Building Greener Exhibits

Stephen Bell, Director of Museum Operations
Mike Sarna, Director of Exhibits and Design
Notebaert Nature Museum

It’s an undeniable fact that the “green building” movement is finally gaining recognition by Museums and other cultural institutions who are in the process of building new buildings, contemplating renovations or creating or updating exhibit spaces. According to David Glissen, curator of architecture and design at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C., the current green building, or sustainable design and development movement, actually began nearly a century ago. However, only in the past decade have the underlying principles behind the greening movement been translated from theory into practice, largely by the efforts of the US Green Building Council.

The success of the USGBC in promoting sustainable practices that reduce a buildings impact on health and the environment, has had a trickle down effect to the point where concepts that were once considered solely belonging to the environmentalists of the 1970-80’s have become commonplace choices in homes and businesses. That these practices have been recognized and embraced by Museums and other public institutions is not surprising. As public institutions grapple with the tough everyday issue of financial viability, being recognized as an institution that promotes environmentally smart choices in construction, design and operation, may become a key factor in identifying and securing funds to complete a renovation or project. That funders are backing projects that promote the concepts of sustainability and stewardship sends a clear message that Museums and public institutions--through demonstration, education and interpretation--are seen as primary vehicles used to raise the publics awareness about green concepts and practices.

Museums have many choices regarding how they enter into becoming a “green building” or at least one that supports and promotes green practices. Institutions can commit to “being green” in their missions or as part of a strategic plan or capital campaign. Other institutions that are building new buildings or additions can choose to build green from the ground up. Still others demonstrate their commitment by choosing to use green products and materials. Whatever their level of commitment, Museums and other public institutions can find resources and support through the USGBC and its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification process.

As described in greater detail on the USGBC website ( the LEED Green Building Rating System is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. Although certainly not without distracters, at the very least, LEED has helped transform the way that facilities, including Museums and schools, are operated as well as stimulate a tremendous movement in the development, availability and use of green products and materials.

This article is intended as a basic guide, offering simple suggestions on how you can make your exhibits a bit greener by using the Nature Museums extreme greenhouse exhibit as a case study. In “greening” the Nature Museum, we used many of the criteria outlined by the USGBC LEED green building rating system to help inform our “green” decisions. This insert is inspired from a meeting co-hosted by the Chicago Museum Exhibitor’s Group (CMEG) and the Notebaert Nature Museum in December 2004 entitled Building Greener Exhibits.

Being Green at the Nature Museum

Although the Nature Museum is housed in an award-winning building that is less than six years old, given its focus, it is surprising that the facility and exhibits were not designed or built to LEED standards. However, since the Museum was opened in 1999, we have made significant progress in “greening” the building and the way in which it is operated. This work included the addition of a photovoltaic array and extensive green roofs on our rooftops. We even reclaim storm water run-off from our roofs and other impervious surfaces, which is then used to irrigate our native landscaping.

The emphasis on becoming an institution that actively sought to green its building and operations was largely defined in a strategic planning process the Museum underwent in 2001. The resulting three-year plan, entitled “Thinkng Green” emphasized our interest in the environment in all aspects of the institution, including exhibit content and design. The process also resulted in a refocused mission--to inspire people to learn about and care for nature and the environment. Our new mission and strategic plan emphasized a commitment to provide exhibits with content that promoted an understanding of sustainability and exemplified high environmental standards in our everyday practices so our guests could become more conservation minded.

There are many motivations for creating “greener” exhibits. In the current era of interactivity, museums are high traffic places where exhibits can and will take a beating. Exhibits, especially temporary installations, have a relatively short life expectancy and when demolished, many materials tend to go straight to the landfill. In addition, the building of exhibits can include materials with dangerously high VOC levels (Volatile Organic Compounds). While many people think of outdoor pollution from cars, factories and homes, indoor pollutants are being looked at closely and may be more harmful than outdoor counterparts. As Americans we spend 90% of our time indoors (according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology) so indoor air quality is an important health consideration.

To this end the Nature Museum adopted “guiding principles” for both museum operations and exhibit fabrication. In the case of operations, material and supply purchasing decisions are made after first looking at factors such as recycled content and VOC’s. These same factors are looked at regarding exhibits—resulting in environmentally friendly exhibits whenever possible.

A Case Study: The Notebaert Nature Museum’s Extreme Green House

In 2002 the Nature Museum upgraded its City Science exhibit to become The Extreme Green House. The learning objective of the exhibit was: “Being green” doesn’t mean you’re the color of a frog. It means you’re aware of the connections between you and your neighbors in nature – the people, plants, and animals that share the planet with you.” Our goal was to upgrade the exhibit utilizing environmentally friendly practices, incorporate information about the choices we made into the exhibit content and interpret these choices for our guests.

