by Peter Lacy, an MD in Strategy, Growth & Sustainability at Accenture. Lacy described how his firm works with large multinationals to build company structures that acknowledge that resources are finite. Their goal is to set up a “make, take, make, take” relationship rather than a “make, take, waste” relationship. Namely, he analysed how companies used to design products to be thrown away, and are moving more towards circular loops of value, where what would have been thrown away is instead integrated into systems of reuse.

An example Lacy used was Michelin, a well-known tyre brand. The company is repositioning itself from being a tyre manufacturer to being what they call, a facilitator of sustainable mobility. One way they do this is by providing tyres as a service, used by their clients on a subscription basis, and then recycled when they reach the end of their life. Rubber is a great material to recycle.

As with the Michelin example, companies are finding that subscription services are much more sustainable than outright purchases, as the company can integrate reuse of materials in their working practices.

It might seem strange to be attending an event on the circular economy, given Vastari focuses on the economy of putting on temporary exhibitions. Flying artworks around the world, printing catalogues, tickets, brochures, marketing materials, using air conditioning full-time so the works don’t get damaged…. This is not exactly sustainable!

But, I would argue, this is an opportunity waiting for a solution. The way we curate exhibitions today is most definitely unsustainable. As a sector, we need to open up the conversation to figure out how we can be much better at organising ourselves so that the good things about exhibitions keep happening without the wastage.

We can’t afford to lose how much exhibitions share a wealth of knowledge, exchange opinions and open eyes to new perspectives. And we must keep preserving the truths that exist from millennia past, in the age of fake news and reality TV. But how to do it without feeling so wasteful?

The first suggestion at the Web Summit roundtable was changing the attitude within the organisation, to think strategically about what resources can be reused and shared. And accordingly, building KPIs (key performance indicators) for the business that are more helpful to reducing waste. For example, if you are a car production house that focuses on achieving the cheapest manufacturing cost, you will have different output than if you focus on how to throw away the least amount of material.

One can also think about grouping together to create standards - which museums have already done. The Bizot Group produced a Green Protocol back in 2015, which outlined some guidelines on sustainable practices. The group worked to provide guidance on what the optimal conditions are for keeping items, as well as being more realistic about the lifetime of the objects museums preserve in their permanent collections. It is interesting reading - but what does it mean for temporary displays?

Here are 4 ways in which technology might be able to help museums think more sustainably about exhibitions:

1.Does it need to be printed?

An exhibition wants to stop people in their tracks, sharing some important information with them, shock them with a great big image.

Museums are using digital technologies to achieve the same effect that printed signage used to have. Examples include image recognition apps like Smartify, virtual reality tours like Timelooper, projections that fill a whole wall or digital wall labels that can be reprogrammed for each show.

2. Share your shows

Showing an exhibition only at one location is greatly wasteful. When museums share exhibitions, fewer resources are wasted on one-time use, and there is the benefit of cultural dialogue between institutions. Many museums tour their exhibitions in order to be more financially sustainable, but one can think of it as ecologically sustainable too. If you’re wondering what that means, here is a page about touring your exhibitions using Vastari.

3.Partner locally, think globally

Economists are thinking of ways to calculate GDP based on welfare and waste figures as well as only economic transactions. A large part of this is looking at the weight of what is exported, in order to estimate carbon emissions. In essence - the heavier what you are transporting, the bigger the impact on the environment.

Museums are doing to fight this waste is partnering with local museums to import global exhibitions. For example, a few museums in 2012 and 2013, museums pooled together to tour an Andy Warhol show from the States, so it was first shown in Singapore, then Shanghai and then Hong Kong, and then travelled to Japan in 2014. By pooling together, the shows could be brought to Asia, without having to pay for back-and-forth transport to each country (in funds and emissions).

More data on museums is being gathered by many parties, so that these types of collaborations can be orchestrated using technology rather than Rolodexes.

4. Manufacturing scarcity

The last subject that was brought up during Lacy’s workshop was how companies are making their products seem more scarce, in order to lessen over-use. (Here is an article exploring how this impacts pricing perceptions as well)

Scarcity in museums has been cultivated in many ways, but an interesting one I encountered has to do with hiring fees. Certain important works of heritage, that are more sensitive to travel and display, will be priced extremely highly, so that they are not as easy to request.

This can be seen as controversial, as these non-profit institutions charge others high fees for the borrowing of works. But in reality, I would position it as a sustainable strategy, and would almost encourage it to be taken one step further. Works that are heavier or more difficult to transport should incur a higher fee, so that all museums think more creatively about how to put together interesting shows. That type of difficulty can actually breed creative results.

By creating different expectations of temporary exhibitions, embracing technology and rethinking guidelines, museums can really take part in the global trend towards the sharing economy.