The Museum kept the basic shell of the original City Science exhibit, which is a two-story bungalow constructed inside the Museum and to interpret various environmental aspects via material and practice. Green attributes of the exhibit include:

  • Low-VOC paint and adhesives
  • Recycled content flooring tiles
  • Flooring made from renewable materials (bamboo, cork, flax, jute)
  • Toxin free, water based ink wallpaper
  • Re-use of exhibit cabinetry
  • Materials picked for longevity
  • Materials picked for indoor air quality

Sustainable Design and Construction

Our first step towards creating a green exhibit started with sustainable design. As defined by the Department of Natural Resources, sustainable design is a holistic, integrated approach to building design that seeks to:

  • Minimize negative impacts to the natural environment;
  • Optimize the quality of the indoor environment;
  • And optimize long-term costs of operating and maintaining buildings.

Hand-in-hand with sustainable design are construction and fabrication choices that meet a high standard for energy performance and create decreased atmospheric disturbance—maximizing the use of renewable energy sources and minimizing fossil fuel use.

Using natural resources efficiently, by maximizing the reuse and/or recycling of material resources can lower costs and decrease any negative environmental impacts. However, just because a material contains recycled content, does not mean that it is truly eco-friendly. Defining what is or isn’t truly a “green” product is hard to do. Michelle Clark Hucal, editor of Environmental Design & Construction Magazine (a free resource for those who are interested simply defines a “green” product as one that doesn’t harm the environment. For example, materials containing no, or very low Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s), that conserve water and energy, and/or reduce the impact on landfills. A green building product may even benefit the environment, such as one that purifies water or reuses existing materials.

Indoor Air Quality and Understanding VOCs

Enhancing the indoor air environment for staff, guests and those involved in construction and fabrication is clearly a goal of sustainable design. VOC’s are not foreign to museum professionals. For years we have talked about “off gassing” and the harm caused to artifacts. Conservators especially are acutely aware of VOC's and often use fume hoods and fit test respirators in their work. Many discussions have been centered on the evils of MDF, chipboard and the use of vinyl in storing artifacts. What is true for artifacts is also true for you, your staff and visitors. VOC’s emitted from paints, varnishes, and glues all fall into this category.

Many new products are emerging that contain limited VOCs. In museums that often re-paint galleries, this is a great benefit. Almost every paint company now has a line of low- or no-VOC paint. In The Extreme Green House we used low-VOC paint and found them to be comparable to existing paints. The only current limitation to low- or no-VOC paints is that they are not available in darker colors and the cost of the paint can be slightly higher.

VOCs are also found in adhesives used to lay flooring--which is where sustainable design can get a bit tricky. In The Extreme Green House we identified numerous beautiful environmentally friendly flooring. In the “Conservation Kitchen” we have a floor made from cork and chipped tires. When working with the fabricator to install the floor we specified the use of a low-VOC adhesive. Sustainable design means not only specifying a product that meets eco-friendly standards but also taking it one step further and specifying an eco-friendly installation process or product.

Fortunately, we can learn from our past mistakes. When the Nature Museum first opened, we laid a floor of troweled on flooring material made from chipped used tires. While the flooring product was environmentally friendly, the installation adhesive was not. Our staff and guests complained of eye irritation for weeks following the installation because of the high level of VOC’s in the adhesive product.

Using Wood as a Green Building Material

Because lumber is manufactured from a living tree, people tend to think of the use of wood as environmentally unfriendly. That simple way of looking at wood products has changed somewhat drastically in the past decade. To the contrary—trees, because they can be grown sustainably, and create a natural product, are certainly more “green” than materials like plastics that give off harmful emissions in both production and use.

There are many important things to keep in mind when choosing wood as a material. What type of tree did the wood come from? Where was the tree grown? How was the wood harvested? Many environmental programs recommend using wood with one of the following attributes:

  • Salvaged Wood Products
  • Recycled-Content Wood Products
  • Certified Wood Products
  • Utilization of sustainable wood products (like cork and bamboo)

In The Extreme Green House we were able to use wood with many of these attributes. In our “Conservation Kitchen” and “Bargain Basement” we salvaged and modified old oak cabinetry instead of throwing it into the landfill. For historic home restorations repairing existing flooring by utilizing salvaged or reclaimed wood is an option that should be considered. For resources on salvaged wood products check out SmartWood Rediscovered Wood at If you work in the historic preservation field, you can also be an advocate for reclaiming wood by making salvagers aware of old flooring that might be removed before a building is torn down. There is a growing and creative market for salvaged wood. This decreases the pressure on forests.

Recycled-content Wood Products includes materials typically considered environmentally un-friendly—for example particleboard, MDF and plywood. However, some of these materials are now available that use eco-friendly solvents and glues to hold the material together. Today you can buy formaldehyde free recycled-content wood products and feel a bit better.

At the Nature Museum, in the “Alternative Energy Office” of The Extreme Green House, we have a linoleum floor product made from linseed oil (from flax) combined with resins, recycled wood dust and cork flour from post-industrial waste. A recent traveling exhibit utilized the husks of sunflower seeds to make an interesting and beautiful particleboard. The Certified Wood and Paper Association (CWPA) can provide you with local vendors of both post consumer and post industrial recycled-content wood products as well as paper. 

Certified wood products are made from lumber that is harvested from forests utilizing methods that do not harm the existing ecosystem. Clear cutting forest and replanting is not a “green” practice because you destroy the habitat that various plants and animals call home. By selectively harvesting trees and allowing new trees to naturally re-forest an area, you can utilize slow-growth woods without eliminating forests and harming ecosystems. Certification of this specially harvested lumber comes from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Check out the Certification Resource Center at for local vendors.

In our “Digestive Dining Room” and ”Conservation Kitchen” we used cork and bamboo--two sustainable wood products. Did you know that cork is harvested from the living tree every nine years in a way that does not harm the tree? Bamboo is actually a fast growing grass that reaches maturity in less than four years. It is also harder than oak and maple and can be used to create products that are beautiful and durable. Because we included credit to the companies who provided these green products in The Extreme Green House exhibit, some manufacturers sold us their products at a reduced cost.


Sustainable design also means choosing products based partly on their durability. In The Extreme Green House our various “green” floors look great over two years and 600,000 guests later. However, there will always be situations and spaces where a hard flooring material is not applicable. Carpets do a great job for sound absorption as well as comfort.

Unfortunately, broadloom carpet was originally installed throughout the Nature Museum. As a result, among other obvious environmentally un-friendly issues, it’s difficult to mask hard-to-remove stains without replacing large sections of carpet. We have combated this problem by systematically replacing broadloom carpet in areas that are being renovated, with post-consumer waste recycled carpet tiles. Adhered with low-VOC adhesive, individual carpet tiles can be replaced if an un-removable stain occurs. Companies that manufacture “Green Label Plus” carpets with low-emitting materials as well as recycled content can be researched at It is also a policy of the Museum to recycle all of our old carpeting. It’s astonishing to note that 4.7 billion pounds of carpeting is thrown out annually in the United States—filling up landfills and contributing to their toxicity. Carpet can be recycled into new carpeting and other products like roof shingles, synthetic hay bales, and filters. For more information, go to the Carpet America Recovery Effort (CARE) at

Extending Beyond Exhibits

Obviously, there are many steps that Museums and other public institutions can, and do take to benefit the environment, outside of exhibit production. At the Nature Museum our refocused mission and strategic planning process created a roadmap for Departments and individuals to follow to make environmentally smart decisions. To help support and encourage our staff to “think green” the Museum formed its own “Green Team.”

The mission of the Green Team is to:

  • Take ownership of everyday operation-based green policies and procedures;
  • Sponsor and support green initiatives for the staff/institution to be involved in;
  • Initiate and maintain liaisons and partnerships with outside organizations that support green initiatives;
  • Achieve goals that culminate in the Nature Museum becoming a certified green building.

The Green Team is composed of staff volunteers who work to fulfill initiatives that support the mission. The initiatives include Recycling and Waste Prevention, Clean Air, Green programs and Energy Efficiency. 

With the encouragement of the green team, the culture of the institution as a whole has changed. We now print all of our collateral material on recycled paper using soy-based inks. We have numerous institution-wide green initiatives that staff can participate in from carpooling, bike commuting and alternative transportation option plans to re-use and recycling programs for paper, glass and plastic. We even have an intranet site that encourages staff to trade products they no longer want with other staff and volunteers to make sure they don’t end up in the landfill.

Making environmentally sound decisions by adhering to sustainable design principles is something that should be promoted to your staff, board, members and donors. By building in environmentally friendly ways you act as a good steward for the environment and providing a safer and cleaner environment for your staff and guests.


Braun, Werner. “Green Label Plus Testing Program for Carpet Contributes to Good Indoor Air Quality.” Environmental Design & Construction (November 2004): S1-S14

“Sustainable Flooring/Special Section” Environmental Design & Construction (June 2004): S1-S14


McKenzie-Mohr, Doug and William Smith. Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. Gabriola Island B.C., Canada: New Society Publishers, 1999.

R. S. Means Company, Inc. Green Building: Project Planning & Cost Estimating. Kingston, MA: R. S. Means Company, Inc. 2002.